Frontline Monsters Among Us

Often television's hardest-hitting docu series, "Frontline," takes the easy way out in this interesting but ultimately unsatisfying look at the way the law--or more precisely, the state of Washington--treats persistent sex offenders.

Often television’s hardest-hitting docu series, “Frontline,” takes the easy way out in this interesting but ultimately unsatisfying look at the way the law–or more precisely, the state of Washington–treats persistent sex offenders.

By repeatedly dismissing those it profiles as “monsters” and otherwise refusing to acknowledge their humanity, the producers fail to effectively reckon with one of the central questions surrounding such criminals: What in their past lives or their genetic makeup makes people do such things? Nonetheless, the nation’s prurient interest in deviant criminals should give the show respectable ratings.

Ironically, the serial-killer and sex-crime buffs who make those topics so hot on the networks will be among those most disappointed by “Monsters Among Us.” Because, to its credit, the show delves very little into the grisly details of the crimes committed by the men (there is no mention made of whether women ever commit such crimes and if not, why not) it profiles.

Instead, producer Mike McLeod and correspondent Al Austin examine what happens to these men once they enter the legal system.

Washington has enacted a sexual-predator law that enables the state to continue to incarcerate criminals deemed to be sexual predators after their prison sentences have ended, until they can prove they’re no longer dangerous.

Though this law was presumably the impetus for “Frontline’s” choice of Washington and its criminals to profile, McLeod and Austin fail to probe the rule’s foundations. Questions about its constitutionality are never addressed and a legal challenge to it is mentioned briefly without ever informing the viewer whether it succeeded or not.

The show is best when it talks to men incarcerated in Washington for sex crimes. In these sessions, correspondent Austin shines, quelling the sanctimony that taints some of his commentary.

Producer McLeod has done an admirable job of culling a disparate bunch, from a serial murderer of children who grew up in what was to all appearances a normal middle-class family to a pedophilic thug who was himself repeatedly beaten as a child.

But their very heterogeneity thwarts any hope of discovering what “makes them tick.” As one psychologist says at the show’s conclusion, “We’re not going to find the truth about something as complicated as sexual assault, we’re going to find a lot of little truths.” However many “truths””Monsters Among Us” uncovers, it raises many more questions.

Frontline Monsters Among Us

(Tues. (10), 9-10 p.m., PBS)

  • Production: Produced by Frontline and Oregon Public Broadcasting in partnership with KCTS/Seattle. Exec producer, David Fanning; producer, Mike McLeod; correspondent , Al Austin.
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