When the television show Cops celebrated its five-hundredth episode in 2002, reporters asked its creator to reflect on the show’s success. John Langley, who left a career as a philosopher to develop the show, explained that network executives initially balked at what he pitched to them. A show with no host or narrator, comprised solely of footage shot by camera operators shadowing actual police officers? Audiences would not know what to make of it. And police agencies—notoriously insular organizations—would never subject themselves to such scrutiny. Nonetheless, the fledgling Fox Television Network decided to take a risk. The show became an immediate hit. Airing “the dirty laundry of society,” as Langley put it, Cops drew up to 11 million viewers a week, including celebrity fans like Sylvester Stallone and Cher.1
When it premiered in 1989, Cops marked the dawn of a new age of “reality television”—unscripted, formulaic programs that portray people acting as themselves—doing their jobs, vying in weeks-long competitions, or simply living and socializing with one another.2 By the early twenty-first century, Cops was competing with dozens of reality television shows that promised audiences unfiltered access to scenes of crime and punishment, from novice police officers chasing burglary suspects through backyards to middle-aged men planning sexual liaisons with underage adolescents to drug-addicted mothers fleeing bounty hunters.3 Contemplating the remarkable success of Cops, Langley pointed to something profound beneath the “head-cracking, obscenity-laced melees” he aired on American television screens.4 Cops, he told an interviewer, was an “existential variety show with authentic décor.”5
This book takes Langley’s off-the-cuff musing seriously. Evoking the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre, existential is not a word typically associated with reality television. Trashy more readily comes to mind. But as we hope to show, existential anxiety drives Cops and the many crimesploitation programs that followed in its footsteps. In the chapters that follow, we argue that these shows served as a window into the different, sometimes contradictory experience of life in a world that had undergone—and continues to undergo—massive social and economic changes. Those changes made many Americans feel culturally and financially insecure. These programs offered them different ways of understanding and managing that insecurity.
We call the reality television programs that are the focus of this book “crimesploitation” because they blend key elements of two long-standing genres: “true crime” texts, which dramatize actual criminal cases investigated and prosecuted by authorities, and “exploitation” films, which satisfy the voyeuristic desire to witness the violation of taboos.6
Broadly defined, “true crime” refers to texts that turn actual crimes, criminal trials, or punishments into stories that are consumed by a wide public. Such texts can run the gamut from highbrow fare that aims to make lasting aesthetic and thematic contributions to American letters to formulaic, lowbrow productions that aim to entertain mass audiences. They often share a common thread. In them, criminality “appears both as very close and quite alien, a perpetual threat to everyday life, but extremely distant in its origin and motives, both everyday and exotic in the milieu in which it takes place.”7 The earliest true crime took the form of accounts of crimes and executions that circulated in pamphlet form as early as the sixteenth century in Europe.8 Americans have, as we might expect, long consumed these texts. One of the earliest “bestsellers” in colonial North America was Mary Rowlandson’s salacious 1682 account of her experience in captivity at the hands of Native Americans.9 Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Americans could find written accounts of crime and punishment in widely circulating print materials. Eighteenth-century broadsides—cheap mass-produced documents—chronicled the crimes and executions of murderers. Nineteenth-century theaters performed plays based on actual murder cases. When a Methodist minister was put on trial for the 1832 murder of factory worker Sarah Maria Cornell in Fall River, Massachusetts, accounts of the crime and its aftermath became the source for no fewer than three different plays.10 Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, tabloid-style newspapers melodramatically covered sensational criminal trials that periodically gripped a city’s or the nation’s imagination.11
With the introduction of new entertainment technologies, true crime proliferated in new forms. Radio programs of the 1930s like True Detective Mysteries, Homicide Squad, Calling All Cars, and Treasury Agent turned actual police files into radio dramas. Big-screen police procedurals in the 1940s were often fictionalized versions of cases investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local police agencies. Filmed on location, they sought to convey a sense of “reality” by adopting a “documentary look—a gritty realism.”12 By the late 1960s one of the most popular shows on television was The FBI. Forty million Americans a week tuned into ABC to watch a show about a group of heroic, fictional FBI agents solving crimes inspired by actual FBI cases.
Over time, law enforcement increasingly perceived benefits in collaborating with the creators of true crime texts. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover served as a consultant for The FBI, turning to the media to burnish his agency’s public image. In exchange for his cooperation, the show’s producers ceded editorial control to Hoover and his second-in-command, Clyde Tolson, who vetted scripts and declared some material off limits.13 Authorities also sought to transform true crime productions into opportunities to expand their surveillance powers. The FBI often ended with a segment that introduced audiences to a fugitive and asked them to contact the authorities. In the 1970s authorities’ efforts to capitalize on the popularity of true crime stories took a turn toward the local, as regional news stations and police departments worked together to produce “crimestoppers,” segments that reenacted unsolved crimes and then solicited viewers’ help in bringing the perpetrators to justice. When the first contemporary crimesploitation shows emerged in the late 1980s, two of them, Unsolved Mysteries (1987) and America’s Most Wanted (1988), revived a well-established tradition of entertaining audiences with stories of crime and then asking for their assistance in capturing the culprits.14
If crimesploitation reflects true crime’s longstanding preoccupation with criminal justice, its quasi-pornographic qualities mark its connection to twentieth-century exploitation films. From 1920 to 1960 enterprising filmmakers made countless cheap films aimed at satisfying audiences’ desire for knowledge about off-limits topics. Cultural historian Eric Schaefer identifies several key features of these films. First, they focused on forbidden topics, like sexual promiscuity or illicit drug use, promising viewers “shocking truths and fearless frankness.” Second, they often displaced taboo desires onto exotic “others,” people who seemed racially, sexually, and morally foreign to middle-class audiences. One iteration of the genre took viewers on journeys into dangerous jungles in far-flung locales where they could encounter topless “native girls” (California actors), gorillas (men in ape suits), and scenes of cannibalism (faked). Finally, while their goal was to titillate, exploitation films pretended to have a pedagogical purpose, presenting themselves as warnings about threats to middle-class decency. “Square-ups,” statements about “the social or moral ill the film claimed to combat,” would appear before a film began, offering a respectable reason to watch the film. For example, after Congress passed the Harrison Narcotic Act (1914), which banned opium and cocaine at the national level, a slew of exploitation films presented themselves as cautionary tales, depicting “middle- or upper- class individuals abusing a variety of substances and eventually becoming derelicts.”15
The classical era eventually gave way to fictional exploitation films that were less concerned with maintaining a veneer of respectability. Indeed, they advertised themselves as offering thrills that audiences would not find elsewhere. As film scholar Calum Waddell notes, modern exploitation films “capitalized on social anxieties of the 1960s and 1970s” by depicting “facets of contemporary socio-political ‘taboo’: interracial sex, the insatiable female, a verité approach to torture and murder, African-American hypersexuality and revolt.” It was in this era that media critics devised a versatile way to describe these sorts of texts, making a portmanteau out of the word exploitation and the taboo object or scenario that was being exploited for mass consumption. The NAACP coined the term “Blaxploitation” to condemn exploitation films in the 1970s that, they charged, glorified “black males as pimps, dope pushers, gangsters and super males with vast physical prowess but not cognitive skills.”16 Other ’sploitations, like “sexploitation,” followed.17
Ideologically and aesthetically, the shows we study borrow much from exploitation films. Just as classical exploitation films offered audiences access to underworlds they would not normally encounter, crimesploitation offers audiences the opportunity to consume what they have been told is off limits. If “junkies,” “primitive” peoples, and female sex workers—prostitutes, strippers, burlesque women—populated classical exploitation, contemporary crimesploitation offers its own kaleidoscopic array of deviants, from “hookers” to “gang-bangers” to child molesters, who inspire both curiosity and revulsion. Episodes of Intervention offer close-up views of crack smoking. Bait Car regales viewers with the highs and lows of stealing a car and getting arrested for it. Lockup takes viewers into the bowels of maximum-security prisons. Other shows depict ordinary-seeming people engaging in forbidden behavior. A ride-along policing show, Alaska State Troopers, shows intoxicated snowmobile drivers stopped for drunk driving. And, like both classical and late twentieth-century exploitation films, these shows aim to create a sense of “gritty verisimilitude” for their viewers.18 The shaky movements of hand-held cameras, the grainy texture of surveillance footage, and uncomfortable close-ups all convey a sense of “documentary immediacy” that late twentieth-century exploitation films pioneered.19
While crimesploitation evolved out of long-standing elements of true crime and exploitation texts, it was also the product of a world in which it had become easier than ever to deliver “gritty verisimilitude” to audiences. As Mark Fishman and Gray Cavender note, new recording technologies like closed-circuit television surveillance cameras gave producers access to audio and visual recordings that their predecessors could only have dreamed of.20 The gritty aesthetic that directors of true-crime movies sought to create by filming on location in the 1940s was now easily found in the home movies, security footage, and answering-machine recordings that producers could splice into these shows. Ride-along shows like Cops and Real Stories of the Highway Patrol were made possible by new production equipment like lightweight cameras and small lavalier microphones that allowed camera operators and participants in reality television programs the ability to work in police cruisers and run after police officers chasing suspects over fences and through backyards.21 Finally, new transmission and dissemination technologies, such as satellite networks and cable television channels, made it fast and easy for crimesploitation to be produced, transmitted, and consumed.22
1. Kevin D. Thompson, “Arresting Television,” Cox News Service, February 8, 2002; L. Hetherington, “Raw Reality Makes Successful Shows,” Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia), October 23, 1991.
2. June Deery offers an overview of the struggle to define the term, settling on “staged actuality,” which captures reality television as “a non-fictional presentation of actual events occurring in the empirical world as experienced by amateur participants who have not been hired to act as someone other than themselves or to write a program-length script” yet acknowledges the role that producers play in planning and structuring these events. June Deery, Reality TV (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015), 29, 31. There is a voluminous literature on reality television. Our approach to it is largely informed by scholarly work that has linked it to the rise of neoliberalism in the late twentieth century, especially James Hay and Laurie Ouellette, Better Living Through TV: Television and Post-Welfare Citizenship (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008).
3. The sheer number of crimesploitation shows that have emerged since Cops premiered in 1988 demonstrate its success. In 2011 Laurie Ouellette catalogued a large list to which we have added others, yet this list is likely still incomplete: Real Stories of the Highway Patrol (1993–98), LAPD: Life on the Beat (1995–99), American Detective (1991–93), Rookies (2008–9), Top Cops (1990–93), Lockup (2005–17), Lockdown (2007), The Wanted (2009), Video Justice (2006–7), Manhunters (2009–11), Breaking Down the Bars (2011), Hard Time (2011–13), Breakout (2010–13), Homeland Security USA (2009), Police Women of Broward County (2009–11), Bounty Girls: Miami (2007), Southern Fried Stings (2010–11), Undercover Stings (2012), Jacked: Auto Theft Task Force (2008), Speeders (2007–9), Parking Wars (2008–12), DEA (2008–9), Bait Car (2007–12), Mall Cops (2010), Alaska State Troopers (2009–15), Operation Repo (2007–14), Jail (2007–10), Cajun Justice (2012), Jail: Las Vegas (2015–), I (Almost) Got Away with It (2010–16), Inside American Jail (2007–9), No Excuses with Master P (2009), T.I.’s Road to Redemption (2009), Smile . . . You’re Under Arrest! (2008–9), Steven Seagal: Lawman (2009–14), Intervention (2005–), Gangland (2007–10), Louisiana Lockdown (2012), and Dog the Bounty Hunter (2004–12). Laurie Ouellette, “Real Justice: Law and Order on Reality Television,” in Imagining Legality: Where Law Meets Popular Culture, ed. Austin Sarat (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2011), 152–76.
4. Harry F. Waters, “TV’s Crime Wave Gets Real,” Newsweek, May 15, 1989, 72.
5. Mark Washburn, “Successful Cops Cuffs Its 500th Show,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 27, 2002.
6. The best-known exploitation films are the “Blaxploitation” films of the 1970s, including Ossie Davis’s Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), Gordon Parks’s Shaft (1971), and Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). True crime texts, as we have argued, span the gamut from highbrow to lowbrow. Among the highbrow fare, the best known are Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979). Few lowbrow true crime texts have stood the test of time, but examples might include works by Ann Rule, especially The Stranger Beside Me: The Shocking Inside Story of Serial Killer Ted Bundy, which began as a memoir in 1980 and was reprinted with updates periodically until 2008.
7. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1975); English translation by Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 286. Citations refer to the Vintage edition.
8. Joy Wiltenburg, “True Crime: The Origins of Modern Sensationalism,” American Historical Review 109, no. 5 (2004): 1377–1404.
9. A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682). The text was published under various titles in subsequent centuries.
10. Kristin Boudreau, The Spectacle of Death: Populist Literary Responses to American Capital Cases (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006).
11. See, e.g., Martha Merrill Umphrey, “Media Melodrama! Sensationalism and the 1907 Trial of Harry Thaw,” New York Law School Law Review 43 (1999): 715–40.
12. Gray Cavender and Mark Fishman, “Television Reality Crime Programs: Context and History,” in Entertaining Crime: Television Reality Programs, ed. Fishman and Cavender (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1998), 3–15, 8.
13. FBI agents never killed anyone in the show’s latter seasons. “Banned, too, was behavior that was familiar to many people who had been interviewed by agents from the Bureau. On television, FBI personnel were always polite to citizens, solicitous of their feelings, and ‘very kind.’ They never lied on the witness stand.” While the skittish, image-obsessed Hoover would occasionally get cold feet about the show, he was pleased enough with it that he told one graduating class of the FBI’s academy to treat the star of the show, a stand-in for himself, as a role model. Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), 582. Hoover’s cooperation with the program, which attracted 40 million viewers weekly, paid him handsomely. He reportedly earned $75,000–$100,000 per episode. David Friedman, “Wanted: Lowlifes and High Ratings,” Rolling Stone, January 12, 1989. A similar dynamic existed between the LAPD’s revolutionary mid-century chief of police William H. (Bill) Parker and the trailblazing program Dragnet. See Joe Dominick, Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015), 28.
14. Cavender and Fishman, “Television Reality Crime Programs,” 10. Cavender and Fishman note that True Detective Mysteries, one of the many true crime radio shows of the 1930s, had pioneered this call for community involvement in crime fighting.
15. Eric Schaefer, Bold! Daring! Shocking! True! A History of Exploitation Films, 1919–1959 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 3, 267, 69, 220.
16. Calum Waddell, The Style of Sleaze: The American Exploitation Film, 1959–1977 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), 8, 141. While they were condemned by the NAACP, Blaxploitation films were produced by Black artists and aimed at Black audiences. Many have read them as counterhegemonic. Their sensational content existed “alongside an aspirational presentation of grassroots rebellion. It is this urban opposition to (typically) government or police authority that exploits any anti-establishment rhetoric” (143). One critic has argued that some Blaxploitation films were critical responses to the era’s reactionary police vigilante films like Dirty Harry. Sweetback, the titular character of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, was the opposite of the white vigilante cop, “a fact emphasized by each film’s opening dedication: Sweetback’s ‘to all those brothers and sisters who had enough of The Man,’ and Dirty Harry’s ‘to the police officers of San Francisco who gave their lives in the line of duty.’” Paula J. Massood, Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), 96.
17. One now finds a whole range of lesser-known ’sploitations in the vocabulary of cultural critics and connoisseurs, from “Canuxploitation” (Canadian B-movies) to “Nunsploitation” (nuns behaving badly).
18. Waddell, The Style of Sleaze, 186.
19. Massood, Black City Cinema, 103.
20. Cavender and Fishman, “Television Reality Crime Programs.”
21. Deery, Reality TV.