More than a year after the celeb world’s biggest defamation trial was mass-consumed on YouTube and memed all over TikTok, we still don’t know how to talk about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.
Unfortunately, the latest example of our society’s tactlessness around this saga—if not all public cases of domestic abuse—can be seen on the biggest streaming platform in the world. On Aug. 16, Netflix drops its latest slapdash docuseries, Depp v. Heard, a chronological retelling of the high-profile trial and the social media phenomenon that followed.
Director Emma Cooper assembles a selection of YouTube and podcast commentary, TikTok memes, and news coverage for her series, representing several perspectives on the matter. She does this less with the intention of forming any sort of conclusion by the end—not necessarily about which party is being truthful, but what this story means for our post-#MeToo culture—and instead gives the series an ambiguity that feels akin to a tasteless true-crime mystery. To summarize the lack of rigor plaguing Depp v. Heard, one of the last voices we hear is that of former Bachelor lead Nick Viall.
To refresh your memory on the trial: On June 1, 2022, a Virginia jury found that Heard defamed her movie star ex-husband when she described herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse” in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed, after previously accusing Depp of verbal and physical abuse in 2016. The Pirates of the Caribbean star was awarded $15 million in damages—receiving $10.35 million due to the state’s punitive cap—while Heard was awarded $2 million for a counterclaim she won.
Leading up to the verdict, the internet had already determined that Heard was a liar, as an avalanche of anti-Heard memes—mocking her testimonies while celebrating Depp’s performance on the stand and even lionizing his attorneys and witnesses—suddenly hit TikTok and Instagram. A number of YouTubers and Twitch streamers, who wouldn’t normally cover such a subject, were pivoting to trial coverage with a pro-Depp slant as the content became lucrative. Among other questionable online content, it was revealed that the Ben Shapiro-founded news site The Daily Wire had spent thousands of dollars on social media ads promoting misleading information about the trial.
In Depp v. Heard’s initial episode, it seems as though the three-part series will examine social media’s role in shaping the public’s and potentially jurors’ opinion on the case, and how misogyny gave way to one of the biggest harassment campaigns the internet has seen since #GamerGate. Moreover, the first episode’s use of footage from chauvinist, pro-Depp commentators seems like a conscious formal choice that will eventually be flipped on its head in the following installments.
As the series goes on, however, an inordinate amount of screen time is given to the Aquaman actress’ uninformed and blatantly sexist critics, which feels counterproductive to the widespread disinformation it tepidly tries to highlight. That said, there are occasional attempts to lend Heard’s testimony credence, like the fiasco surrounding the Milani Cosmetics compact Heard’s lawyer used to demonstrate how she would cover her alleged bruises during her marriage that was erroneously disputed by the makeup company. There’s also a superfluous section about the term “megapint,” referring to the amount of wine Depp poured himself in a video Heard recorded of the actor being aggressive. (When Heard’s lawyers used the term, Depp laughed—despite the fact that he used “megapint” in a previous libel suit he lost in the U.K—prompting another viral set of memes.)
While the documentary calls out the ridiculousness of these moments (even though it seems like the editor is having as much fun with the “megapint” meme as the TikTokers who originally made them), it misses the larger point that this cherry-picked information from the trial is mostly inconsequential and designed to distract people with short attention spans who were also unwilling to do their own research on the case. Meanwhile, the conclusion of the U.K. trial, where a court sided with The Sun’s use of the term “wife beater” to describe Depp, and the more than 6,000 pages of damning court documents unsealed after the trial, are treated like mere footnotes.
Regardless, this instinct to fact-check or immediately counter the dubious opinions of Team Depp dies out by the end of the series. Depp V. Heard may show the disproportionate amount of spectators who supported their beloved Jack Sparrow, but it stops short at attempting to relate this phenomenon to a post-#MeToo backlash, stan culture, or a widespread misunderstanding of the nature of domestic violence. Nor does it expand on the way harassment campaigns are easily weaponized against women and minorities—which we’ve seen recently in both the coverage of Megan Thee Stallion’s shooting by several hip-hop outlets and bloggers and the random stan-driven attacks on Hailey Bieber.
Notably, the makers of the project don’t include the voices of experts or journalists beyond the recycled footage from news segments and a previous (and much better) documentary that are clustered together with erroneous, emotionally driven statements from Depp fans. Given the sensitive subject material, new interviews with domestic violence experts, lawyers, and reporters to add context and clarity would seem like a no-brainer. Plus, the doc simply isn’t artful enough to pull off the seamless collage format it’s going for.
Ultimately, Depp v. Heard seems designed to allow the public to re-experience the “thrill” of the trial—which perhaps explains the tasteless soap-opera music laid over the court footage. While the series flirts with an analysis, it’s far too committed to remaining ambiguous for a suspenseful effect and possibly for fear of getting into legal trouble. And that choice serves no one other than the plentifully rewarded #JusticeForJohnny camp.