Sheriff airs tonight on Documentary Channel at 8 p.m. Eastern, as a part of a celebration of Daniel Kraus' Work Series, concluding with a new film in the series. Here's Noel Murray's review of the film's theatrical release from 2005.
Daniel Kraus' documentary Sheriff has been described as "Cops as directed by Frederick Wiseman," because like Wiseman, Kraus eschews talking-head interviews, narration, descriptive titles, and music. But where Wiseman holds his camera on moments until viewers catch the full sensation of marvelous, mundane reality, Kraus edits with wild abandon. Sheriff follows small-town North Carolina lawman Ronald E. Hewett as he keeps the peace in a modern-day Mayberry, and Kraus isn't shy about leading viewers to conclusions about the job, the man, and even the region—all definite no-nos in Wiseman's aesthetic philosophy.
But without taking anything away from Wiseman, who remains a master, Sheriff is almost as good any documentary he's made. Yes, Kraus goes for a cheap laugh when he sticks in a shot of Brunswick County's "Worms & Coffee" shop, and there may be better ways to illustrate the drudgery of police work than showing cops struggling to work a wrinkly dollar bill through a Coke machine. Still, Kraus has found a winning character in Hewett, whose demeanor and fashion sense falls halfway between Ricky Gervais in The Office and Thomas Lennon in Reno 911 (right down to the tiny mustache). The difference is that Hewett has poise and dignity. He can tell someone to meet him at the "McDonalds and Texaco" intersection without making it sound rinky-dink. He speaks in the same even, lilting tones whether he's talking about his faith in God, or describing a multiple homicide. In one of Sheriff's funniest and most pointed scenes, Kraus cuts together a series of Hewett's interviews with the local news, illustrating how often he uses the word "individuals" and the phrase "at this time," as though a flurry of law-enforcement euphemisms could suck the blood out of violent crime.
Structurally, Sheriff actually isn't too different from an episode of Cops. Over a brisk hour and 15 minutes, Kraus details the modern lawman's range of activities, as Hewett speaks at a high-school assembly one day and busts up a video-poker joint the next. But without being too obtrusive, Kraus develops Hewett as a character: a devout Baptist in a conservative Christian community where a lot of the streets bear his family name. Hewett relishes the responsibility of his position, making moral pronouncements when he tells his constituents that the new strip club opening up nearby will be a problem, while the local nudist camp is nothing to worry about. He can be a camera hog, and he can be pushy. He's the model of well-meaning provincial arrogance, telling everyone what to do because he's sure, by God, that he's right.