April 25, 2019

Matured Reality: 'The Redemption Project with Van Jones'

By Tim Hruszkewycz *
"The Redemption Project with Van Jones." Courtesy photo.
"The Redemption Project with Van Jones." Courtesy photo.

As someone who occasionally finds entertainment in trash TV, I understand its appeal. It lets us feel better about ourselves. We can look in on the lives of people who don’t really have it together, crack open our beverage of choice, and view our situations through a juxtaposed mirror.

“At least I’m not on ‘Jerry Springer.'”

But I kind of worry where we are going as a society, in terms of what we find entertaining.

“The Redemption Project with Van Jones”, an eight part documentary series premiering Sunday, April 28 at 9:00 pm on CNN is an encouraging lesson in maturity. Taking some of the more interesting elements of prestige true crime docs, Van Jones and his team have created something that not only is interesting, but probably is doing something good for both viewers and the documentary’s subjects.

Van Jones, a civil rights leader focused on prison reformation among other things, explains in his first episode the focus of the show. “The Redemption Project” is one of the first documented shows about restorative justice, a rehabilitation program that attempts to bring peace to both the victim and the perpetrator of a crime. The family of a victim has been wronged. In the cases of “The Redemption Project”, these are family members of homicide victims. Often, they have questions. “Why was my family member taken?” “What don’t I know about how this whole thing went down?” Sometimes, these are people who are just hurting who need to talk to someone who needs to hear the message.

The other end of dialogue is with the criminal. In “The Redemption Project,” the convicts have been in prison for some time. They are harboring guilt. They have thought about their crimes. They see the wrong that they have done, and they need to apologize. Rather than making a reality or documentary show about two diametrically opposed forces ready to duke it out, “The Redemption Project” focuses on resolving pain in a responsible and wholesome way.

My wife cried watching the second episode. She was busy with her to-do list and only caught glimpses of what I was watching in the background. But I noticed her turning more and more to the television. She would pause and focus on what was going on in my show. She stopped her to-do list and sat down. Within fifteen minutes, she was sobbing.

The biggest takeaway I had from the show is that there never really is a moment where any member of the crew was shooting for an outburst. Each episode starts with Van Jones as host introducing the different parties. He talks to each player in these stories with empathy and conviction. For the victim, he speaks as a peer. He doesn’t aim for tears, although often those tears come. He allows the families to tell their own stories. But he also does something that, as Catholics, we are called to do as well.

He talks to criminals like they are his equals.

Without letting them off the hook for their crimes, he hears their whole stories. In some of the cases, the story is far more in-depth than others. In a few of the episodes, we hear about childhoods. In others, we hear a far more complex web of events that lead to the day of the crime. But Van Jones and his team focus on the restoration process. Those events that led up to the crime, that’s what makes them human. But the focus of restorative justice is taking responsibility for actions.

It is refreshing to see that a show like “The Redemption Project” can exist on television in this era. Instead of seeing people who are riled up and ready to fight, we see the antithesis. These are stories of people who want to forgive and about people who are seeking forgiveness. By all intents and purposes, everyone involved should be at each other’s throats. But often, these people form relationships. God is merciful, and I would like to think that a show like “The Redemption Project” is doing the Lord’s work.

In terms of quality, the show is extremely watchable. As an eight-part series, the show has certain qualities that make the viewer want to delve into the next episode almost immediately. Part of that comes from the fact that each episode feels like a stand-alone documentary. The events leading up to the confrontation are well-researched and presented in an interesting fashion. We get to know these people and their perspectives. Van Jones, as a host, is present. But he never really takes the spotlight. Rather, he lets people tell their stories and deal with their pain.

I don’t know if other shows like “The Redemption Project with Van Jones” are out there. I would love to think that more people would be interested in the positive side of humanity rather than returning to the dredges of manipulative television. But I love that CNN is presenting this show. We often think that television evolves while somehow staying the same. But “The Redemption Project with Van Jones” isn’t simply evolving and presenting something new. Instead, it is a sign that TV may finally be growing up and treating reality as an actual reflection of the human condition: pain, forgiveness, and all.

Tim Hruszkewycz is a high school English and film teacher at Villa Madonna Academy in Villa Hills, KY. He also co-hosts the Literally Anything podcast at literallyanything.net and blogs about film

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.