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.