"You want the truth? You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!"
That's the contemptuous challenge issued by Jack Nicholson as the Marine commandant in "A Few Good Men," but it could as well be from the creators of "Confessions," a new Court TV series that features videotape of real-life convicted killers confessing to horrible murders.
In a season of staged "reality" programs like "Survivor," "Confessions" is TV's way of seeing just how much reality we in the viewing audience can really handle.
"This is the larger cultural question: What do you do with this dark side of the American soul? Do you bury it? Do you put it in a closet? Or do you bring it out into the light?" Richard Kroehling, the co-creator of "Confessions" said in telephone interview last week.
"Look, this is difficult material. And we wrestled with it to make it deliverable in a tasteful way. But what do you do with dark material? Do you hide it and say it doesn't happen? No, I think it comes back and gets you [if you hide it]. You have to bring out the difficult things, put them in the light, so that the culture can deal with this American darkness," he added.
While Kroehling's general sentiment about dealing openly with America's darker recesses is a relatively easy one with which to agree, I suspect there is going to be considerable disagreement with his claim that he and co-producer Eric Nadler delivered the confessions featured in tonight's premiere episode in a "tasteful way."
What viewers who tune in to Court TV at 10 tonight will see and hear are three confessions from the videotape files of Robert M. Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney. Kroehling said the idea for "Confessions" was born when Morgenthau told him and Nadler of the existence of the videotapes during a meeting between the district attorney and the TV producers to see if they could do some business together.
The first confession involves Steven Smith, who was convicted of the murder and rape of a female doctor at Bellevue Hospital in 1989. He confesses only to the murder and to taking jewelry off the victim's hand after he garroted her. He says a man named John committed the rape.
What's chilling here is not only the description of the murder, but also Smith's belligerence, aggression and rage toward his questioner during the interview. Smith is wearing a black leather-and-knit jacket and a red hood pulled low over his eyes. He is a nightmare vision of an urban underclass that plays to some of the worst prejudices in mainstream America.
The second segment is scarier yet. It features Daniel Rakowitz confessing to killing his girlfriend and then cooking parts of her body in 1989. Rakowitz - with his long, stringy hair, beard and spaced-out rap - is almost a cartoon version of the pothead gone psycho until he pulls a copy of "Mein Kampf" out of a plastic bag, holds a picture of Hitler up next to his face and then starts laying out the grisly details of "the horribleness of which [sic] I did to her." Norman Bates sitting in the room looking at a fly is a Boy Scout compared with this guy.
And, last but not least, we have a male hustler in a suede baseball cap, David Garcia, explaining how he killed one of his clients, a one-legged wheelchair-bound man, in Greenwich Village after the man performed oral sex on him.
That's entertainment, television-style, as Reality Summer turns to Even-More-Reality Fall.
"Confessions" is a show that's easy to denounce, and some critics have done so in the strongest language. " 'Confessions' makes me retch," wrote Newsday's Marvin Kitman.
I understand that kind of response, but I also believe tonight's premiere of "Confessions" is an important moment in this television year; it's a show that adult viewers who are serious about understanding the medium and honest about their own voyeuristic impulses ought to witness for themselves. Beyond serving as a litmus test of taste, "Confessions" is a stark example of several patterns and developments in U.S. popular culture that we need to be thinking about.
First, while "Confessions" is undeniably real, it is reality cut and packaged to fit a make-believe model from the world of fictional TV drama. In this case, the model is the NBC cop drama, "Homicide: Life on the Street," which Court TV airs in reruns. Many of the best episodes of "Homicide" climaxed with a killer sitting with Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) or one of the other Baltimore homicide cops in the room known as "The Box" confessing to the "horribleness" that he or she did.
Both Kroehling and Art Bell, the head of programming at Court TV, acknowledged that they made "Confessions" in the image of those heightened cop-drama moments.
"What we tried to do is construct a simple, almost subtractive, almost austere form that would allow the viewer to enter the so-called 'Box' of 'Homicide,' where the classic cat-and-mouse games go on between the detective, the DA and the suspect," Kroehling said.
Shaping the raw material of reality to fit a fictional model is also what ABC News did with "Hopkins 24/7," where it edited 900 hours of videotape down to six, and each of the six played like an episode of "ER."
What we have to remember with such shows is that this is not reality; this is reality warped to fit the entertainment demands of prime-time TV. Understanding the difference between social reality and TV reality is especially relevant in when it comes to "Confessions," which throws viewers instantly into the moment of most intimate confession without any narration, explanation or context for what they are seeing. Viewers are left to form their own opinions after their emotions have been jacked sky high by what they just saw.
In the case of tonight's 30-minute segment, you have an African-American madman, a psychotic druggie and a Latino hustler as the bad guys. Presented without context, there is a real danger that some viewers will see all people who look like these three as dangerous or evil.
Another pattern typified by "Confessions" is all the attention it has already generated for Court TV in the form of pieces like this one. In the world of seemingly endless channels that we now inhabit, all the advance press for "Confessions" once again demonstrates to other programmers that one sure way to cut through the pop culture clutter is to push the boundaries of taste. Witness what "South Park" did for Comedy Central.
"As these arguments about 'Confessions' come up in the press, it's gratifying," Bell said in an interview last week. "The whole idea that 'Confessions' is going to put Court TV on the map for a lot of people is to me an important and worthy outcome."
A logical extreme
I don't like the calculated, non-contextualized way Court TV is presenting "Confessions." And I have real concerns about survivors of the victims of these killers having to relive the horror through the show. But let's not be hypocrites. Whether it's Jimmy Carter confessing in the pages of Playboy that he had "lust in his heart" or Perry and Dick, the killers of "In Cold Blood," telling Truman Capote how and why they butchered the Clutter family, confession is a form of speech that fascinates many of us as theater, deception, truth, performance, attempted absolution or all of the above.
And, if "Big Brother" can be on the air offering a public platform for someone like Will Mega to talk his anti-Semitic talk, "Confessions" can be, too. It's part of the same current.
"Everything changed last summer with 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire,' " said Robert J. Thompson, professor and founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "By February, there's 'Who Wants to Marry a [Multi-]Millionaire?' and then 'Survivor' and 'Big Brother' this summer.
"So, as we now go into fall, television cranks it up yet another notch, and we get real-life confessions of murderers and rapists Sunday nights on Court TV. It's America's creepiest home videos."
When: Tonight 10 to 10:30 p.m. (A half-hour discussion of the show follows at 10:30)
Where: Court TV
In Brief: TV's way of saying, "Reality this, America."