Inside Death Row with Trevor McDonald – ITV

In the landscape of death row documentaries, Trevor McDonald fell into a pitfall: he made it seem almost trivial.

Last March, Werner Herzog’s Channel Four documentary focused on the stories of specific inmates who, on camera, openly spoke about their experiences before death row and rarely about their time on it. Sitting across the table from those who have been served the death penalty, Herzog delved into the human core of capital punishment.  

McDonald’s tour of Indiana State, meanwhile, looked further afield than the row, to the rest of the high security unit, taking in the other inmates’ leisure time, how they decorated their cells, and the prison cat. Returning to the same interviewees numerous times but with little more insight than the last, McDonald’s ‘casual’ suit was out of place, as was his line of questioning: he rarely asked anything that although journalistically necessary, could be construed as too ‘obvious’. Instead of two weeks, it felt as though McDonald had only spent an afternoon in the facility, lacking the brutal frankness of Louie Theroux’s 2011 attempt for the BBC that asked even the most awkward questions.

Hanging out on the other side of the basketball chicken wire, politely and patronisingly listening to inmates gossip in their most proper tones about one another’s crimes and the fairness of their sentences, the programme served more as an introduction to the US penal system than an in-depth look inside the row. McDonald’s sensitivity was admirable, and allowed the two hours to be taken at a more leisurely pace than other documentaries filled with statistics instead of empathy – but it fell short in its endeavours in reportage.

While the full picture of life on death row may never be fully ‘revealed’, McDonald’s version was a rosier one that shyly walked away – with the freedom that its ill-fated inmates sadly do not possess.