[31 March 2005]
Dog Chapman crackles. He pops off the screen with brash charisma and a Rottweilerish energy. In Dog the Bounty Hunter, the self-proclaimed “world’s most famous bounty hunter” tracks his “human prey,” bail jumpers. The show uses COPS’ chase-and-catch format, then goes that longtime series better. The high-octane pursuits are followed by redemption scenes, because, as born-again Christian Dog puts it, he wants to “arrest them and fix them.” He’s brutal and honest, not sappy. And as the series reveals the seedy world of bounty hunting, it also humanizes desperate drug addicts and petty criminals, making for episodes that are both entertaining and deeply moving.
The Dog the Bounty Hunter: The Best of Season 1 DVD case announces, “Go on the prowl with this real-life Billy the Kid,” while quoting one of Dog’s many efforts to inflate his mystique: “Born on a mountain, raised in a cave, arresting fugitives is all I crave.” The set features 11 episodes (the ones Dog liked best) and the installment of A&E’s Take This Job… that landed Duane “Dog” Chapman his own show. A comparison reveals only that the new series is more slickly edited and packaged. Set mostly in Hawaii but sometimes in Denver, the series makes clear that the hunter with over 6,000 captures to his name has an innate sense of the theatrical. He tells us he has to “dress the part” in order to terrify bail jumpers into submission and avoid hazardous confrontations. That means sunglasses and black leather, a tank top (sometimes mesh), bullet-proof vest, custom-made cowboy boots with four-inch heels, and a long blond mullet with some upfront pompadour action. Oh, he’s scary all right. Love the mullet or he’ll kick your ass.
The series amps up the raw material of Dog’s experiences for maximum drama. The narrative arcs include Dog’s background and family. As part of a motorcycle gang, he went to jail in the ‘70s for his involvement in a failed drug deal where a fellow gang member murdered someone. His warden challenged him to “contribute to society,” so he flipped over into law enforcement. After four marriages and 12 kids, he’s had to bail his own children out of trouble more than once. His parenting and criminal rehabilitation philosophies intertwine; noting his own checkered past, he laughs “I say to all fathers: be as good as you can be because your sons and daughters will definitely follow in your footsteps.” He sees himself in every perp he brings in.
In each episode, Dog and his team gather information on the fugitive by staking out neighborhoods and talking to the felon’s friends and family. These careful preparations build dramatic tension that climaxes in the final chase, as the team suits up in tightly edited action sequences. After the arrest, the tone quickly shifts, from aggression to compassion. As he drives his captive to the police station, he asks for their life story, gives his own testimonial, and offers help in the form of job contacts and character references. Dog gets one man to stomp on his crystal meth pipe so he’ll “remember this day.” Another is so won over by Dog’s indomitable sense of mission that he offers to help catch the next guy on the list, and a woman eventually breaks into tears and begs him to get her into rehab.
In contrast to all this drama, the series offers a familiar domestic life. We cut from Dog intimidating a snitch to Dog vacuuming at home. He screams at a drug dealer, then sings “This little piggy” to his toddler. He drives a minivan, uses mace instead of a gun. He’s like a WWE version of a soccer mom. For all his bulging muscles and fighting zeal, he needs to be back in time to take his kids to the beach.
These scenes also serve the hunting narrative; his is a family business. His strike team consists of his wife, brother, son, and nephew. In an episode entitled “The Godfather of Waikiki,” Dog alternately trails crooks and plans a surprise birthday party for his brother. He explains: “Even though sometimes we don’t get along, we scream at each other like any other family, when it comes down to it, we all stick together. These colors don’t run.” In “Father and Son,” he trains son Leland and nephew Justin to be “the next generation of bounty hunters.”
While some of this can get heavy, the show doesn’t turn Dog into some sort of scruffy saint. We know he has a profit motive too. Although he only takes payment for about half the bounties he brings in, and often lets people off their bail bond fees as well, he is nevertheless making a living off of people who need bond money. On a lighter note, his accomplished wife Beth usually takes “Big Daddy” (he’s 50) down a peg, and he pokes fun at his own macho posturing. She notes his high blood pressure, reminds him to stop smoking, and observes that Dog made her change her outfit five times before one ambush because she didn’t look “tough enough.” On occasion, the show seems snide regarding Beth’s big, peroxide-blonde hair and elaborate makeup (showing her applying lipstick before a mission or rushing to the salon when a scuffle breaks her nails), laughing at her when she says: “Just because you’re a woman doing a man’s job doesn’t mean you can’t look your best.”
In spite of such snarkiness, the show has serious heart. Dog is almost mythological, like a modern-day Charon carrying dead souls across the river Styx, and they must pay the ferryman. But Dog wants to bring his fares back to life. “Big Daddy” cares, and makes you care too—or he’ll give you a steel-toed sandwich.