Forced to Watch "Muurrrdeeerrrrr"

City Confidential's pulpy narration makes it the guiltiest pleasure on crime-soaked TV.

By Steve Burgess 17 Dec 2003 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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The Tyee.ca

It wasn't until Episode 100 that the star of the show finally appeared.

Faithful viewers of City Confidential, the true crime series that airs Monday nights on A&E, know the formula by heart. The program opens with a shot of a quiet town square, or small-town water tower, or perhaps an upscale shopping district in a wealthy suburb.

Then a deep, rich, familiar voice intones the name of this week's location--Tyson, Texas; Wilmington, North Carolina; Miami Beach, Florida. Each location will be described by that warm, slightly seedy baritone in terms that usually fall into one of two categories. Either it will be a quiet little town, a peaceful rural community, a prosperous burgh with old-fashioned values and a small-town feel; or it will be a rich enclave, a wealthy retreat, a snooty, sheltered playground for the rich and powerful. But all of the chosen locales seem to have one thing in common--the smug, happy residents, we are told, had no idea that their tranquil lives would soon be shattered by murder. Or as narrator Paul Winfield pronounces it--"muurrrdeeerrrrr." That's City Confidential.

Episode 100--a suitably American Gothic story of drunken husbands, gun-toting wives, and a sex-crazed Southern sheriff in Archer City, Texas--aired recently with a difference. Instead of the standard establishing shot of Sleepytown USA, the program opened in a recording studio. Sitting at the microphone, celebrating the landmark centenary edition, was Winfield himself, making his first actual appearance. It was entirely fitting. Not since Rhoda's doorman has a voice been such a presence on a TV show.

Over the top with glee

City Confidential is in many ways fairly typical of modern cable TV offerings. With its dependence on generic street scene footage and camera scans of still photos and news headlines, it is only a half-step up from the cheap "mill" shows cable networks depend on (so named because they are cranked out mechanically). A&E (short for Arts & Entertainment) mines the same true-crime turf for a lot of its prime time schedule. American Justice, Cold Case Files, and City Confidential make one wonder just what sort of entertainment that "E" stands for. Cold Case Files has ventured onto Canadian turf before, recounting the tragic 1986 murder of Toronto teen Alison Parrott, and just last night, they had a go at the 1991 murder of Dan Schraeder in Vernon, BC.

So far, City Confidential's closest brush with our neighbourhood was a show that focused on Spokane, Washington. (Should they ever decide to cross the border the Colin Thatcher case, centering on Regina and Moose Jaw, would seem ideal.)

Unlike most others of its type, City Confidential does not attempt to cover its voyeurism with a grave-sounding mask. There is little pious concern for the victims on display here. Thanks to Winfield's Vincent Price-like delivery, City Confidential seems almost unabashedly gleeful about the horrible crimes it recounts. The writing is purposely over the top, aping the style of cheap detective fiction: "Soon the rumours were being passed around like Aunt Bea's covered casserole at a church picnic…" "But like a debutante with a drinking problem, there was plenty of dirt behind the pristine exterior…" After watching a few installments most viewers will be able to sing along with Winfield, even if they're seeing the episode for the first time: "But the complacent inhabitants of the quiet little town would soon have their peaceful bubbles burst… by muuurrrdeeerrrr. City Confidential will return in a moment."

Winfield is a large part of City Confidential's success. Even the fact that his lugubrious delivery is at times slightly slurred contributes to the overall effect--you get the impression that even he can't quite get a grip on the purple prose that's been handed to him.

Working the schmuck factor

But City Confidential also thrives on its inspired marriage of crime and place. The "Thank-God-it-wasn't-me" appeal that true crime shows hold is amplified here by City Confidential's persistent theme--i.e., these poor schmucks never saw it coming. Thought they were so safe, hiding away in their gated community/fancy suburb/small town/farming community, smug and aloof, seemingly immune from the perils of modern life. Well, stick around after the commercials because they're about to get their comeuppance.

It's a popular theme in today's television market, exploited by low-rent offerings like You Gotta See This! (Sportsnet) and What Were They Thinking? (TLC), both reliant on home and news video of other people's misfortune.

Discovery Channel's Disaster Detectives follows people whose jobs revolve around tragedy. The show will occasionally pursue its morbid agenda into territory that is downright surreal--one episode followed an intrepid small businessman who rushes to the scene of grisly murders, offering expert cleanup of blood and remains. After watching him mop up the aftermath of a convenience store hold-up and manage the disposal of a week-old corpse and the mattress it was found on, viewers were encouraged to feel his pain as he sighed about the lack of business.

Compared to that kind of stuff, City Confidential comes off as downright innocent. But that innocence will soon be shattered by….

You tell 'em, Paul.

Forced to Watch is a new occasional column at The Tyee about what's good and not on television, and widely published writer Steve Burgess is hogging the control.  [Tyee]

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