Death Be on Cable

Hitmen, ex-hookers, and James Ellroy find a home on ID.

Most every episode of every series on the Investigation Discovery channel opens with a statement that its material “may be disturbing to some viewers.” This is less a conscientious warning than a tout’s guarantee. The core audience tunes in with the goal of getting disturbed, and the network slakes a thirst for cold blood around the clock, with documentaries on Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer running at 7 a.m. Investigation Discovery—abbreviated ID, as in identify the body, and also as in the force opposed to the superego—operates at the intersection of true crime and reality TV. At this crossroads, tabloid folklore flourishes, as authentically American as a CBS cop show or a Weegee photo or Knopf’s Black Lizard imprint. The trail of blood runs from sea to shining sea, emphasis on the axe-swinging gothicism of The Shining, though Stephen King would be hard-pressed to match the tonal hysteria of ID’s prose. The narrator of the most recent installment of Sins & Secrets—a new series functioning as a kind of itinerant forensics team—tells us that “news of a heinous crime cut through the rarefied air of Nantucket like a blade.” Across the country, on James Ellroy’s L.A.: City of Demons, the novelist-host indulges in alliterative grotesquerie like Edgar A. Poe on a laudanum bender. “Welcome to my wickedly wonderful world,” he says, lit to look undead and clad in a bow-tie that wraps him up like the ribbon on a ghoulish gift. In Ellroy’s phrasing, a 1950s serial killer lured a model “to his putrid pad to pose.” Another vintage victim was “hellaciously hooked on heroin—the baaaaaaaaaad Big H.” Elsewhere, Ellroy invites us to divert ourselves with crime-scene photos and recreated moments from the life and death of his own mother. The producers’ talent for commandeering the daydreams of armchair investigators—with such shows as FBI: Criminal Pursuit and The Real NCIS—is estimable, and their skill at exploiting narrow slices of felonious fantasy is more remarkable yet. Wicked Attraction devotes itself exclusively to retailing Bonnie-and-Clyde sagas; a promo finds a physically unexceptional, superficially unexceptionable couple cooing like lovers in a ad before dropping the boom: “We both love long walks on the beach, mostly at dawn, to bury bodies.”Prison Wives tells of perfect devotion; lesser women get antsy when their husbands fly to Charlotte for a two-day business trip, but a true prison wife grins and bears it when the parole board determines that the man to whom the prison pastor lawfully wed her won’t be home for dinner until the year 2100. It remains unclear whether the target audience of Stalked is likely targets or aspiring stalkers, though I suppose that the latter would be too busy building shrines and shopping for binoculars to have much time for TV. Or perhaps that’s the wrong way of looking at things, and it would be more to the point to examine the show in the context of ID’s Lifetime-movie streak, its fixation on victims of the month and murderesses of the week. Last fall, ID hosted a Black Widows Week, anchoring the very special programming with a miniseries titled Facing Evil With Candice DeLong. “What is a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” the hostess, a retired FBI profiler, asked. The “nice girl” was a convicted killer, and “a place like this” was a penitentiary. It took a minute or two for the interviewee to wend around to the most correct answer: “I was lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.”In such a context, a show like Hookers: Saved on the Strip very nearly qualifies as comic relief. Our savior is Annie Lobert, who ministers to Las Vegas sex workers and who herself used to be a prostitute catering “to award-winning actors, famous musicians and rock stars, national and local politicians, and professional athletes,” in the celebratory words of her online bio. Though now on the righteous path—and married to the former lead guitarist of Christian rock band Stryper—Lobert still grooms herself as the sort of person who self-identifies as a “high-class escort.” You can take the girl out of the life, but you cannot take the fuchsia acrylic nails off of the girl. Lobert’s introductory voiceover offers a sop to ID’s sadistic audience by talking about sex trafficking and conjuring visions of women “bought, sold, beaten, raped, killed every day.” Then she gets on with the business of rescuing hookers’ souls and broadening their horizons, assisted by social workers, career counselors, and expungement attorneys: “Sealing Regina’s record will really help her on the job front.”ID’s show of the moment is Nothing Personal, hosted by Steve Schirripa, the self-described goomba who played Bobby Bacala on The Sopranos and who here dispenses the occasional word to the wise guy (“If you’re invited to go out on a hit, do you wanna be the shooter? Yes, you do, and here’s why …”). The title of Nothing Personal refers to the worldview of the contract killer. “To hit men,” says Schirripa, “life and death is just part of business.” In one early episode, we see a urologist done in by his scheming blond wife. In another, we see a Hollywood cameraman done in by his scheming blond wife. I use the word blond in a narrow sense. On Nothing Personal, as on so many ID shows, producer promiscuously shuffle interview footage and old photographs together with “dramatizations” of criminal acts, serving up visions of both a real person and her prettier or thinner or blonder or in any case more glamorous stand-in. Think of the stand-in as an avatar and consider this species of true crime a grisly new breed of virtual reality.