This unscripted reality show, on the A&E Television Network, has been commercially successful. It follows homicide investigators through their work, from, usually, their ride to the scene to the delivery of a fat packet of evidence and a suspect in custody. The episode ends, usually, with a look at the suspect’s face as he’s booked, while a screen crawl tells you of the disposition of his court case as of air time: he “is charged with capital murder” or he “was convicted of 2nd degree murder and sentenced to 25 years,” for example.
This show is not like other cop shows, which is why we’ve written it up before (10 Things about Murderers we Learned from “The First 48”, 7 April 2014): the murderers aren’t the improbable collection of CEOs and scientists and CIA officers that comprise the rogues’ gallery of scripted shows, but real murderers committing real crimes against real victims. They do these for real, not Hollywood, reasons: from sheer loss of temper, to prevent being named in another crime, to make sure a robbery victim can’t seek revenge, to seek revenge for a robbery (this last comes up surprisingly often).
Moreover, you know the show’s on target because it’s been taking flak from Black [Criminals’] Lives Matter and other pro-crime lobbies. The principal thing driving this appears to be the show’s detectives’ one error: in one of the 538 homicide investigations shown so far, the perp arrested at show’s end appears to have been cleared when another suspect was identified as the murderer, an unfortunate result that seems to be about par for the criminal justice course (0.2% false positive rate). That’s unfortunate (especially for the poor bastard who spent two years in the can for not being the guy that killed his two roommates) but it’s hard to see how a system designed and operated by humans could be much more reliable. It doesn’t justify the crime lobbies’ call for an end to the show.
Ironically, despite these groups’ loathing for the show, it’s one of the few shows that actually shows some sympathy to the perps and their families, even though a truly innocent victim is rare enough the detectives often express surprise when this turns out to be the case. The detectives frequently comment to the effect that the perp’s life is as lost, as doomed, as their victims’ are: the most frequent outcome of a murder one conviction is life in prison. Yet the human concern for both victims’ and perps’ families comes through again and again.
Acting and Production
There’s no “acting” in terms of Film Actors Guild members or formalized thespian conduct, although one gets the sense that the homicide bullpen in the show is a slightly desaturated version of the real thing. The sort of black humor and blunt judgment that real detectives apply somewhat callously when among their kin has no place here, so what you get is a real but constrained version of the homicide investigator.
In other words, you will see — very authentic — displays of sympathy for the victims, and even, sometimes, for the usually youthful, impulsive perpetrators, whose lives are almost as forfeit as the people they kill: a “good” outcome is a dozen or more years in prison on a manslaughter conviction. You won’t see anyone express the opinion that the victim had it coming, even in cases where the victim clearly engaged in behavior that was instrumental in his or her own death. “We’re the murder police, not the drug police,” is a mantra these cops often use to put witnesses, themselves often from a marginal underworld demimonde, at ease.
You will see lots of… to be brutally frank… worthless 16-, and 20-, and 25-year-olds, with dead eyes and devoid of human empathy, sharks’ souls in boy-men’s bodies. What you won’t see is the cops being brutally frank about them, as they are among their own kind.
Not every case is neatly closed in the 44 minutes of show that are available (most shows double up, cutting back and forth between two investigations in two different cities, so one crime often gets 22 minutes or less). Despite the title of the show, they sometimes show the high points of a case that takes weeks or months to solve. And some cases never close, and end with a plaintive request for information.
After you’ve watched a number of them, you learn to recognize the cadences, to predict what the narrator will say next and his exact timing and tone (“…a man lies in the road…” (three beats) “…dead”), and to make informed speculation about which phone calls were actually shot in real time and which ones are reenacted (a technique the producers admit using).
All the crimes are alike, in that The First 48 crews only embed with major metropolitan departments (rural and suburban murders are often very interesting, but they’re just too rare; one nearby New Hampshire town had its first-in-recorded history a couple of years ago). And all the crimes are different, in that different individual lives have been ended. Some of the criminals are cold-blooded and calculating, but more are impulsive and foolhardy.
Accuracy and Weapons
The show has been criticized, as we’ve said, by criminal lobbies, but it’s hard to get worked up about that. Most non-criminals welcome that as a feature, not a bug.
Unlike scripted-show “cops,” these cops do their work without gunplay. We’re always a little surprised when one draws his or her firearm during a warrant service (many of the criminals are picked up by well-armed and -organized fugitive task forces, and it’s rare for one to resist, when the cops come to the building where he is). Even chases are rare, about as rare as the case where the perp’s lawyer brings him right into the building.
The guns of the criminals are interesting, and it might be interesting to do a statistical breakdown on them. They are most often service-caliber handguns, often a mid-priced Glock, Ruger or Taurus and sometimes a cheap Hi-Point or Jennings, etc. It’s never been something on the curio or relic list, in the hundred-plus shows we’ve watched. Occasionally a long gun is used: an AK is the most common long gun, followed by AR, followed by shotgun.
True to the crime stats, most of the murders are gun murders, although a significant minority involve an edged weapon or tool, or a blunt instrument. We have not watched all 316 plus episodes and the 538 or so homicide investigations that they represent, yet, but have yet to see a case in which they bothered to trace the gun, or where the source of the perp’s gun mattered. In a good nine out of ten cases, the perp was a prohibited person from prior criminal activity (and in a good zero point nine of the remaining one of ten, he would have been a prohibited person due to drug use). They did, however, use toolmark ballistics in occasional cases.
The bottom line
The First 48 is a rare, if depressing, look at what murder really is in America in the 21st Century: a phenomenon of underclass impulsivity, narcissism, and greed. It shows its impact on real people and shows the frontline combatants against it, as real people. Just as the criminals are not Hollywood criminal mastermind characters, the detectives are not Hollywood detectives: bundle-of-neuroses, physically beautiful actors faking being cops. They’re real people doing real cop work, over the years in Detroit and Miami and Tulsa and New Orleans:.
This is the show to watch if you want to see the real coal face of crimefighting in America. You are, however, cautioned to control any desire or tendency to binge watch this one. It can’t be good for your soul to expose yourself to too many of those dead-eyed criminals, and we wonder sometimes how the cops hold it all together.
For more information
These sites relate to this particular film.
- Amazon.com DVD (a DVD was made with 7 investigations from the first two seasons. It is the only DVD available):
Amazon does have some episodes for streaming, but at $2 a pop in the USA:
(But wait, see below).
- The First 48 Home Page at A&E
United States cable-TV viewers can watch episodes here for free. Of course, we couldn’t get it to work (we’ve been watching back numbers on A&E).
- IMDB page:
- IMFDB page (n/a):
- Rotten Tomatoes review page (No Score):
- Wikipedia page:
- History vs. Hollywood Page. (n/a).