Shot in the Dark review: pure, undiluted rubbernecking – feeding on human misery

A documentary crew follows three Los Angeles stringers as they race each other to the scene of heartstopping tragedies – but there is no attempt to justify the content

What is it? Nightcrawler, the documentary or Alan Partridge’s Crash Bang Wallop: What a Video gone stateside.

Why you’ll love it: there are true-crime shows that hide their prurience under a classical soundtrack, arty camerawork or a Scandi-noir aesthetic. But Shot in the Dark is pure, undiluted rubbernecking with barely an attempt at justifying the content. Look at this crash. Look at this fire. Look at this crashed car that then goes on fire. Drag your knuckles this way because have we got a show for you.

A documentary crew follows three Los Angeles stringers, journalists who listen to the emergency wavelength at night and then race each other to the scene of newsworthy tragedies. Their footage can be sold for top dollar to news networks that fill their airtime with fiery spectacle and pixelated corpses on gurneys, wheeled into the back of the ambulances they so love to chase.

Howard Raishbrook and his two brothers run RMG News and divide LA up between them, cameras always ready to zoom in on an almost dead man being cut from his vehicle or a half-naked drive-by victim receiving CPR at the roadside.

Their chief competitors are Scott Lane, the embittered loner who hates every other stringer in town, and cocky young Zak Holman, who took over Scott’s business from him and expanded it rapidly in order to crush him.

The documentary cameras piggyback on the stringers who piggyback on the emergency services, like lice on fleas on dogs. While the impulse to make a film about such people is understandable, the thigh-rubbing delight of the programme-makers here is not. Very occasional attempts are made to talk about the moral implications of profiting from prying on others’ suffering. But it just gets in the way of the flames getting higher or the newly widowed woman howling into the chest of her friend. They only stop filming when they’ve got enough to sell the story.

Instead of trying to understand the psychology of a person who wants to spend their nights waiting to feed on human misery, the lens is too busy pointing at the flaming wreckage or the pool of blood. Their pumping adrenalin is underscored by beat-heavy music as the last plasma drains from the head-wound of the person they’re hoping to see zipped into a body bag.

“I almost watched some people die,” says Scott as he puts his camera away shakily after sitting on the hard shoulder of the freeway, filming a broken-down car he was fairly sure would be hit by speeding traffic. He leaves empty-handed this time as the highway patrol arrives. But in episode one, Howard’s brother Austin does exactly this and is rewarded with the full impact/inferno. His resulting post-traumatic stress and decision to take a break from ambulance-chasing is just a side-note; one short scene in a diner between the brothers before we’re back to the thrills.

The city at night looks cinematically cool, often depicted as an aerial-style graphic pointing out the positions of the stringers and their proximity to the bus fire or hit-and-run they’re all breaking their necks to get to. Every visual decision makes sense, but morally this production stays in the toilet throughout.

“I hope they add more episodes soon. I’m addicted to this show,” says one over-excited IMDb reviewer. That’s the true crime genre in a soundbite. But change “episodes” for “dead bodies” and “show” for “seeing other people die in flames”. Everything that’s wrong with everything.

Where: Netflix.

Length: Eight episodes available now.

Stand-out episode: I managed four and a half episodes and I don’t recommend any of them.

If you liked Shot in the Dark watch: Nightcrawler (iTunes, Google Play, Amazon), Louis Theroux: LA Stories (Netflix)., which is a much better take on the city’s problems.


Julia Raeside

The GuardianTramp

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