"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 15 December 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Awesome Disclosures


Hypocrisy, not sodomy, is the sin that dare not speak its name these days. That much is plain from even a few minutes of the Arts and Entertainment Channel's genre-busting true-crime series City Confidential. Killers for hire, corrupt mayors, abusive circus freaks, wife-pimping husbands: The parade of depravity goes on and on, but the most pointed words from the show's worldly, knowing narrator are always reserved for the whitened sepulchers hiding these crimes: "The blue and white ranch house reeked of suburban perfection — but inside it was anything but."

Ah, that's the stuff! Suburban facades broken asunder by domestic violence. Gated communities blown wide open to reveal the evil within. The seedy inner workings of corrupt resort towns, and the hidden depravities of bible-belt Babbitts. Such is the raw material of City Confidential, and the dark, sweet liquor that it makes of these evils slakes our thirsts every Monday night. City Confidential actually has a strong lineage. The show's roots can be traced to such disparate sources as the "Confidential" books of Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, or more recent vintage E! True Hollywood Story knockoffs. "We took a look at the usual shows in this genre and said let's turn it up a notch," says Geoff Proud, the show's executive producer. "They always have this preachy tone, so let's just take it further." Thus, City Confidential's great strength is in the way it distills a particular genre down to its essential nature.

The genre is hypocrisy disclosed, and the moral potently reassuring. There are none righteous, not one. Dragging everybody in sight down to our own level is a national pastime in most countries. Americans just do it better than anybody else (well, almost anybody). City Confidential is an example of how the great American Media Mind, at its very best, can mythologize us at our worst, and make us feel much better for the telling.

Each episode starts the same way. Narrator Paul Winfield, his voice rich with a world-weary, barely-restrained, sinister cynicism, gives the name of the city in question: "Fort Lauderdale." "Greenwood, Mississippi." "SoHo." A glossy description of the city at its best follows, delivered by Winfield in a voice so heavy with archness and contempt that you can almost see the quotation marks hovering around the phrases, and, ahead in the distance, the "but" coming a mile away. "A tropical city on the edge of a continent. Beaches and palm trees, canals, and yachts...."

To its great credit, City Confidential takes its time delivering the Real Truth. After the commercial break, Winfield will begin again from scratch. "Fort Lauderdale: It's called the Venice of Florida for its canals. But locals have a simpler name for it: paradise ... And if your tastes run to sand, blue waters, swaying palm trees, and relentless sunshine, the name seems to fit." And on and on. "It's a city of well-to-do retirees, college students and condominium commandos ... where Orlando has motels and minivans, Fort Lauderdale has mansions and yachts... It's a peaceful place, where the early bird special at Denny's is a night out on the town..." By the time Winfield gets to the goods, we are irritable with all this booster posturing. Who do these people think they are? What's the real truth behind this city?

"It is at its heart a crime show," says Proud. "But there's no crime in it until halfway through. For the first half it's a travel show, so ... we have Paul Winfield, and this horror movie music, and you know something bad's coming ... We love that contrast between his voice and that music and what he's actually saying — that tension."

When the tension breaks, the show's real message comes through: In a nation that boasts countless avenues of self-expression, it's our depravity that truly unites us. The most notorious crimes in the cities' histories are lovingly reconstructed, often with the onscreen help of the participants. And City Confidential lets pass no opportunity to underscore the crimes in the most apocalyptic terms possible: "The swampy city that spring break built was headed for trouble. Two sides were shaping up, and they were ready to go to war for the soul of paradise."

Better still, from a viewer's point of view, is the positive glee City Confidential takes in the unmasking of the city's vices. Hypocrisy has been a mother vein of exploitation literature for most of American history, from the prurient 19th century anti-Catholic exposé Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk to such post World War II suburban sexcapades as Peyton Place, The Stepford Wives, and (late in the day) 1999's American Beauty. City Confidential revels in the nastiness of its subjects.

Take "sideshow superstar Grady Stiles, a.k.a. Lobster Boy." He seems to be a loving family man, sure, but City Confidential knows better, and doesn't let a chance go by to underline Stiles's real nature (or to make a point of ironically referring to him as "Lobster Boy"). When the deformed man's second wife performs in a carnival, we are told, "two of the hands clapping...were claws!" Later we are told that these claws could give painful pinches to people Lobster Boy didn't like, and were often used to choke family members during murderous drunken rages. "Lobster Boy's sometimes twisted sense of humor had a dark side, an iron claw in the velvet mitten."

But of course, since Lobster Boy pretended to be "a good lobster father," our disgust and loathing are perfectly justified. Hating the deformed was never done in such good conscience, and we have hypocrisy to thank. Woe to you, hypocrites! The all-seeing, burning eye of City Confidential, sitting atop the truncated pyramid of years of similar exposés, sees through all your pretenses. And we as the audience don't need to feel as if our own secret sins, our unwholesome domestic arrangements, our vaguely embarrassing public personas are that bad. If someone somewhere does seem to be doing better, chances are that they are strangling their six-year old beauty queen daughter in some kind of twisted sex game. Or something.

The beauty of City Confidential isn't in this crude insight, but in the swanky, filmic richness of its treatment. It's not enough just to paint Homo Americanus in the blackest possible colors. Such Gay Nineties decadents as Neil Labute, Todd Solondz and James Ellroy have done that already. City Confidential redeems that highly-pleasing spreading of blame with a patina of authentic romance. City Confidential isn't about Anytown, USA; it's about specific places with specific identities, which each episode takes loving, lingering care to paint. It then demolishes those identities, peeling back the lies to reveal the shocking truth. But not before giving us a sense of place as luxurious as any Shangri-La, a sense that isn't diminished by Winfield's awful disclosures. In its ironic celebration of distinctive local identity, City Confidential is a bold holdout against the reign of the ersatz, the dominion of chainstore sameness. "We started out with big, infamous places like New Orleans," says Proud, "but it's the smaller, more innocent towns that went better with this show — towns that have a really unique character."

In the daily life of real places, after all, the epistemology of sin is pedestrian, squalid, and inconclusive. You know about bad stuff, but since so few people construct elaborate pretenses either for themselves or their communities, you don't really learn anything new when you find out about it. But if sin can be made to mean something; if the increasingly identical noplaces of America become someplaces, suffused with wickedness, scandal, and historical substance; if poetic engines like City Confidential can transmute the base and mundane metal of our unconsecrated daily life; well, we're all a little bit better off. City Confidential builds us something to knock down, and if each town is a straw man, at least it's crucified for our sins.


courtesy of The Boob


pictures Terry Colon

The Boob