Cajun Justice

Cajun Justice debuts tonight on A&E at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Just when you thought the reality swamp had been drained dry, along comes this new A&E series set deep in the bayous of Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana. The opening credits suggest a show that might as well be called Swamp Cops, with the expected emphasis on shirtless rednecks being tackled, thrown to the ground, and handcuffed. But based on the first two episodes airing tonight, Cajun Justice plays more like a reality-show mash-up—a surprisingly successful, engaging blend of the law enforcement, swamp-hillbilly, and paranormal reality subgenres.

The show’s central figure is Vernon Bourgeois, the sheriff of Terrebonne Parish. A beefy, lantern-jawed good ol’ boy who probably would have been played by Charles Napier had Cajun Justice been a low-budget 1980s action movie, Bourgeois is fond of telling us that Louisiana has its own brand of justice thanks to the Napoleonic Code. The last I’d heard of this code, Marlon Brando was mumbling about it in A Streetcar Named Desire, but apparently it’s still around, and still quite handy for a man in Bourgeois’ position. It allows him to seize assets from criminals—notably shiny sportscars—and it provides that “the only person who can arrest the sheriff is the coroner. Dead or alive.”

Bourgeois has a colorful assortment of deputies, most of whom are known by nicknames, such as Catfish, Highlights, Storm, and my personal favorite, Funkie Nuts. In the opening episodes, we learn the origins behind Catfish (a female deputy who is “as hard-headed as the hard-head catfish we have down here”) and Highlights (a genial, mush-mouthed fellow with frosted tips), but so far, Funkie Nuts remains a mystery. (The secret is revealed on the official Cajun Justice website, for those who can’t wait.) Their daily routine runs the gamut from taking down major drug dealers to solving the case of the stolen air-conditioner window unit. Sometimes they require more specialized help, which is where the alligator nuisance men come in.

“Alligator nuisance man” isn’t an occupation you can pursue just anywhere, but Terrebonne Parish appears to have more than its share. One of them, Jacob “Gator Man” Lirrette, happens to be dating Deputy Catfish (and if “Deputy Catfish And The Gator Man” isn’t already a Bob Dylan song, it should be), a state of affairs they downplay when she calls him in to catch a gator that has eaten a family’s dog. (Jacob’s efforts to capture and subdue the offending reptile are undercut by the dog’s grieving owner screaming “Kill the sonofabitch! You gonna let him go? Shoot him!”)

Cajun Justice is continually shifting gears between intense moments straight out of a hixploitation thriller (a SWAT team jumping out of a boat as it hits the shore and charging a camp housing a suspected drug kingpin) to lighter, comedic interludes (the bemused reaction of Deputy Highlights when he finds that the man who had his A/C unit stolen has stolen it right back) to spookier, voodoo-flavored incidents. At one point, deputies investigate an abandoned shack with a distinct Leatherface-was-here vibe: It’s all skulls, chicken bones, and still-burning candles. Later, responding to a call reporting strange lights along the riverbank, they stumble upon a crew of harebrained “paranormal investigators” straight out of Ghost Hunters or Finding Bigfoot.

These disparate elements all hang together thanks to the production team’s deft hand at sketching the outlines of an idiosyncratic community. It’s probably not the most accurate documentary portrait of Terrebonne Parish—I’m guessing there are some regular folks in the area who don’t spend their days rasslin’ gators or poking voodoo dolls—but it’s a generally affectionate one, when it might just as easily have been exploitative and mean-spirited. Yes, Cajun Justice does indulge in some hillbilly caricatures of the Swamp People variety, but it also features a greater range of personalities than is usually found on these shows. By and large, the deputies are an amiable, quirky bunch, far more likeable than the thick-necked blowhards that typically populate COPS and its ilk. You could say we needed another swamp-based reality series like we need another Kardashian sister, and I wouldn’t have much cause to disagree. Cajun Justice is far from essential viewing; it’s just a little more fun than it has to be.

Stray observations:

  • Future episodes promise appearances by the Lutin, an unbaptized baby ghost, and the Rougarou, a shape-shifting swamp monster. Who needs True Blood anyway?