The uber-rich and the wanna-bes from last week's reality TV series The Hamptons ought to be ashamed. Ashamed, I say, because as they were buying heirloom tomatoes, trying to jostle their way into photos with Candace Bushnell, or going to "big hoochie-mama parties" (as one revolted viewer described the show to me), the men and women of Boston 24-7 were working. And they weren't doing nice work, either. They were queasily examining bloody trial evidence, putting out fires, and inspecting dead bodies. The denizens of ABC's new reality-news series, which started on Tuesday and concludes on June 12, are a noble, passionate, workaholic lot -- and they've already done a great deal to redeem the much-maligned realm of reality TV.
The Hamptons, gorgeously lit money porn masquerading as a four-hour "reality miniseries," nearly had me throwing in the towel on the reality genre. Much of this stuff is horrible but addictive: the rubbernecking thrill of Jerry Springer and his ilk, the evil games and unabashed celebrity whoredom of Survivor and Fear Factor, the shameless contestants who beat or marry each other on Celebrity Boxing and the ever-spawning number of dating shows. Watching these shows forces viewers to walk a fine line between nausea and satiation, between love and hate, operating according to a careful calculus where the slightest error can bring on self-hating bloat. For me, The Hamptons was that last chili-cheese dog I knew I shouldn't eat.
But then came Boston 24-7, with a gritty cast of real people doing their real jobs. A team of ABC journalists were let loose in the city for several months. They came back with stories of bulldog-faced mayor Tom Menino yelling at his press secretary and tussling with the media, a detective known as "Mr. Homicide," and a hard-nosed but compassionate principal at one of the city's poorest performing schools. Boston 24-7 is not a perfect series: It's too unevenly paced, too dark and gory, with characters who are too unvaryingly virtuous. But by showing people's unvarnished dedication to doing good, Boston 24-7 balances out some of the crassness that has befallen a once-innovative genre.
It's a pity that ABC has tried to oversell its series, to shoehorn it into the mold of shock-value reality TV instead of letting these documentaries expand our definition of the genre. "Think people stranded on an island is riveting?" yells a voice-over in a not-so-subtle jab at Survivor. "Wait until you see Boston 24-7 -- reality so intense it's unreal!" But this fails to capture what's so marvelous about the show, which is its ability to combine banality with intense drama. In between making arrests and dealing with the press, its participants sigh in exasperation over Mom's phone call and pop vitamins. In one perfect moment, an appealing first-year district attorney suffers through a humiliating few minutes in court and then gets his ass chewed out by his boss. Right behind the barking boss we see a typed sign: "Please clean up your own ***MESS*** Thank you."
"Yeah," says the neophyte district attorney, "I screwed up."
There are quite a few folks in this series who would merit their own show. I loved the district attorney's cheerful earnestness, his devotion to his day job and his willingness to work as a bartender to keep it, and found myself really caring about how he would turn out. Meanwhile, the principal and his unswerving devotion to his students put David E. Kelley's crapfest drama Boston Public to shame. Instead of Kelley's idiotic plot shenanigans -- will the idealistic white teacher save the troubled but talented black student? Will actress Jeri Ryan's breasts finally rip her overstressed tops and burst free, like the Hulk's pecs? -- we have real substance. "This will be one of the best damn schools in the country," bellows the principal. He coerces the jaded students into believing in him -- that he will stay, that he's on their side and that he hears their frustrations.
The producers of Boston 24-7 can't tell every story in Boston, obviously. And one of the show's weaknesses is that of the many possible stories to be told, the ones here are relatively similar, and all involve (relatively) saintly personages. Where are the troglodytes? Why aren't we following any ignoble types around too? Also woefully absent are the stories of victims, of the arrested, of unhappy and unofficial people. What is the history behind the young woman who was sexually abused and shuttled through the foster-care system? And what of the fragile, angry teenager who erupts after confronting a teacher and puts his fist through a window?
Still, it was a welcome sensation to feel inspired, moved, and bettered by a reality TV experience. Gone was the usual hangover, the feeling that I was trash watching trash. It was good to go back to the local and the everyday, and to find people doing heroic things without any chest-beating. As Boston 24-7's principal says at one point, "Little things can turn into bigger things if you don't do the right thing." Here's to the show for showing us the importance of the little things, the people who care about them, and for bringing some of the real back to reality.