When They See Us is the most transcendental, emotional and life-changing limited series, and that’s why it should win at the 2019 Emmys.
The Netflix original series When They See Us from Ava DuVernay was nominated for Outstanding Limited Series at the Emmys 2019. Heading into the awards shows, it’s the favorite to win the Emmy, and it should.
I know When They See Us is a hard pill to swallow, in many respects. It’s the kind of show you want to watch, you feel like you should watch, but that you almost can’t stomach. I could barely get through it, and this is not my experience, so the show managed that by just touching on my human side.
Yet, the show is many things other than hard to watch. The show is also a scathing rebuke of the investigation that landed five kids from Harlem in jail, the team of prosecutors, the police, and even the criminal justice system in general.
Plus, it’s an incredibly real look at the politics of race, and how the same system that’s supposed to look out for justice can, more often than not, be the driving force for injustice.
What are the Emmys for if not to reward stories like this one?
If you’re not familiar with the tale, When They See Us follows the five boys who would later come to be known as the Central Park Five. They were all teenagers when they were found guilty of sexual assault and sentenced to prison with no physical evidence tying them to the crime, no eye-witnesses, and no motive. It was all because of coerced confessions extracted after long interrogations with no counsel present.
Of course, watching this unfold and seeing these young actors bring it to life is excruciating. At times, it feels easier to just give up and turn off the TV. But these boys couldn’t turn off life when this happened to them, and in a way, it feels like the least we could do is pay attention to their story, follow them as they grow, as they struggle, as they try to exist in a world that thinks they are something other than what they know themselves to be.
The least we could do is learn from this.
When they See Us takes four episodes to take us through the journey of these five boys and their families, and it does so in a way that frames not just what they lost, what their families lost, but what we could all gain by being better.
By paying attention. By asking questions. By not assuming.
There’s no white savior in When They See Us, and Duvernay frames their stories, not as tales of overcoming adversity, but as tales of survival and what it means to survive, to get through each day, to go on, is different for each of the boys, just as it’s different for all of us. And though there is retribution at the end, the series ends with the feeling that even that is not enough.
Nothing will ever be.
It’s been many years since I’ve watched a limited series that touched me so deeply, and one that felt like must-see television in the same way When They See Us does. Because this isn’t just about it being good, which it is, this is about it being necessary.
About the world we live in, and the lessons we still need to learn.
So yes, there is good television out there, and a lot of us will make us laugh, and cry. Very few things will stick with us the way When They See Us does, though. Very few things will make want to do better, to be better.
If that doesn’t deserve an Emmy, then I’m not sure what does.
When They See us is now streaming on Netflix.