One of the earliest reality TV shows first aired 62 years ago this August.
Allen Funt launched “Candid Camera” in 1948. The show’s format, in which concealed cameras filmed ordinary people being confronted with unusual situations or trick props, was engaging from the start. Its heyday came about a dozen years later; it was a top-10 Nielsen-rated show for four years straight starting in 1960.
The genre has seen a proliferation of programming to match the expansion of TV channels, with countless examples ranging from “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes” and “Punk’d.”
I happened to see an episode of “Bait Car” this week, which is a TV series based on a crime-fighting model pioneered by the auto-theft beleaguered Minneapolis, Minn., police in the early 1990s. Using a decoy car thatincorporates technology such as GPS tracking and onboard audio/video surveillance, police literally sit and watch as thieves pull off what they think is a clean heist.
When officers are ready to make the arrest, remote technology allowsthem to disable the engine and lock the doors, imprisoning the unwitting criminal in the object of his larceny.
“Bait Car” is actually several TV programs rolled into one. It’s a candid-camera comedy, to be sure, funny enough to inspire true laughing out loud. But it’s also a social documentary, giving a unique glimpse into the criminal culture that pervades some neighborhoods.
Finally, the show offers a striking study in contrasts of the mindset between the average program viewer, who tends to be law-abiding, and the typical thug caught on camera stealing a car.
It’s amazing how straight-faced the car thieves are, as one after another proffers ridiculous explanations of his innocent occupation of a stolen vehicle.
“Some white guy told me it was his,” a Hispanic man told police in one segment. “He told me to take it to some of his friends.”
“What’s going on?” another man benignly asked in another segment as he was ordered from the car. “I don’t know what’s going on, man!”
In another instance, the thief claimed a Good Samaritan streak.
“These two girls were fighting over the car,” he said after being handcuffed.
“So you took the car to keep them from fighting over it?” a police officer asked.
“Yeah, man,” the caught-red-handed crook nodded in agreement.
Watching criminals cry, “I didn’t do it,” is hardly anything new, however amusing it may be. A far more intriguing element of “Bait Car” is the video capturing the criminals’ action and dialogue before they realize they’re caught.
Outside cameras are rolling as potential thieves mill around the bait car, which is always placed in areas with high auto theft rates. It rarely takes long before someone seizes the moment—and the car.
Once inside, there’s an almost universal reaction of pleasure and excitement by the thieves. Even when one is acting alone, his demeanor is one of smug satisfaction once the car’s rolling. If there’s a group, it’s a party.
To those who like to pretend that criminals are people just like you and me except that they’ve been given more bad breaks from life, “Bait Car” offers some heaping helpings of humble pie. It’s more than a little troubling to watch live, uncut performances of bad guys who are reveling in their disrespect for property, the law and the rights of others.
Up until they see cops closing in, there’s never a shred of remorse; they’re having the time of their lives committing their crimes. And when remorse, or something parading as it, finally does arrive, it’s accompanied by an abominable ability to disconnect from any and all truth.
It’s one thing to watch villains in the movies or TV shows and cringe over scripted lies that seem too heartless to be real. Watching real, live people behave so diabolically, and yet be so comfortable in their duplicity, is a little harder to take.
There is something totally different, or something completely missing, about a person who has successfully detached himself from all notions of criminal right and wrong. A mindset that enables the exuberant commission of a crime and a clean-conscience denial is anathema to self-government. In sufficient numbers, it destroys the fabric of democratic society.
With nearly a million cars stolen each year, the national rate for auto theft is 171 percent higher than it was when “Candid Camera” started its stellar run on TV in 1960. The rate in Arkansas is 4.5 times what it was then.
“Bait Car” won’t be running out of new material for many seasons to come.