Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

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The Cheap Thrills in Looking Forward to Misfortune

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An outdoor advertisement for the Investigation Discovery show "Fatal Encounters"

An outdoor advertisement for the Investigation Discovery show "Fatal Encounters"

It’s shows like “Fatal Encounters,” which premiered this month on Monday nights on Investigation Discovery, that give nonfiction filmmakers a bad name. The ever-lowering standards of reality TV keep plummeting, and “Fatal Encounters” is probably not the worst of them. But their new advertising campaign, which has posters plastered around New York City, caught my attention for its particularly unique style of brutality and ugliness.

“If I hadn’t opened that door I might be alive today” are the words that adorn the grim ad, which shows a scared woman behind an ajar door with a chain lock. What is this poster telling us to feel? A sincere empathy for that woman? Or a thrill, the sort of rubber-necking joy at watching just how someone died on the side of the road?

Imagine the genius creative behind the poster, who pitched the idea to his boss: “I promise you, every person who sees this image will be thinking, ‘Wow, I wonder how she got? I wonder if she did something stupid?’ And: ‘Gee, I’m glad it was her and not me!’”

They are selling the show as “true stories of decisions turned deadly.” I took it upon myself to watch last night’s episode so that I can have an informed response. Let me tell you, I took one for the team here. “Fatal Encounters” is the media-age version of digging up someone’s grave and gaping at the corpse.

The episode I watched tells of Mark Fisher, a college student from New Jersey, who, in 2003, went to Manhattan to party a little. He gets drunk, hangs out with a girl and ends up at a private party in Brooklyn, where he tangles with some thugs whom he doesn’t realize are thugs until it’s too late. They eventually shoot him in the back.

Using dramatic re-creations, which is to say, bad actors in bad lighting, the episode follows Fisher’s night as a countdown clock is displayed, showing how much time Fisher has left in his life. Fisher’s story is narrated by a woman with a solemn voice and through interviews with prosecutors and journalists.

We are repeatedly fed lines like, “He has no idea that the night will end in catastrophe,” and that he has “no sense of the peril he will face in five hours.” The narrator is mostly authoritative and sympathetic, but at one point she can’t help herself with a lightly veiled sneer. When Fisher takes a pill given to him by a stranger, she says, “Whatever the reason, he takes it.”

The pacing of the show is almost as painful as the premise. We are repeatedly told that an awful thing is going to happen before every commercial break, and then after each break, we are reminded of what an nice, innocent kid Fisher is. I almost threw my remote when a cute title card floated onto the bottom of the screen — Hey #ID addict! You know you’re guilty — as I watched this kid inch closer to death.

Sure, there may be something redeeming here. We might learn lessons about the folly of youth, or the incredible interlocking vicissitudes of life. And maybe TV doesn’t need to raise us up or teach us things. Some shows can be just about entertainment. But not at the expense of the victim of a violent crime.

The cheap aestheticization of Fisher’s death allows or, really, suggests that we not feel this person is a real person. Combine that with the teasing countdown, and you can’t help but actually look forward to seeing him killed. This is what the show wants us to feel — to look forward to his misfortune. And when he dies, the screen shows 00:00:00 left on the clock. I have to wonder if, for every episode, the producers reach out to the victims’ families and ask if they wouldn’t mind having their loved ones’ lives turned into a game show.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki