For reality TV’s survival subgenre, the inside of a jail is one of the last frontiers, the claustrophobic flip side of stranding people on a remote island or in the Alaskan wilderness. That A&E somehow managed to deliver that experience with “60 Days In” – an undeniably compelling if highly questionable concept – is a dubious achievement, from the ethical concerns to the thought process that inspired the Indiana officials who gave the go-ahead to this idea, which weds unscripted TV conventions to MSNBC’s prison documentaries.
Inasmuch as many reality shows find inspiration and a kind of shorthand in movies, this one owes a debt to “Brubaker,” the 1980 film, loosely inspired by actual events, in which a warden played by Robert Redford went into his new penitentiary posing as an inmate to get the lay of the land. As presented, the show – which tosses seven non-felons, four men and three women, into the Clark County Jail – is the brainchild of Sheriff Jamey Noel, who wanted to have eyes and ears within the prison to look for signs of corruption and see how conditions might be improved.
Yet while several of the participants have a personal motivation to essentially become undercover informants, it’s hard to imagine anyone thought this was a good notion in terms of potential liability. And even if the sheriff knows a lot about criminal justice, he’s obviously a novice about how reality-TV devices – including wildly urgent music, editing and repetition – conjure a sense of jeopardy that seriously calls his judgment, not to mention that of a few of his moles, into question.
To be fair, considerable ingenuity went into the thorny matter of how to capture all of this on film without polluting the prison vibe. Not only does the series draw heavily from more than 300 surveillance cameras strategically positioned throughout the facility, but producers have posed as documentary filmmakers producing a series about first-time inmates, enabling them to both conduct direct-to-camera interviews and secure release forms.
One suspects Noel might have designs on becoming America’s sheriff – the next incarnation of Arizona’s TV-friendly Joe Arpaio. Explanations from the participants contain varying degrees of logic for going along with this scheme. In descending order of rationality, they include a security guard who wants to become a corrections officer; a police officer and a social worker (Muhammad Ali’s daughter Maryum, no less) eager to learn more about the system, and concerned about high recidivism rates; and a teacher and stay-at-home mom who think jail is too cushy, and want to expose it as such.
Of those last two, it’s the teacher, Robert, who clearly stands out, stating at the outset that he thinks jail is a “country-club environment,” where the inmates just sit around and watch TV. When the officer driving him to lockup (where no one, incidentally, knows the truth about these interlopers) says, “Are you scared? You probably should be,” it’s a tip-off that Robert is the person most likely to cause viewers to shout at their TVs.
Smartly, A&E is introducing the 12-episode series with back-to-back hours, since the first is entirely devoted to setting up the premise and tearful farewells. In the second, the show begins to take shape, creating tension in conjuring the threat of violence, especially given the way new arrivals are tested and examined.
Yet even acknowledging that “60 Days In” (the title referring to the planned length of their stays) works on a visceral level, that doesn’t eliminate the queasy feeling associated with turning prison into a reality-TV backdrop, with all the baggage that entails. Unlike “Scared Straight!,” the groundbreaking documentary that brought with it a specific educational mission, the thumb on the scales here is tilted much more heavily on entertaining than informing.
According to Noel in A&E’s press release, intelligence gained through the program “helped us identify critical issues within our system that undercover officers would not have been able to find,” a statement that warrants considerable skepticism. Because while authorities might have benefited from this exercise, there’s a nagging sense that in terms of specific time frames, like most reality TV, “60 Days In” had more to do with 15 minutes of fame.