The First 48: The Most Intense Investigations

Brian Holcomb

Perhaps this real life detective show is a little too much like real life: a lot of tedium with only an occasional interesting happening.

The First 48

Distributor: A&E; Home Video
Network: A&E;
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2006-12-19

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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