Wednesday, April 29, 2015


After being hyped throughout the day like the new Apple watch, the first episode of CNN's limited-run reality series, Baltimore Police Enforcing Curfew, proved to be something of a disappointment. The expected clash between law enforcement officials and protesters, breathlessly promised by network personalities including Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper, never panned out.

Hosted by Don Lemon of foot-in-mouth fame, Baltimore Police Enforcing Curfew had all the ingredients to make for riveting television. The still-unexplained death of a man in police custody; local citizens standing uneasily between protesters and state police ready for battle; the constant whir of helicopter blades overhead. And all played against the backdrop of a neighborhood destroyed by what President Obama controversially labeled "criminals and thugs." And yet five minutes of HBO's legendary Baltimore-centric series, The Wire, had more drama than the first hour caught by your reviewer.

It didn't help, either, that many of the players wore masks over their faces, thus preventing anybody from literally standing out from the crowd. Another misfire was
whipping back and forth from crystal clear HDTV to what appeared to be footage shot with somebody's cellphone, then back again. Perhaps this was the network's plunge into the "found footage" craze pioneered by The Blair Witch Project. If so, it was a singularly poor choice. For every genuinely thrilling cinéma vérité moment -- I'm thinking of the Apocalypse Now-inspired overhead shots of helicopters hovering ominously above the crowds -- there was a blurry, pixelated shot that could have been taken by your grandchild after sneaking out of the house after dark. Technical quality on a level like that hasn't existed since the days of mechanical television in the 1920s.

Mr. Lemon's commentary tried juicing up Baltimore Police Enforcing Curfew, but to no avail. One yearned for his colleague Miguel Marquez, who, only the day before, provided a genuine "you are there" feeling to his coverage of the looting that set off the curfew. Try as he might, nothing Mr. Lemon said could match Mr. Marquez's "Holy hell, Wolf!" elucidation to Mr. Blitzer (safely back at the studio) when faced with teargas, criminal mischief and sliced firehoses. This is indeed a star in the making.

It's not all Mr. Lemon's fault, of course; there was very little of interest to report. It took a good 15 minutes before the police, looking like something from Star Wars, moved from their positions, only to be greeted by rocks and bottles. Another five minutes passed before the first welcome sign of real action, as police fired what appeared to be teargas at the more violent protesters. 

Unfortunately, it proved to be what is referred to in constabulary parlance as "flash-bangs." These devices are similar to sparklers waved at suburban barbecues on the 4th of July, only in the shape of hand-grenades and much smokier -- but nothing that a bottle of Visine couldn't take of. Sad to say, there was more drama on the bottom-of-the-screen news-ticker reporting on a case of potato salad-induced botulism in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

The most telling sign of Baltimore Police Enforcing Curfew's visceral failure, however, could be found by comparing it to ABC's pioneering The Democratic Convention Riots, and still the gold standard of reality entertainment. There we saw out-of-control police billy-clubbing their way through hordes of nascent "hippies" and "yippies" who were led by charismatic figures including Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden and Jerry Rubin. Perhaps because there had been nothing like it before, The Democratic Convention Riots has lingered in the minds of those who watched it during its original run. 

Even the slogans shouted during the two series stand in stark difference. The participants in The Democratic Convention Riots defiantly cried, "The whole world is watching!" to the seemingly-obtuse policemen. All we could hear from the self-designated peacekeepers in Baltimore Police Enforcing Curfew was a tepid, "Go home" to the loiterers itching for a confrontation. Alas, the advice was taken.


Baltimore Police Enforcing Curfew's remaining episodes are scheduled to air on CNN  tonight through Friday at 10:00 EDT.


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