Marshal Law: Texas treats real-life tragedy like an action flick
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Marshal Law: Texas treats real-life tragedy like an action flick

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Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture. 

After a greatest-hits montage to pump up the audience for the season to come and some radio reports lightly sketching in the first case, the Fugitive Task Force members at the center of Marshal Law: Texas dive into a night-vision action scene so inarticulate and so juiced by the score it’s just embarrassing. Executive-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Marshal Law: Texas is desperate to be an action flick. Its chief protagonist says, “We’re gonna keep workin’ this guy ’til we find him or know that he’s dead.” At the time it plays like standard tough talk. It’s not. 

At the end of the premiere, after two other cases have been opened and closed and the episode circles back on its original target, the officers lay siege to a house. Inside is the crook, but the cameras are ever on the outside, watching as task force members bust the door down and call for the crook to come out. A shot rings out, slightly muffled by distance but unmistakable. When the marshals get inside, they confirm that the crook has shot himself. He’s Joshua World, who shot his ex-girlfriend in the back of the head, fled police, and emptied a magazine on the motorists and patrolmen who happened to be near his car on the highway during a chase. According to the closing titles, the ex died in intensive care shortly after the killer did. There’s no disputing this guy’s violence. Does that make it okay to film around his suicide? To broadcast the live recording? To play it like the climax of an action film?

That’s the bulk of the iceberg. Hearing that gunshot strips away all the affable folksiness and procedural interest of this specialized Houston law enforcement series. These are real people. But Marshal Law: Texas has all kinds of unexpected queasiness. Victims give testimonials at the start of each show, first in talking-head, then, if possible, in reenactments. At the end, the victims gather to celebrate the Marshals, testifying about the great relief felt upon the capture or death of the respective bad guys. “Talk about  a relief when you know somebody’s finally been picked up.” “It was a very, very big relief for me.” “Some relief in my heart.” The first two also thank the Marshals, in case it wasn’t clear how hands-off the documentary approach is. No observer effect there.

It’s as if Marshal Law: Texas were trying to inoculate itself from accusations about its use of force, but why so defensive? Almost every arrest is Captain Phillips writ small: A couple dozen men and women with guns and shields and dogs and tactical air support close in on some guy with a gun in an abandoned house. Marshal Law: Texas understandably lacks the surgical precision of that docudrama’s military climax, but the image of U.S. military might coming down on a few armed-and-desperate loners resonates. Things only get out of hand that once. Every arrest is preceded by over-preparation and one last parking-lot briefing. Almost every suspect comes willingly, although the show manages some serious tension out of the sieges. The deck is so stacked in the marshals’ favor that there’s really no alternative. Except the one.

Because this is the story of good guys and bad guys, there are no loose ends, which is more frustrating from a dramatic perspective than a moral one. The veneration of heavily armed law enforcement officers is one thing; the sub-Bravo reality tropes are another altogether. Every act break is a cliffhanger, even when the action isn’t very compelling. Every return from commercial is a good minute or so of recap. To say nothing of the endless mid-act recaps. The typical Marshal Law: Texas case begins with a faint outline of who the bad guy is, then goes into the deep end of some action scene. The longer it goes, the more the marshals will repeat how bad the guy is and how they’re planning to catch him, and at the end someone will explain it all in case it wasn’t clear.

Go along for the ride and Marshal Law: Texas has something to recommend it, not the least of which is gorgeous gray-brown Houston. Episodes sent to critics have not been color-corrected, which is to say the copious establishing shots look exactly like the real city Houstonians see every day, only from above. The marshals acquit themselves very professionally, and they and the documentarians regularly take note of the poor children, wives, and bystanders who have had to witness or participate in such sad events as sudden nocturnal arrests. Memorable scenes include one task force member gently counseling a woman about her deadbeat boyfriend. “Let that relationship go. Find you a new boo.” Even the procedural plotting is fascinating in the first episode, full of high hopes and dead ends, like when the task force assembles at a trail gone cold and later converges on the wrong house. Everything goes off without a hitch in the second episode, which might explain why it comes in under time by a minute or two. Hopefully that’s not an indication of the series’ direction. It’s far more interesting when the narrative twists. 

“The narrative.” The investigation, that is. The real investigation involving real people, one of whom died violently in the making of this series—smack-dab at the end of the first episode no less. As a hook. A stunt. An enticement to keep watching this empty true-life law-and-order parade. Yeehaw.

Developed by: Jerry Bruckheimer, Jonathan Littman, and Jonathan Nowzaradan
Debuts: Tuesday at 10 p.m. Eastern on TNT
Format: Hourlong reality series
Two episodes watched for review

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