Friday, April 20, 2012

[Confidential/Hidden] Cities on the small screen

Favorite cure for insomnia: television shows that combine place with crime.

My longtime favorite show for this is City Confidential on the Biography channel. We've been going strong for a decade. The reasons for my love:
  • Topic. The show spotlights a single crime in a town somewhere in the US and how that crime came to reflect the changing nature of the community. This could be done badly or without much effort, but City Confidential truly digs in. It also picks its cases really well. When I first saw "Scottboro: Foul Play in the Bible Belt," I steeled myself for how much this Alabama town near my cousins was going to be the butt of jokes. I mean, there's snake-handling involved. But by episode's end, I have to admit to myself every time... nope, they got it right. That's hard to do. And putting on my planner hat for a minute, I have to say this is also the only show not about planning (because seriously... who would watch that?) that regularly talks about suburbanization, loss of community character, and McMansions. And, you know, the killer next door. Yes please.
  •  Narrative structure. Every single episode follows the same narrative arc. There's something so predictable and soothing about this, when you watch it at the time of night that I usually do. Part 1 (first 10-15 minutes): setting the scene and helping you understand the community, history through the crime. Part 2 (bulk of the 1-hour show): delving into the particulars of the crime. Part 3 (always the very last bit after the last commercial break): how the town changed after the crime.
  • Narrator Paul Winfield. This guy's voice is the best. After he died they found a new narrator, and let's just say that the last few seasons with the newbie are not as awesome as the golden age of PW.
  •  The writing. Oh, the amazing tongue-in-cheek camp of the writing! I always thought it'd be silly fun to write for this show. Find "Dallas: Arsenic and Old Money" playing in the middle of the night sometime to see what I mean. You can practically see the writers winking.
There's barely any City Confidential on YouTube, so here's just a taste with the setup for "Phoenix: Shady Deals in the Sun City." You'll see all the points above: A) lots of good planning talk, B) setting the scene in Phoenix, C) Paul!, and D) Camp.

The growing problem with City Confidential, though, is that I've seen nearly all of the episodes. So now what?

Enter the new guy in town: Marcus Sakey, he of Hidden City on the Travel Channel.

Hidden City has a slightly different approach than City Confidential. First, the focus is not just on one crime, but on three, from varying eras of a city's past. In this way the city is the star of the show... although actually, Marcus Sakey steals the show. This wouldn't work if he wasn't likable, or if he truly didn't want to dive into the dirty belly of a city, or if didn't want to invest the time to find the right people to frame the story in a compelling way. But he does all of these things. The other way this show differs from City Confidential's documentary approach is that as the star, Sakey gets interactive with the stories: he climbs into a rigged sedan with a shotgun to see what it felt like to be the DC sniper, he gets pepper-sprayed by cops to understand how 1968 rioters felt, etc. It's good television. He never lets us forget, though, he's a crime-writer. There's less camp in his writing than in my old-time favorite, but by the same token, the writing's much more real.

So yeah... this might be my new fix. City Confidential can never be replaced in my book, but I'm happy to make room for Hidden City. The stories are fantastic - new twists on old ones we all know (HH Dillinger in Chicago or the Zodiac Killer in San Francisco, for example), and older ones we might not know (Madame LaLaurie in New Orleans or Black Caesar in Key West). And all the way through... one city. Over time. Ch-ch-changing.


  1. i LOVE city confidential! love, love, love. my law school roommate & i use to take study breaks by watching CC and paul winfield. we figured it was like studying crim pro (aka criminal procedure).

    your post made my morning. thank you!

  2. Seriously, we are TV twinsies. I ADORE City Confidential. Paul Winfield = voice gold. They did an episode on Lynchburg, VA about the UVA murders in the 80s and it is my fave. My alma mater AND a town near where I grew up and they nailed it. Also, I have family in Scottsboro and I know the episode of which you speak. Good stuff.

  3. I love City Confidential- especially the smallish southern city ones (like Knoxville's, ha!). I will have to check out Hidden City!


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