The First 48: The Most Intense Investigations

[17 December 2006]

By Brian Holcomb

One of the basic concepts of suspense plotting is known as the “ticking clock”. The idea is that no matter how intense or thrilling your story appears to be, it will be more intense and thrilling if you add a time element. So we have movie after movie in which heroes have to race against time to save the world, stop the assassination, or blow up the asteroid.

The First 48 is not a movie, but it exploits this device to give the old Cops reality formula a new spin. The title refers to the crucial first 48 hours which follow immediately from the moment police detectives are called in to investigate a murder. These hours are supposedly the most critical for detectives to gather all of the clues and information needed in order to solve the case.

The Most Intense Investigations presents a two disc collection of the seven most popular episodes as voted on by the show’s fans. The cases are all pretty repetitive with desperate victims (i.e., prostitutes) on the fringe of city life ending up rotting in trash bags, car trunks, or piled up in abandoned basements. The detectives quickly show up, all complaining of how this stressful job is putting a strain on their personal lives. The majority of the episodes take place in Miami, Florida or Memphis, Tennessee which is either just a coincidence or we should all make a mental note to avoid these cities in the near future. In any case, neither locale is depicted in any light that would encourage tourism. Miami is one in particular to avoid, seeing that a spin-off show has been developed by the producers called Miami City Vice. That almost sounds like the title of a new Grand Theft Auto game designed by Michael Mann. More about this later.

Now I pretty much consider myself to be a true-crime junkie. I’ve read my Helter Skelter and my Fatal Vision, watched countless Court-TV programs on the goings on in Green River, the whole BTK affair, and of course, Jack the Ripper. I’ve even spent a damp and cold London night enjoying the famous “Ripper Walk”. I also loved A&E’s other crime programs, American Justice and especially City Confidential, with that incredible Mickey Spillane-like narration by Paul Winfield. So, clearly, I was expecting to find this program to be right up my alley. But I have to say that I found none of it particularly gripping.

The thing I hate in crime shows is the empty chronicle of non-drama in shows like Cops, Sheriff Lobo: Stories of the Highway Patrol and the Matchbox car juvenilia of the televised high speed chase. Except for O.J.‘s end zone run in the “White Bronco”, these are all devoid of any humanity or dramatic involvement, achieving nothing more than mere voyeurism. Cops is a show whose popularity I have never understood. Watching one illiterate drunk after another claim that he only WEARS a wife-beater is hardly great entertainment.

The First 48 is centered on procedure and in the novels of writers like Ed McBain, procedure can be hypnotic. But here, procedure is massively boring. Alfred Hitchcock once said that drama was real “life with the dull bits cut out.” One of the reasons you don’t see detectives on “CSI: Poughkepsie” go door-to-door asking people the same questions repeatedly is that it’s completely boring to watch. With that in mind, the detectives on The First 48 look bored themselves and they’re supposedly on the hunt for a killer. Which should be dangerous and exciting, right? Instead, it has all the fun of Chinese water torture as we go from this kind of rote questioning to the thrill of watching other detectives make lots of phone calls and the new classic: the “I’M-LOOKING-THINGS-UP-ON-THE-INTERNET” scene. The internet has done great damage to televised drama since there is nothing more tedious than watching someone else surf the net. If Hitchcock was in charge of The First 48 it would all be over in the first 10. 

The producers clearly realize this and that is why they’ve employed the old suspense device. An onscreen clock even appears from time-to-time, accompanied by the portentous sound of a clock TICKING in case we’re not aware that critical time is running out.  In most of the cases presented, nothing much at all is solved in the first 48 hour and only near the end of that time is there a break: usually in the form of good old fashioned police…uh…luck. In one of the cases presented, nothing is solved at all. This is one of the ugly truths presented by the series, that even the most diligent police work faces a no-win situation in cases without enough physical evidence or eyewitnesses. It seems that you CAN get away with murder as long as you leave no fingerprints, DNA, or witnesses behind. Note to self: When committing a murder, kill all witnesses. Then make sure you leave no fingerprints or DNA or witnesses behind, again.

My pick of the seven “fan-favorites” has to be the episode titled “Deadly Attraction”, which features detectives casing the scene of a murder at an apartment complex in which the odiferous body had been left in the room for about four days. Not only did the neighbors not know anything significant about their neighbor of almost five years, but they all seemed completely annoyed by the whole inconvenience. One neighbor is shown spraying the hall outside his room with an aerosol air freshener exclaiming, “The smell! It smells!”

Oddly, for a program centered on faceless procedure, it’s when the focus shifts to people that it gains in interest. For example, Sgt. Joe Shillaci of the Miami, Florida police force is introduced while trying on his new uniform as he’s about to be promoted to Lieutenant. We follow him over the course of the next few days on his last case as a homicide detective. He is told at one point by a suspect that he reminds him of that guy from Pulp Fiction, you know, “Harvey Keitel!”

Indeed, there is something of Keitel’s mannerisms and Joe Pesci’s countenance about Shillaci but we get to know Shillaci much more than Mr. Keitel or Mr. Pesci in the one hour we spend with him in “Deadly Attraction”—not through dramatics or narrative conflict but through mere observation of how he looks at his wife while he makes pasta for dinner, the excitement with which he comes into work late at night when his team gets a lead. His character appears through his behavoir the way it should in scripted drama but almost never does. If the other episodes in the series would find a focus outside of the crime itself, the show could actually be riveting.

Shillaci is an interesting guy and seemingly a very good detective. He is shown demonstrating real skill in interrogating a suspect—once again a drama between people. The suspect here is very shrewd. We learn that his own father was a homicide detective, making him very familiar with police interrogation techniques. Nothing seems to work until Shillaci decides to go in and try to win the young man’s trust. He does so with such sincerity that we cannot be sure if he doesn’t feel some kind of sympathy for the kid himself. The young man is clearly a murderer and yet, like a great actor, Shillaci seems to need to believe a truth in order to sell it. After he gets a confession, Shillaci still remains in character. assuring the young man that he’s going to be alright as he’s taken off to prison. Now this is riveting drama made more riveting by the fact that it’s real, of course.

This should’ve been the key to the program’s style. There is a depth to this episode that’s never reached in the others. We learn about the victim, a once homeless man who pulled himself out of his situation by working at a local Burger King and moving into an apartment. We also learn about his unfortunate generous nature which made him a target for opportunists ready to exploit him at will and which ultimately led to his cruel and violent death. A powerful atmosphere of alienation, despair, and nihilism fills this entire segment.

Unfortunately, the rest of the episodes were not graced with as colorful a lead detective as Shillaci or as interesting a victim and criminal and as a result, become more about the rote procedure again, losing the strong central thematic thread.  It’s only in flashes during segments like “The Witness” that the series finds its focus, again. When the lead detectives make the tough decision to stop playing around with an uncooperative suspect and make a 10-year-old girl pick him out of a lineup as her parents’ killer, you can really feel the desperation onscreen.

The DVD presents seven episodes on two discs with only one significant extra. Since this is a program in which all of the dull bits were left in, I guess we should be thankful that there were no duller bits left to form a “deleted scenes” extra. The only extra provided, however, may actually be the best thing on both discs. Someone was very smart while shooting the “Deadly Attraction” segment and decided to keep following Sgt. Joe Shillaci around as he moved into his new job on Vice. Shillaci, now a Lieutenant, is the “star” of Miami City Vice and this is a program that should really be developed. The extra is a full length episode showing Shillaci on the streets again heading a special ops unit called the “Jump Out Crew”, and even donning a fake beard and wheelchair disguise while going undercover to bust some dealers.

I mentioned Michael Mann earlier and this looks very much like his recent Miami Vice movie, except again, this one is for real. Shot on digital video and in a similar verite style, this is the riveting and thrilling hour that The First 48 wants to be. As an “extra”, it’s an incredible gift and makes this DVD set worth owning. So if it seems odd that I gave the extras a higher rating than the program itself, it’s because A&E considers Miami City Vice to be an extra. Here’s my advice: Take control of your DVD player and watch the “Deadly Attractions” episode first to meet detective Shillaci and then quickly jump into Miami City Vice. That way, you’ll get a great feature length police drama with a fascinating lead “character”. Then, at your leisure, watch the rest of the DVD as though they were the extras. Now this is the true democratic power of DVD.

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