TV.com Q&A: Jail, COPS creators

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"Bad boys, bad boys, what you gonna do?"

Those were the lyrics of the song that had criminals looking over their shoulders each time it played, and the theme song for the seminal law-enforcement/reality show COPS. The program began in 1989 and is considered by many to be the quintessential reality show, following policemen as they pursued and apprehended bad guys, responded to 911 calls, and tussled with unsavory characters.

COPS also showed a lighter side to the profession as well, humanizing the police force and criminals alike. It was also one of Fox's early experiments and paved the way for the network to take chances on other daring programs.

The show's creator, John Langley, has been called the "father of reality TV," for better or worse. He's back, and together with his brother Morgan, he's producing a new show called Jail, which is essentially the same style as COPS and documents what happens immediately after people are taken into the police station.

The two Langley brothers spoke with TV.com about the show, which debuts on MyNetworkTV this Tuesday.

TV.com: Why don't you start off by telling us how you describe Jail.

Morgan Langley: It's a half-hour verité show on MyNetworkTV. It's premiering on September 4th, and we like to say "After arrest and before trial comes Jail." There have been a lot of shows about prison. Usually they're documentary shows with a narrator. This is completely different from that--this is like COPS. It's shot in-the-moment in a verité style so that the stories actually unfold right before your eyes and, you feel like you're right there in the jail with these people. There are no narrators, no reenactments, no recreations, nothing like that. It's very--

John Langley: --raw, real.

Morgan Langley: It's also a nice counterpart to COPS. People ask us what happens to these guys on COPS; well, after COPS comes Jail. So it's shot in the same style, and I think if you liked COPS, then you'll probably like Jail as well.

TV.com: Correct me if I'm wrong, is it sort of a rebranding of Inside the American Jail?

John Langley: No, Inside the American Jail is for CourtTV, that's where it originated. This is a second window--Jail is the second window. It's not rebranded, it's just altered. It's the same show with different packaging. That's the way to look at it.

In other words, Jail has a hip-hop theme with little [drama]. It's just a little more urban and a little more gritty and a little more suited for the MNTV audience, we think, whereas Inside the American Jail is more suited for the CourtTV audience. It's the packaging.

TV.com: What makes MyNetworkTV a good place for Jail?

Morgan Langley: It's a new network. It's a chance to get involved and it's a network that reaches 97 percent of the country, and to get in on a ground level [is] just a great opportunity. Hopefully we can be a part of the success of the network. And the network is going to succeed eventually... It's just a matter of time.

John Langley: Remember, COPS started on Fox when it was a fledgling network. So we have a history of this kind of thing. Hopefully Jail will do for MyNetworkTV what COPS did for Fox back in the day.

TV.com: You're saying Jail is kind of a "what happens after COPS" show. Is there any chance that you could do a third show in the continuum?

John Langley: Yeah, we might do that. We may go to court afterwards. Or we may go to the justice system. You know, defense attorneys and prosecuting attorneys.

Morgan Langley: We are actually looking at some possibilities in that arena.

John Langley: I mean, hey, the crime space--we like to think--is our space.

TV.com: You bet. How do the police respond to your shows? You must get a lot of comments from them.

Morgan Langley: Oh, yeah. I think the corrections officers with Jail are really excited about the show, and we've got really a lot of positive feedback from them because I think this is the first time that audiences have really been able to see the reality of the job that these guys have to deal with. It really is a tough job, and not everybody could do it.

A lot of comments we get from people who have seen the show say things like, "Wow, I didn't know that these guys were so professional. I didn't know that they were such nice people," et cetera, et cetera. I think there's a stereotype in the popular media about the sort of corrupt people who work in prisons and jails, and the reality of it is far different. So I think the corrections officers are happy with the show.

John Langley: And people are also surprised at what they have to put up with and deal with on a daily basis in jail. Remember, you get everybody from the hardcore murderers, to violent offenders, to drunks, to people that are there simply for traffic tickets, to victims and perpetrators of domestic abuses. You get all types...people busted for having a bag of pot. I mean, the gamut is all across the spectrum of American society, rich folks, poor folks, smart folks, dumb folks, you get them all.

TV.com: You guys shoot all over the country. That's one of the great things about your work, because it's kind of a slice of every part of America. Are there any states or areas of the country that you prefer to shoot in, or that you can get better product out of?

John Langley: We like to shoot where it's warm because you get more crime, and that's just a fact of life. In other words, if you're in snowstorms, people don't go out and commit crimes, and law enforcement doesn't enforce the law because nobody is violating the law.

Everybody is just trying to keep warm. If it's nice and hot and sultry and all that, more things happen. And if you look at the country, the warmer weather states, we tend to shoot more in, like Florida, California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and those kinds of states rather than North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota--the northern states--we shoot a little less unless we shoot there in the summer.

TV.com: John, do you have any problem with being dubbed one of the father figures of reality TV?

John Langley: [Laughs.] Well, somebody once asked me and said, "You know, you're the father of reality TV." And I said, "Look, if I'm the father of reality TV, I refuse to accept [and] take blame for all the bastards who followed." [Laughs.]

TV.com: That brings me to my next question. What do you think of today's reality shows? Reality TV today is mostly American Idol and America's Got Talent, that kind of stuff.

John Langley: You know, I think there are some good ones and there are some bad ones. I think that for me personally, game-based reality shows don't ring my bells as much as other types of shows. I think existential TV. I like shows about real people, real life, unrehearsed, unprovoked, and not managed.

That's my bias, though. That doesn't mean that I don't think any of these shows aren't good. I mean, American Idol is a phenomenon as a television show. Survivor was a phenomenon as a television show. These are more breakthrough shows. I like the breakthrough shows. I think COPS was a breakthrough show. But you know, my bias is to do more existential TV, not game-based reality TV.

TV.com: I know you probably have tons of stories, but what's the craziest or funniest thing that you've seen happen on one of your shows?

John Langley: Oh God, we get a lot of bizarre stuff. Do you have one for Jail, Morgan? I have one for COPS for you that's easy.

Morgan Langley: My favorite COPS moment was where the woman called the cops and the cop arrives on the scene and she says, "Oh, yeah, you know, this woman over here took my money." And the cop says, "What do you mean she took your money?" "Well, okay, I went and bought some crack from her and the crack turned out to be bogus. It turned out to be bunk." And the cop says, "So what do you want me to do?" The woman says, "Well, I'd like you to go get my money back." And the cop is like, "Let me get this straight. You want me to go to the drug dealer who burned you and get your money back for you?" And the woman is like, "Yeah." So the cop finally knocks on the door of the supposed drug dealer. The woman comes out and he says, "Did you burn the other woman for twenty bucks?" And this lady says, "No. I'm not a drug dealer. I'm a prostitute." [Laughs.]

John Langley: That was a great one, actually. That's classic COPS. I don't remember the season it was in. But we're coming out with the 20th Anniversary Special on September 18th.

TV.com: How many episodes are you guys up to now?

John Langley: We're going to also have a 700-episode party later in the year.

TV.com: Impressive! All your shows are framed around crime, law enforcement. Did you ever consider a career in law enforcement or was it always in TV?

John Langley: No, it's always been TV based. I mean, I'm not, nor have been, nor ever will be in law enforcement. It's just that it's an interesting arena. It's a very dramatic context. There's no other thing quite like the law-enforcement crime-and-punishment arena because it's very dramatic, it deals with life and death, good and evil, right and wrong, and you see a lot of human behavior in extremis.

So it makes for a more dramatic and interesting viewing. And it's also informational. We like to think that we entertain, but you have to learn something from these shows whether it be COPS or Jail. Not many people know what goes on in law enforcement, unless they watch COPS, then they start seeing what really takes place in street crime. And not many people know what goes on in jail unless you watch Jail.

For example, over 14 million people are arrested every year in this country. That's an astonishing figure, if you think about it. That's roughly five percent of the population.

TV.com: It's good for you, though.

John Langley: Yeah, it's good for us because we have job security. But the fact of the matter is crime is very democratic. It can happen to anybody. Anybody can go to jail. Anybody can be a victim of crime. And anybody, frankly, can be a perpetrator of crime. So it touches everybody in one way or another. And in that sense, I think it's a very universal theme and subject matter, and that's why we like it.

TV.com: This next question is from one of our readers who wants to know what the process is for getting permission to use people in the show.

John Langley: Well, we just ask them. It's real simple. We say, "Would you like to sign this release." They know we filmed them because they see the cameras.

TV.com: Even the guy who peed his pants in the holding cell?

John Langley: Oh, yeah. Everybody you see on the show has signed a release.

TV.com: But there's no 50-dollar incentive or anything? They're just willing to be on TV?

John Langley: We don't give them money. We don't pay...do you know why? We don't pay people for being who they are. Basically we are documentarians. We are showing you what's real. The minute people pay people for doing something, then they become performers and that's the last thing we want. We don't want performers. We want real people, real situations, real life.

TV.com: You wouldn't get me to sign anything if I was getting hauled in the slammer. For my last question, I thought we'd get a little philosophical here. Based on your experiences, do you think man is inherently good or bad?

John Langley: [Laughs.] I personally think man is inherently good with bad tendencies.

TV.com: Yeah. You've seen a lot, I'm sure.

John Langley: How about you, Morgan, good or bad?

Morgan Langley: Oh, I have no answer.

John Langley: Why? What do you think? Do you think man is inherently evil?

Morgan Langley: I think he's neither good nor evil.

John Langley: I say inherently good with bad tendencies. [Laughs]

TV.com: Thanks for talking to us.

John Langley: Well, we appreciate it. Thank you.

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