Crimesploitation programs worked to legitimize a broader vision of government that embraced free markets while simultaneously caging unprecedented numbers of people. They did so by inviting viewers to inhabit the perspective of authorities combatting two types of criminal threats. The first was the evil predator. Shows like Unsolved Mysteries (1987-2010), America's Most Wanted (1988-2012) and To Catch a Predator (2004-2007) gave viewers the opportunity to regain a feeling of control over their world by participating in tracking down, capturing, and vanquishing evildoers. Shows like Cops (1989-2020), by contrast, focused on a different kind of criminal threat: delinquents—poor, dysfunctional people who predominantly preyed on one another. Here, viewers were not so much empowered as they were reassured of their social distance from a criminal underclass. As American politicians embraced criminal justice policies that would imprison unprecedented numbers of people, these depictions of criminals made those policies feel like common sense.
In this chapter, we explore moments when crimesploitation's cameras zoom in on those who illegally abandon the constraints of civilization and embrace chaos. When cops interrupt the actions of rule-breakers, they drop into a scene in which the players are doing something that psychologists have long told us most everyone in organized societies secretly wants to do: misbehave. From birth to death, Americans are surrounded by socially constructed systems that work to discipline and normalize them. As discipline tries at making life ever more rational, ordered, and predictable, theorists have identified a kind of discontent that modern people experience, a discontent that manifests itself in a variety of symptoms—from inchoate anxiety to a sense of existential frustration to plain boredom. In this chapter, we argue that crimesploitation offers viewers the opportunity to alleviate those symptoms—often by covertly encouraging them to step into the experience of the criminal.
Shows like Dog the Bounty Hunter, Lockup, and Lockdown depicted the experience of being returned to jail by bounty hunters or serving a sentence of incarceration in the nation's jails and prisons. In some scenes, offenders are constructed as dangerous predators. Yet in other scenes, they are depicted as vulnerable people endowed love, self-discipline, and remorse that make them worthy of rehabilitation and capable of redemption. By offering a balance of skepticism and hopefulness in their depictions, these shows work to make the punishment of incarceration meaningful. By depicting some prisoners as violent and the incorrigible, these shows reinforce a sense of necessity about the prison. But by depicting some prisoners as capable of change and prisons as sites of moral regeneration, these shows keep incarceration from seeming like the very source of the pollution they purport to contain.
In this chapter, we argue that many seemingly serious true crime documentary programs are best understood as a "middlebrow" form of crimesploitation, delivering lowbrow thrills under a veneer of intellectual heft and high-minded critique. We take as our case studies: Making a Murderer, How to Fix a Drug Scandal, and Don't F**k with Cats. While they may sow skepticism about police and prosecutorial power and extol the importance of values like due process and the presumption of innocence, they ultimately do little to encourage a deeper interrogation of the criminal justice system and the politics that have made the United States a punitive outlier among western democracies. Moreover, the genre's frequent invitation to viewers to become investigators who solve criminal cases that the state has ignored or, as a result of incompetence or corruption, botched.
Video footage of a white cop killing George Floyd led to the canceling of Cops. Nevertheless, crimesploitation continues to legitimize a neoliberal carceral state that values order more than justice and human docility more than human flourishing. It continues to offer viewers the chance to escape from and vicariously resist, as well as recommit to, bearing the burdens of life when the state has largely abandoned its commitments to the common good. By treating crimesploitation as a symptom of a particular historical moment, we have attempted to denaturalize it, to disrupt the "common sense" ideas about crime, authority, and governance that it peddles. And by emphasizing its commodification of others' pain, we have attempted to call attention to how exploitative and immoral it is. The pleasures these programs offer, we have shown, are derived from others' pain and degradation.