TV Review: ‘The System With Joe Berlinger’

With: Joe Berlinger

Producer-director Joe Berlinger is not exactly a natural as a TV personality. Yet his show for Al Jazeera America, “The System With Joe Berlinger,” is a natural for television — a tough, spare look at a criminal-justice system filled with miscarriages and injustice, despite all those reassuring procedurals Americans gobble up. Like other programs devoted to the topic (see Alex Gibney’s “Death Row Stories” for CNN), the docu series makes a powerful case against the death penalty, if only because of the punishment’s irrevocable nature in the face of a system that, clearly, is subject to the vagaries of human weakness and manipulation.

Focusing on distinct cases in each hour but also the broader issues, “The System” deals with topics like “Flawed Forensics” and “False Confessions.” Several of the stories introduce people who spent decades in jail because of faulty prosecutions and police work, as well as the reluctance of prosecutors and judges to reopen past convictions, even in the face of new evidence.

To their credit, Berlinger and company approach this troubling material in an even-handed, almost low-key manner. He also reaches out to victims’ families, putting a face on survivors who have already suffered, and are usually convinced the police must have gotten the right person, sounding mystified that anyone would question the outcome.

Those voices are balanced, however, by the devastated relatives of the wrongly convicted and imprisoned, as well as accounts of people who have spent most of their adult lives imprisoned for acts they didn’t commit. (One case, for example, involves the wrongful conviction of then-teenage Jeffrey Deskovic, and sheds an unflattering light on former district attorney turned TV judge Jeanine Pirro, who parlayed her tough-as-nails image into a TV career.)

While still a minor blip on the TV spectrum, with programs like “The System” Al Jazeera moves past the straight-news niche the venture has championed to something with a bit more entertainment value. Granted, that’s a hit-miss proposition — the channel’s immigration-themed “Borderland” was far less compelling — but the strategy echoes CNN’s approach in using regularly scheduled series as a hoped-for hedge against the vagaries of the news cycle.

Whether or not that works from a business perspective is open to conjecture, but as advocacy TV, “The System” works.

TV Review: 'The System With Joe Berlinger'

(Documentary series; Al Jazeera America, Sun. May 18, 9 p.m.)


Produced by RadicalMedia.


Senior executive producer, Kathy Davidov; executive producers, Joe Berlinger, Sidney Beaumont, Jon Kamen, Justin Wilkes; co-executive producer, Mike Sheridan; producers, Matt Durning, Kevin Huffman, Marcella Steingart; directors, Berlinger, Steingart, Huffman. 60 MIN.

Cast: With: Joe Berlinger

More TV

  • Jan Guillou's 'The Great Century' Being

    Jan Guillou's 'The Great Century' Being Adapted as Epic Drama Series (EXCLUSIVE)

    “The Great Century” is being adapted as an epic drama series by Dramacorp-Pampas Studios, which has landed the rights to Swedish author Jan Guillou’s book series. Guillou is known for his “Hamilton” spy-thriller novels, which Dramacorp-Pampas Studios has brought to TV as “Agent Hamilton.” That project had an international premiere at Mipcom and has presold [...]

  • Lilly Burns Tony Hernandez

    Variety to Honor Jax Media Chiefs Tony Hernandez, Lilly Burns at New Leaders Event

    Emmy Award-winning producer Tony Hernandez and Emmy-nominated producer Lilly Burns will receive the Creative Leadership Award on behalf of Jax Media at the Variety New Leaders event presented by City National Bank, taking place Nov. 14 in New York City. As founders of Jax Media, Hernandez and Burns have produced shows and specials such as [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Virginia Leith, Female Lead in Stanley Kubrick's First Film, Dies at 94

    Actress and model Virginia Leith, who starred in Stanley Kubrick’s first film “Fear and Desire,” which he later disavowed, has died. She was 94. According to family spokesperson Jane Chalmers, Leith died after a brief illness at her home in Palm Springs, Calif. on Nov. 4. Born on Oct. 15, 1925, Leith met Kubrick in [...]

  • Friends

    'Friends' Reunion Special in Early Planning Stages at HBO Max

    More “Friends” could well be there for you when the HBO Max rain starts to fall. An unscripted “Friends” reunion special is in the works at the forthcoming WarnerMedia streamer, Variety has confirmed with sources. Sources say original cast members Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer are in discussions [...]

  • TC3_SM_060718_238A4600.cr2

    'The Crown' New Season: Netflix to Offer Opening Episode for Free in the U.K.

    When Olivia Colman steps into the royal shoes of Queen Elizabeth II, viewers in the U.K. and Ireland will be able to watch for free as Netflix makes the eagerly awaited Season 3 curtain-raiser available gratis. The streaming giant will launch the series opener on a dedicated site for a limited period starting Sunday, making it [...]

  • T.R. Knight

    TV News Roundup: T.R. Knight Joins HBO Max's 'The Flight Attendant'

    In today’s TV news roundup, “Grey’s Anatomy” star T.R. Knight joins HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant” and BET renewed “Games People Play.” CASTING T.R Knight has been cast in HBO Max‘s dark comedy “The Flight Attendant.“ Knight will play Cassie’s (Kaley Cuoco) older brother, Davey. When Cassie’s life starts to unravel, Davey deals with the [...]

  • Days of Our Lives Bill Hayes

    'Days of Our Lives' Cast Members Released From Contracts

    The entire cast of the NBC soap opera “Days of Our Lives” have been released from their contracts, Variety has confirmed. The daytime drama has run for over 13,000 episodes since first debuting in 1965. The show will go on hiatus at the end of November, though it has shot enough episodes to last through the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content