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To rise up, A&E wallows in depravity

Published: Friday, Jan. 21 2011 3:52 p.m. MST

Teens are again getting Teens are again getting "Scared Straight" — this time on A&E. (aaron shapiro productions)

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.

Chicago Blackhawks (Associated Press) Chicago Blackhawks (Associated Press)

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.

A&E, now a joint venture of Hearst, Disney and NBC Universal, began life in the 1980s as a channel focused on fine arts and high-brow entertainment, and it's easy to make fun of the changes it's gone through and to see in them a metaphor for the general drift of our culture. But there's been a certain bloodthirstiness about A&E almost from the start. Its original lineup was heavy on British murder mysteries, and when it moved toward reality programming in the early 2000s — along with every other basic cable channel — its best shows were tabloid-style true-crime shockers like "City Confidential" and "Cold Case Files."

"Beyond Scared Straight," whose executive producer, Arnold Shapiro, directed the original "Scared Straight!" in 1978, takes the cautionary impulse of the A&E prime-time schedule to a new meta level: We're getting the message at the same time that we're watching someone else (who's more at risk than we are) getting the message. Lessons are being taught, and faces rubbed in unpleasant reality, in multiple dimensions.

You could lament the programming strategy that is being applied here, but there's one more thing, beyond titillation and voyeurism, that ties the A&E lineup together: From "Intervention" and "The First 48" to "Beyond Scared Straight" and "Heavy," these are well-made, compulsively watchable series. Someone in the programming department knows what Tod Browning recognized when he made "Freaks" in the 1930s: America always loves, and needs, a good sideshow.

On TV tonight

College basketball: Ohio State at Illinois (10 a.m., Ch. 2): Villanova at Syracuse (10 a.m., ESPN); Arkansas-Little Rock at Florida Atlantic (11 a.m., ESPN2); Stanford at UCLA (noon, Ch. 2); Kansas State at Texas A&M (noon, ESPN); Temple at Xavier (1 p.m., ESPN2); Wyoming at Air Force (1:30 p.m., the Mtn.); Texas at Kansas (2 p.m., Ch. 2); New Mexico at UNLV (2 p.m., Versus); Duke at Wake Forest (2 p.m., ESPN); Creighton at Missouri State (3 p.m., ESPN2); Kentucky at South Carolina (4 p.m., ESPN); Utah at TCU (4 p.m., the Mtn.); Memphis at Alabama-Birmingham (5:30 p.m., ESPN2); Michigan State at Purdue (7 p.m., ESPN); BYU at Colorado State (7 p.m., the Mtn.) Boise State at Idaho (8 p.m., KUTVDT2)

NBA basketball (5:30 p.m., FSN): Jazz at 76ers

CSI: Miami (7 p.m., Ch. 2): A blind man is the only witness to a girl's abduction.

Wipeout (7 p.m., Ch. 4): A rocket scientist, a dancer and a river guide face obstacles.

The Mentalist (8 p.m., Ch. 2): Romantic sparks fly when Patrick crosses paths with a supposed psychic during a murder investigation.

Law & Order: Los Angeles (8 p.m., Ch. 5): Winters and Jaruszalski question multiple suspects when a murderous cult member is stabbed to death.

Law & Order: SVU (9 p.m., Ch. 5): Detectives try to identify a girl who is so traumatized after being raped that she cannot tell them her name.

On TV Sunday

Hockey (10:30 a.m., Ch. 5): Flyers at Blackhawks. Skiing (11 a.m., Ch. 2): Deer Valley Celebrity Skifest

NFL football: Somebody vs. somebody in the NFC championship (1 p.m., Ch. 13); Somebody vs. somebody in the AFC championship (4:30 p.m., Ch. 2)

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (7 p.m., Ch. 4): The team helps build a home for a single mother of two who divides her time among family, work, college, and volunteering for the Girl Scouts.

The Simpsons (7 p.m., Ch. 13): Homer insists Bart must earn the new dirt bike he wants.

Bob's Burgers (7:30 p.m., Ch. 13): Bob is furious when a documentary filmmaker tries to makes a statement by placing a live cow outside the restaurant.

Hawaii Five-0 (8 p.m., Ch. 2): The head of the Tsunami Warning center disappears as the island is being evacuated for a major storm.

Desperate Housewives (8 p.m., Ch. 4): Lynette is angry when Renee starts spending a lot of time with Tom.

Masterpiece Classic (8 p.m., Ch. 7): Part 3 of "Downton Abbey."

Family Guy (8 p.m., Ch. 13): Meg offers to check on Joe while Bonnie is out of town.

The Cleveland Show (8:30 p.m., Ch. 13): Tim becomes consumed with power after accepting a management position at Waterman Cable

Brothers & Sisters (9 p.m., Ch. 4):Kitty meets a handyman while staying in Ojai

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