More than 30 years after the original “Scared Straight!” won both an Oscar and Emmy, producer Arnold Shapiro has revived his documentary as an A&E series, without diluting much of its visceral impact. Once again, hardened convicts meet what might once have been called juvenile delinquents, seeking to give them an unappetizing taste of what prison life is like. Think of it as “A Christmas Carol,” only the shadows of what might be to come are tattooed and really, really scary. A&E has carved out a niche with tough-hewn reality, but nothing as raw as this.
Opening with a 90-minute episode, “Beyond Scared Straight” adheres closely (albeit in truncated form) to the original format, which featured those from the Lifers program at Rahway prison in New Jersey.
After introducing the sometimes-cocky kids, teens who in some instances look even younger than their years, they’re ushered into the prison, where the convicts paint a harrowing portrait of life on the inside.
In the premiere, girls visit a California women’s prison in Chowchilla, where their tour guides are every bit as intimidating as at the men’s facility in the second episode.
A convict gets in a girl’s face, threatening to “slap the shit out of you.” When the kids recoil or cower, they’re told by having failed to stand up, “You’re gonna be my bitch.”
“Half of these girls look like guys,” one of them mutters.
If “Beyond” is deficient in any respect, it’s in the minimal follow-up — revisiting the program’s beneficiaries a month or so later, which is hardly enough time to see if their exposure to the potential rotten spoils of being a criminal has yielded the desired effects.
Still, that amounts to a quibble regarding a series that, unlike most of what passes for “reality TV,” feels truly authentic — and sobering. For the network of “Intervention,” this is the kind of intervention that obliterates the camera’s contaminating eye.
Shapiro had the luxury of revisiting “Scared Straight!” several times through the years, but its durability remains impressive. And unlike the kids — who, with menacing bruisers crowding them, understandably yearn to look away — most of those who tune in won’t find themselves able to.