Crimesploitation: Crime, Punishment, and Pleasure on Reality Television

Author: Daniel LaChance & Paul Kaplan
Publisher: Stanford University Press, 2022. 180 pages.
Reviewer: Andrew Baranauskas | December 2022

A hallmark of modern popular media is a focus on reality. From television programs to podcasts, content producers promise media audiences glimspes into worlds that they would not otherwise experience directly. In Crimesploitation: Crime, Punishment, and Pleasure on Reality Television, Paul Kaplan and Daniel LaChance offer a critical examination of reality-based crime programming, from the emergence of Cops in the 1980s to more recent examinations of the criminal justice system in podcasts like Serial and docu-series like Making a Murderer.

In dubbing these programs “crimesploitation,” Kaplan and LaChance connect “true crime” media with “exploitation” media that “satisfy the voyeuristic desire to witness the violation of taboos” (p. 2). They argue that crimesploitation exploits some of the most vulnerable members of society for our entertainment. In doing so, it reinforces images of cops and criminals, that reject structural explanations for crime and align with neoliberal notions of crime as a personal choice, and a necessity for “law and order” policies to combat crime.

In four chapters, Kaplan and LaChance offer numerous examples of this process. Crimesploitation shows like Cops and America’s Most Wanted place viewers in the seat of law enforcement figures combating evil predators and delinquents. They highlight the importance of tough, authoritative responses to crime in maintaining order in society. Shows like Lockup that offer more of the offender’s viewpoint continue to cast offenders as violent predators, but also offer sympathetic glimpses into offenders’ personal lives. These shows offer an optimistic view of offenders – that they often take responsibility for their actions and commit to changing their ways. This narrative also plays into the authors’ central thesis, as these shows place an emphasis on personal change inspired by the harsh realities of the prison environment as the pathway to rehabilitation.

Even recent “middle-brow” examples of crimesploitation that cast a critical light on the criminal justice system play into the neoliberal mindset. While programs like Making a Murderer and Serial often explore the role of police and prosecutors in potential cases of wrongful conviction, they continue to maintain a focus on individualistic solutions to the crime problem. In Making a Murderer, it is heroic defense attorneys that are the solution to a “bad apple” prosecutor. This simplistic narrative ignores actual systemic realities, such as a lack of effective defense for indigent defendants and widespread abuses of prosecutorial discretion.

Kaplan and LaChance show that crimesploitation programs help to maintain the status quo of the neoliberal carceral state. Crimesploitation’s focus on individual pathology as a cause of crime and “law and order” as the solution to crime steers viewers away from important structural causes of crime and the need for reform in the criminal justice system and society-at-large. They do so while exploiting people in their worst moments, showing a “reality” of crime that carefully avoids being too real.

Andrew J. Baranauskas is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at SUNY Brockport.

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