To rise up, A&E wallows in depravity

By Mike Hale

New York Times News Service

Published: Friday, Jan. 21 2011 3:00 p.m. MST

Teens are again getting "Scared Straight" — this time on A&E.

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Emily, a slate-eyed 17-year-old with an insolent charisma and an attitude problem, has her dark moments: the time she got so drunk she passed out in a driveway and a car nearly ran her over; the times she hits her mother; the time she put her fist through a double-paned window. She's spent a couple of months in juvenile hall.

Considering all this, she's not unduly alarmed.

"I think I'm a little more rebellious than a normal teenager," she says, with no trace of irony.

Emily was one of the eight young, camera-ready troublemakers featured in the premiere episode last week of "Beyond Scared Straight," the A&E network's new series that picks up on the "Scared Straight!" documentaries from the 1970s and '80s. Her complacency was shaken, of course, by the day she and her castmates spent inside the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, Calif. A&E's overall ratings, meanwhile, were boosted by the 3.7 million viewers who tuned in, a record for the debut of an original series on the network.

That "Beyond Scared Straight" did so well for A&E makes sense, because it encapsulates the network's prime-time strategy: to drag the viewer past scenes of criminality, addiction, obsession and depression, in a constant cycle of there-but-for-the-grace-of-reality-TV go we.

Cable networks are preoccupied with branding these days, and documenting the more sordid aspects of modern life is an important part of the identity of outlets from TLC to MTV to Bravo. But nowhere is it as dominant as at A&E, where the prime-time lineup is a smorgasbord of American dysfunction.

The network that was once home to "Murder, She Wrote" and "Breakfast With the Arts" has eight original series on its prime-time schedule this month, and seven show us our fellow citizens in ways that range from unsettling to downright disturbing. The eighth is the family documentary series revolving around the co-founder of Kiss, "Gene Simmons Family Jewels"; in this company the show counts as comic relief.

Most prominent in this lineup is "Intervention," the Emmy-winning series (for outstanding reality program) that helped to put meth addiction on the short list of the things that are bringing America down. It has now profiled and tried to help more than 130 addicts; next up, on Monday night, is Jimbo, a "small-town menace" hooked on painkillers.

Gaining on "Intervention" as a cult favorite, and perhaps even more frightening in its depictions of human helplessness and squalid living conditions, is "Hoarders." The title tells you exactly what you're going to get. The season finale earlier this month profiled a woman with 30 cats and a man with — don't dwell on this — 2,500 rats. It might seem like their problems could be solved if they just moved in together, but these aren't people who make friends easily.

Things in the A&E lineup don't get much happier from there. "Storage Wars" is about scavenging the possessions of people who couldn't make the payments on their storage lockers.

"The First 48" is about murder investigations; Thursday night's episode looks at the cases of a man killed in his wheelchair in Louisville and a man stabbed in his car in Charlotte.

"Dog the Bounty Hunter" finds pathos and slapstick comedy in the hunting down of fugitives who are usually more pitiful than dangerous. The newest act in A&E's nightly carnival is "Heavy," which made its debut on Monday.

Having covered criminals, addicts and garden-variety losers, the channel now adds the morbidly obese, or, as a doctor said in the pilot episode, those whose weight is "in the super-excessive range." As with "Intervention" and "Hoarders," the stated goal is rehabilitation, but the main attraction is the guilty pleasure of gawking at bodies that defy our sense of what's acceptable.

Even when it comes to fiction, A&E doesn't go in for light diversions. Its most prominent original drama, "The Cleaner," which ran for two seasons in 2008-2009, was about addiction; it is currently offering reruns of the CBS series about serial killers, "Criminal Minds," the bloodiest drama on network TV.

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