Released via Netflix on February 26, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez—about the incomprehensible torture and murder of an eight-year-old boy by his mother and stepfather and the system that failed him—has received mostly critical acclaim and become the streaming platform's most popular original series. But the praise has not been unanimous.
In a piece for the Los Angeles Times published Tuesday, critic Robert Lloyd called the six-episode series "sensationalistic horror" about a story that is "old news." Comparing it to other Netflix true crime docuseries like The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann and Ted Bundy: Conversations With a Killer, Lloyd asserts that "everything you need to know about Gabriel Fernandez's case could be communicated... in a fraction of the time," but isn't for "commercial and, to some extent, aesthetic" reasons.
Now, producer Garrett Therolf (the reporter who covered Fernandez's case extensively for The Times, featured prominently in the series) has responded to Lloyd in a lengthy, heated series of tweets.
Hi @LATimesTVLloyd. I saw your commentary headlined "True crime can be sensationalist. ‘The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez’ is no different,'" and I have thoughts.— Garrett Therolf (@gtherolf) March 11, 2020
Yes, the docuseries has been the #1 title on Netflix during its first week, but I think you are wrong to say this is
"I saw your commentary headlined 'True crime can be sensationalist. The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez is no different,' and I have thoughts.
"Yes, the docuseries has been the #1 title on Netflix during its first week, but I think you are wrong to say this is because of the 'sensationalistic horror' of the story. What I see on social media, read in countless emails and hear in one-on-one conversations is an audience—overwhelmingly black and Latino, disproportionately affected by the injustices of the child welfare system—exhaling with cathartic relief that the profound failure of governance exposed in the docuseries is finally covered with granular specificity and in its full scope.
"And let's talk about that word 'sensational' that pops up so many times in your commentary. To me, sensationalistic journalism is the type of reporting that skews the truth, withholds key details, makes a mountain out of a molehill. None of that is remotely true of this reporting.
"Yes, the docuseries creates a strong emotional bond between the viewer and Gabriel—unabashedly so. I am constantly trying to think of ways to meaningfully create empathy between marginalized members of society and a more privileged audience that might be able to fix the problems they endure if those problems could just be clarified and understood. That emotional bond is also the thing that carries the viewer through all the complexity that follows.
"And, to me, your argument that Gabriel's life and death is 'old news' feels a lot like what a former masthead editor at the LA Times used to say about stories about kids in the child welfare system: that some generalized, unspecific failure is what people expect, and the injustices they suffer must therefore pass a higher bar before it's news. I believe the fact that poor children suffer greater harm should add urgency, not the reverse.
"Being an investigative reporter is a little like being a gardener pulling weeds. Just because you identify a problem once, doesn't mean you look away the next time a similar one appears. Just because Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey and Ronan Farrow exposed Harvey Weinstein doesn't mean Harriet Ryan, Paul Pringle and Matt Hamilton should not expose the USC gynecologist. Why do you implicitly advocate less for abused and neglected kids who die of maltreatment at least a couple times a month in your county yet whose deaths and circumstances now receive nearly no sustained coverage in your newspaper?
"And I wonder if you really believe in your own field given this line: 'News, even bad news, is a form of entertainment and a commercial enterprise: show business.' Really? Not for me or [director Brian Knappenberger] or any other member of the team that produced this docuseries. I make far less than my college classmates. I don't own a suit, and I wear the same blazer, gifted to me by a friend, to every semi-formal and formal event over the past decade. It's the only one I have—and I'm perfectly fine with that.
"For me, journalism is a vocation. I work painstakingly to expand the universe of facts, to get to the ground level truth of things that people think they may know but don't actually know at all. There is nothing Hollywood or entertaining about it.
"For instance, consider what you described as a 'nod to the dangers of outsourcing social services to for-profit corporations.' That 'nod' took a good chunk of my life and requires the audience's sustained attention for a long stretch of screen time.
"When I first called the Department of Public Social Services to ask questions about Maximus' role in Gabriel's case, the Director Antonia Jimenez's spokesperson declined to answer a single question. It took over a year of public records requests to produce thousands of documents that the board of supervisors' lawyers helpfully scrambled out of order before releasing. Students at [UC Berkeley IRP] and I painstakingly pieced them together to uncover the truth.
"Without six episodes and over two years of reporting, we could not have reported for the first time on how Gabriel's case illuminates Maximus' role, nor the pressing debate over predictive analytics, the destructive role of corruption in the sheriff's department and the decision by the board of supervisors not to carry out the very reform efforts they once trumpeted.
"I know this Twitter string is way too long and possibly overly heated, but if there's one thing I've learned in over a decade of child welfare coverage, it's that this work requires relentless pushing against more forces than we can actually comprehend to insulate us from difficult truths about the treatment of children in our society."
Lloyd has yet to respond to Therolf's comments.
Meanwhile, the series' director says that a second season is not out of the question.
Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Knappenberger said that there was still much more to the case to explore—including the psychology of Fernandez's murderers, mother Pearl and stepfather Isauro Agguire.
"I still want to hear from them," he said. "Like, who are these people? How did this happen? Why did this boy's life get taken like this? There are still so many unanswered questions. So if they wanted to talk to me, I would absolutely talk to them on the record."
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez director says season 2 is possible https://t.co/M5lwlHWqAk— Entertainment Weekly (@EW) March 3, 2020
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