CNN is clearly still experimenting with the sort of nonfiction series the network can accommodate, as it seeks to wean itself off the ratings vagaries of the news cycle. And while this initiative has produced some interesting programs, it has yielded few misses as stylistically ill considered as “The Hunt With John Walsh.” Essentially a new iteration of Walsh’s “America’s Most Wanted,” the show feels more suited to TLC or Investigation Discovery, featuring reenacted shots like a dead body with blood artfully oozing from it. In the process, CNN further blurs the thin red line between news and Lifetime movie.
Once again acting as the audience’s surrogate avenger, Walsh cites his own history, noting, “I’ll always be the parent of a murdered child.” And while one can yet grieve for the tragedy that helped make him famous, Walsh’s hang-’em-high approach is made clear in his role here, which is less to serve as host/narrator, per se, than to provide periodic commentary that reminds viewers how horrible the bad guys are. Walsh even urges one suspect — if he happens to be watching — to turn himself in or, barring that, take his own life.
As with “America’s Most Wanted,” the perpetrators (nothing in the show ever implies “alleged”) remain at large, with their crimes meticulously recreated via a mix of heavily scored reenactments and interviews with law enforcement and victims’ loved ones. The cases are visceral, and terrible: In the premiere, a Northern California man is accused of killing his wife and two young daughters. The second hour focuses on an accused pedophile.
The goal of helping authorities nab these fugitives is laudable, and the series is produced by Zero Point Zero Prods., which is also responsible for “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown.” Yet unlike that travelogue, there’s something unsavory about CNN employing such techniques to conjure a context-free true-crime platform as salacious as anything in the entertainment realm.
Walsh was largely inoculated against such concerns during “America’s Most Wanted’s” heyday because of all the good the Fox series did in helping apprehend fugitives, but even with the compromises made under CEO Jeff Zucker, CNN is a different animal. And while the demonstrated popularity of the genre makes it likely this show will yield ratings benefits, “The Hunt” suggests the line governing the network’s evolving standards might be as elusive as any of these suspects.