September 9th, 2017

The First 48: ties that bind

Although the program is thirteen years old, I only recently discovered the TV show “The First 48,” a documentary series that follows crimes (usually homicides) in various US cities by filming police as they put a case together piece by piece. To me, the show is far more riveting than any fictional representation of the same process. Neither “Law and Order” nor “CSI” nor “NYPD” nor any other TV show or movie that tries to depict crime and punishment—and there are many—compares in power to The First 48.

I tend to prefer documentaries to fiction anyway. Nothing can be as dramatic as the truth, or as real. Fiction and drama purport to be a heightened sort of reality that gives us something more interesting, with more punch, than actual reality. Not to me, though, at least not so often. Although I wouldn’t say “The First 58” stranger than fiction, I would say it’s consistently more riveting.

Why is that? We know it’s true, or at least a snapshot or portion of the truth, rather than something contrived. We can’t dismiss what we see as the product of someone’s fevered imagination. We can’t say what we’re seeing can’t be believed, because we know it must be believed—if not as the whole truth and nothing but the truth, at the very least as the truth of certain people’s behavior in a certain series of moments.

One of the strangest and most compelling things about The First 48 is how very different it is from all the fictional programs that purport to depict similar stories. The things the people (cops, perps, families) say in The First 48 are different from their fictional counterparts. The way they say those things is different. Their affect is different. The real people are not acting (unless they’re lying, in which case they’re not acting at lying, they really are lying). One would think their real lines and their real gestures and real delivery would be both less histrionic and less eloquent than the fictional versions. But instead (at least to me), their lines and gestures and delivery seem more eloquent and more expressive, as well as very different from what you find in scripts.

There are no bad actors (in the sense of play-acting) or even mediocre actors in a show like “The First 48.” Everyone is exactly who they are, and even if the person is pretending to be innocent he/she is pretending in a real and guilty way. No actor can do this, although some come close. You would almost never mistake a fictional police drama for a documentary, and once you’ve seen the documentary the fictional show looks false, the actors slick and actorish. It’s not their fault, though, that they can’t imitate reality well enough. Maybe they’re not even trying to do that. Maybe they’re just trying to engross and entertain.

Here’s one of the episodes of “The First 48” that I’ve found most fascinating. To me, it’s as gripping as any Shakespearean or Greek tragedy, except that it features seemingly ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. The slight and bespectacled police detective who investigates this crime is an especially powerful character, with a quiet intensity that is almost hypnotic as he demonstrates tremendous psychological sophistication in speaking with his interviewees.

As you watch the video, note lines such as the mother’s “I’d do anything for my kids. I’d drink a bloody river dry for them” (at minute 27:04). I think you might agree with me that this is not a statement a dramatist would be likely to write—it’s more unusual and idiosyncratic— but it’s every bit as eloquent and more amazing for being completely unscripted and spontaneous and delivered in a flatter tone than any actor would use. And when you get to the perp’s confession—well, just watch it.

The First 48 S15E17 The Ties That Bind by TJARCHER942

15 Responses to “The First 48: ties that bind”

  1. WJM Says:

    I am also fascinated by this show have watched it for hours at a time

  2. Dave Says:

    I love watching the show to see how stupid and lack of sense of opportunity cost people can be, like risking a life sentence killing someone just to steal their stupid 90s civic

  3. Zigzag Says:

    Or you could just google some random search term like “Why are women obsessed with True Crime?” 🙂

  4. JTW Says:

    Well, the show is clearly reenactments of actual procedures, and probably dramatised to a degree.
    But I agree it’s a lot more interesting to watch than pure fiction coming out of some Hollywood playwrite’s computer.

  5. Mike K Says:

    We watch a lot of Discovery ID, which I call “The Murder Channel” and which is all true crime.
    I know quite a few others who do so, as well, including my sister.

  6. neo-neocon Says:


    I have watched about 6 or 7 of the episodes of “The First 48,” and I have seen no re-enactments or dramatizations. The only thing that might remotely be called a “dramatization”—although it is not—is when detectives sometimes explain what is happening or reflect on it, talking to the camera. Otherwise I have only seen real footage.

    I Googled “The First 48” and “reenactment” and I get nothing. I think you are incorrect about the idea that the show uses dramatizations. “Forensic Files” mixes real footage and reenactments; perhaps you are thinking of that show instead.

  7. AesopFan Says:

    Dave Says:
    September 9th, 2017 at 9:43 pm
    I love watching the show to see how stupid and lack of sense of opportunity cost people can be, like risking a life sentence killing someone just to steal their stupid 90s civic
    * * *
    In the late seventies, the BYU school’s Criminal Law Professor Woody Deem, a veteran of over 20 years in the DA’s office of Orange County, CA, would begin each class with the statement: the important thing to remember, is that criminals are stupid.
    And then proceed case by case to prove his point.

    Not that some of them can’t be crafty, but most escape retribution by a mixture of luck and protectors in high places.

  8. TommyJay Says:

    I usually have patience for slow artistic films, but lack patience in true crime shows; so I watched one or two episodes of The First 48 and gave up on it. But hey, I also gave up on The Sopranos and Breaking Bad before getting hooked on them.

    I liked Forensic Files and Cold Case Files with Bill Kurtis, and my newer fave is Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda. Neo, you gotta check out this last one! Don’t miss S5 Ep18, Kenda’s first homicide case that no one else wanted.

    The show that freaked me out as a guilty fascination was “I Survived.” It is nothing but one or a few people who survived horrific crimes/incidents sitting in front of a camera telling their stories. Many (but not all) stories are about women who were raped and maimed by strangers/ex-boy friends/ex-husbands and left for dead.

    The “truth” of True Crime is an interesting bit of perception on the part of the viewer that was been toyed with elsewhere. All of the “Fargo” shows, the movie in 1996 and the TV series starting in 2014 begin each episode with the assertion “This is a true story of a crime that happened in the year XXXX. The names of the people involved have been changed.”

    While I was never committed to the notion that those stories were true, it wasn’t until the last season that my sense of improbability was triggered, and I searched the issue. Turns out NONE of the Fargo stories are true. The film/show makers are just trying to tap into the “truth is stranger than fiction” part of the viewer’s brain.

    On the flip side of the coin, I recently saw an extremely low budget sex comedy film with a dozen wild and unlikely disconnected stories. So one tends to write off the story telling as the ramblings of some script writer. But then I remembered one of the characters reading one of these stories out of a newspaper. After searching, I discovered that at least one of these film stories was in fact true.

  9. Mark30339 Says:

    Sorry to be the contrarian, but I recently stumbled upon some stunning fiction called Bloodline on Netflix, the acting by the oldest brother is remarkable.

  10. Mike K Says:

    Lt. Joe Kenda. Neo, you gotta check out this last one! Don’t miss S5 Ep18, Kenda’s first homicide case that no one else wanted.

    That’s The “Murder Channel.”

  11. John Salmon Says:

    On novels or short fiction-there’s more truth in, say, Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” than in a thousand “non-fiction” treatises on psychology or theology or anthropology.

  12. miklos000rosza Says:

    I watched an episode of this show and was disappointed after the build-up you offered. It seemed really nothing special and in fact quite run-of-the-mill with the over-dramatic narrator and the imposed soundtrack music and very little of interest caught on camera.

    It just seemed like elements of a fragmented newspaper story put on TV.

    Sorry, but as John Salmon alludes to above, there is far more “truth” in good fiction than in documentary less-than-skin-deep COPS episodes.

    Ann Althouse has attacked fiction many times on her blog and her claque of adulatory commenters generally serve her as an amen chorus. She has elaborated further on how she now only listens to Books On Tape rather than actually read almost any text at all. Her boundless vanity is such that I daresay it troubles her now and then to realize that her blog is instantly forgotten whereas great literature lives on.

  13. neo-neocon Says:


    Well, I’ve only watched about 6 episodes of The First 48, and they are not all of the same interest and caliber as each other. But did you watch the one I posted here? I thought that one was especially interesting and to me it was actually riveting. But it’s not going to appeal to everyone.

    I like fiction somewhat. There are some great books (novels and/or short stories) that I really love and that mean a great great deal to me. But they are few and far between, and most modern-day fiction leaves me very cold. Except for the great great novels, I tend to prefer non-fiction books: science, biographies, history in particular.

    And I much prefer shows like Forensic Files and The First 48 to shows like Law and Order and CSI, which seem very phony to me.

  14. miklos000rosza Says:

    I dwelt too long in the world of police and an inner-city ER to care for almost any of the medical or crime shows on TV, though I was diverted by The Wire and the Danish (and original) version of The Bridge.

    I still tend to read a lot of history, and Michael Burleigh jumps out here for Small Wars, Faraway Places and Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War Two. Also Emma Sky: The Unraveling.

    Here are some novels, most of them fairly recent:

    Denis Johnson: Jesus’ Son (avoid the film), The Stars At Noon. (only about half of is books are good and he’s somewhat overpraised. Supremely talented, however.)
    Jennifer Egan: A Visit From the Goon Squad
    Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer (his name is rather generic, as is the title — the novel is not)
    David Swinson: The Second Girl (an amazingly original crime novel by an ex-cop)
    Witold Gombrowicz: Cosmos
    Dennis Cooper: Guide (a gay writer wo receives death threats from the LBGT establishment because his work is so non-PC. )
    Nam Le: The Boat (he doesn’t do the usual things someone of his ethnicity does to make a name. 2 of the best stories feature 1-a 14 yr old hit man in Medellin, 2-a 22 yr old American female in Tehran)
    Robert Stone: Dog Soldiers
    Edward St Aubyn: Never Mind, Bad News

    I tried to resist writing reviews. It’s an idiosyncratic list.

  15. Ymar Sakar Says:

    Fiction and drama purport to be a heightened sort of reality that gives us something more interesting, with more punch, than actual reality.

    Windswept House. Faction. Fiction as fact. It is very good for introducing theology and Hebrew history, by going into supernatural or sci fi methods of delivery. People will tend to believe in all kinds of stuff, it if it is packaged as supernatural or sci fi fantasy. But the moment someone starts talking the Bible or other religious tracts, people are reminded of the Inquisition, Vatican, Papacy, Patriarchy of Rome, the 4th Ecumenical Council, the 1st Ecumenical Council, and all the other human problems created with religious dogma.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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