Intelligent plots vanish with 'Cops' precedent

Based on estimates from crime statisticians, it’s a safe bet more serial killers prowled primetime and movies this year than have been documented in modern history. Yet the horde of ruthless masterminds stalking scripted fare exists in stark contrast with the hapless, near-pathetic criminals of reality TV.

Far from the methodical killers showcased in popular crime dramas or even amoral anything-for-a-buck corporate fatcats haunting series such as TNT ’s “Leverage” and FX’s “Damages,” reality-show crime tends to hew closely (and sometimes unintentionally) to the “dumb criminals” motif popularized by “Cops,” where perps are notoriously as often as not drunk and shirtless.

Part of this has to do with the insatiable thirst for material, creating an appetite for inanities like Fox Reality Channel’s upcoming “Smile … You’re Under Arrest!,” a jaw-dropping hidden-camera prank show that transforms nabbing petty criminals via an elaborate sting operation into unscripted hilarity.

Working with Joe Arpaio — the so-called “toughest sheriff in America,” whose colorful efforts to humiliate prisoners in Arizona’s Maricopa County have included forcing them to parade around in pink panties — the program lures small-time offenders to a faux promotional event with the promise of prizes. The producers then prod them to say and do silly things before the cops swoop in and slap handcuffs on them.

The music works overtime trying to generate a modicum of suspense, but the befuddled fugitives (charged with things like “failed to appear in court”) prove more sympathetic than their tormentors, who weave in plenty of vague references to jail before the sheriffs rush in shouting “Take ’em down!” — as if these surrounded, hopelessly outnumbered losers are going to make a run for it.

For good measure, the producers get suspects — who almost uniformly seem more tickled to be on television than concerned about their legal problems — to look directly into the camera and say, “I’ve been busted on Fox TV!”

OK, so this half-assed “Candid Camera Criminals” is really just “Borat” for dummies. Even Fox Reality apparently knows it’s a mess, given that the series will premiere on the Saturday between Christmas and New Year’s — TV’s equivalent of the dark side of the moon.

Still, “Smile” isn’t alone. Since “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” cable has become obsessed with tracking down lowlifes. A&E’s new series “Manhunters: Fugitive Task Force” features U.S. Marshals supposedly devoted to capturing “the worst of the worst,” but while the cops keep chatting up what dangerous hombres they’re after, their quarries don’t look particularly adept at avoiding detection. Cable news also has discovered crime’s har-dee-har-har factor, such as the recurring “best dumb criminal” segment on MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.”

The scripted world’s bad guys obviously must be formidable enough to credibly match wits with each program’s modern-day Sherlock Holmes — requiring a whole lot of criminal geniuses, if only to keep all of TV’s forensic investigators occupied.

Ken Sanzel, a former New York City cop who’s now exec producer of CBS’ crime show “Numbers,” admits that in terms of episodic drama, “You can’t get four acts out of (pursuing) an idiot.” In terms of his own law-enforcement experience, he’s fond of quoting an old boss who said, “We’re not after Moriarty here. If they were smart, we wouldn’t catch them.”

Beyond bloodthirsty psychopaths, TV dramas exhibit a post-Enron fascination with corporate evildoers — in part because rich white men remain one of the few demographic constituencies whose image can be derided with impunity. Then again, even that has triggered blowback from pro-business conservative groups convinced that TV’s hostility represents another sign of wanton liberal bias.

Although it’s hardly a news flash to suggest that fiction exaggerates reality for effect — perhaps especially when the subject is crime — the gap between drama and reality TV has widened as producers of the latter plumb the fringes in focusing on real-life numbskulls.

Recalling his days as a cop, Sanzel says wryly of the criminal element, “We catch them because they’re stupid, and we’re slightly smarter.”

While there’s not much drama in that, reality TV doesn’t seem to mind. So barring the birth of higher-quality criminals, the genre’s villains can remove their shirts, gulp down a couple of six-packs and smile for their close-ups.

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