[19 May 2009]
Reality television as we know it today is impossible to categorize. A hybrid of tabloid journalism, documentary film, and popular entertainment, this broad genre has swept up audiences across the globe, changing the media landscape over the last two decades. Generally, the genre relies heavily on manipulation tactics, sensationalism, and a sense of reality that is hinted at, but never proven. Thought of for many years as the joke of the entertainment industry—a fad that would fall as quickly as it rose—the world of reality television has remained at the forefront of media debates, ranging from its representations of reality to its moral value.
Gangland, along with its contemporaries such as The First 48, Crime 360 and Cold Case Files (to name a few), harkens back to the first wave of popular reality television where, before the era of the social experiment sub-genre (Survivor, Big Brother), producers used the new format to focus on hot button topics that were sure to gather buzz and ratings by the truckload. What made these shows so appealing to a network was that, during a time of economic hardship within the culture industries, this broad genre of programs could be made for little money, produce high ratings, and work well as a format that could be sold to sibling channels in other countries. Crime, although on a slight decline in the last year according to FBI reports, is still a prominent topic of discussion, a fear among the general public that can be tapped into for entertainment value.
Season three of Gangland, recently released on DVD, focuses on cities ranging from Chicago to Laredo, Texas, the gangs equally violent, the police equally determined to catch the criminals and lock them up. The idea behind the show is to take the viewer on a journey into the depths of these gangs, profiling their history, recruitment, structure, and activity.
The problem lies in its formulaic presentation. If you’ve seen one episode of Gangland, you’ve seen them all. Beside the literal re-use of stock footage and reenactment, each episode follows a very tight narrative structure: a crime is committed, usually violent; we are introduced to the gang involved through a series of talking head narrators, usually cops and former gang members; we are given access to the back story of the gang; the crime introduced in the beginning is discussed further, usually toward a satisfying result ; we are let in to the stories of gang members who are now out of the life, as well as the status of the gang today.
While this can cause problems for a viewer of the DVD, watching the episodes in chronological order, such matters are rendered obsolete due to the essence of the show. Gangland is like a pop single: meant to be played out of context of the larger picture, telling you all it needs to in its condensed frame. It’s instant pleasure, fast food junk for the eyes and ears with a story we all know the ending to. The heroes and villains are caricatures with no thought process involved, making the show perfect background noise, a show that won’t disappoint if your eyes happen to leave your work and catch the television screen.
Although looking at it through this pop-junk framework can make Gangland instantly entertaining, serious questions are left unanswered. Why do these gangs exist? The institutional racism present in most inner-city neighborhoods is never touched upon, leaving the viewer to believe devil’s rejects are walking our streets, cold blooded with no remorse. Never mentioned are the deficient living spaces, years of injustice, and poorly resourced school systems that lead to low scholastic achievements, lower admissions to college and a skyrocketing unemployment rate.
Add to this a rapid hostility from outside neighborhoods, a biased policing and judicial system, and a thinly veiled war on the lower class disguised as a war on drugs, and it’s no surprise that arrests, convictions and sentences number higher every year. We create a foundation for these kids to underachieve, an inescapable web, making sure they stay at the bottom of the pecking order. Even though much has been done to help underprivileged kids, it would be naive to expect that the hidden form of racism is not still permeating American culture, with the media a driving institutional force behind the campaign of disinformation, spreading half truths and fabrications to the public-at-large.
It would also be naive to exclude Gangland from this campaign. Since the show itself is sugar-coated fluff, enjoyable and easy to let dissolve into the television abyss and disappear, we tend to let it off the hook. It may be time we lift the curtain to reveal the hypocrisy of what is sold to us as reality, questioning the motives and intent of television networks and producers. In turn, we have to flip the questions back onto ourselves, and explore our own reasons for why we buy into the facade.
The DVD set is mostly bare bones, save for a few slices of additional footage that are rather useless for gathering a more complete understanding of each episode. What’s most disappointing is that this wasted space could have been used to highlight some of the aspects sorely missed from each episode.