Small Town Security

 Small Town Security debuts tonight on AMC at 11 p.m. Eastern.

Why, you may be wondering, would AMC turn a plum time-slot following the long-awaited return of Breaking Bad over to a half-hour workplace reality show? Shouldn’t Small Town Security be safely tucked away on a Wednesday night on some basic cable channel like TLC or truTV?

Well,maybe the AMC execs figure that everyone will be too wrung out by the return of Heisenberg and company to bother changing the channel. Or maybe the new series is a better fit for the network and its brand than it appears at first glance. I don’t know how producers Ken Druckerman and Banks Tarver (This American Life) happened to find the quirky crew of JJK Security in Ringgold, Georgia, but they certainly stumbled upon a goldmine of goofballs. In fact, Small Town Security isn’t so much a knockoff of Storage Wars or Pawn Stars as it is a John Waters movie come to life.

The Chief of JJK Security is 61-year-old Joan Koplan, a salty, cigar-chomping broad with a show-biz heart. As a teenager, Koplan had a regional hit song in New Jersey and played an Amazon in a Spanish Tarzan ripoff called Zan, King of the Jungle. She also claims to have turned down the role of a lesbian in Myra Breckenridge for fear of getting typecast. Instead, she stopped getting cast at all, and turned to her second love: law enforcement. After a failed run for sheriff, she and her husband Irwin started their own security company. Still, at heart Joan remains as horny as a teenager, foul-mouthed as a sailor, and fame-hungry as a Kardashian.

She’s a kook, but she’s far from the oddest member of the JJK staff. Her husband Irwin is a doddering fellow who buys his hair dye at the dollar store, with the result that in any given scene his mane may be steely gray, jet-black, or Bozo orange. His sales trips to drum up business for the company generally consist of him driving around the state, pointing out large factories and warehouses that, for one reason or another, just aren’t good fits for the company. And then there’s Lieutenant Dennis Croft, Joan’s devoted right-hand man and one of the more fascinating characters the reality genre has seen in some time. The first episode carefully doles out details about his past, from his military background to his Y2K panic, which saw him moving his family far from civilization and stockpiling years worth of supplies, all for naught.

But Croft’s biggest secret (which I wouldn’t dream of revealing here) doesn’t come out until Joan rekindles her lust for fame by winning back the cable-access talk show she’d lost three years earlier due to her habit of saying words like “penis” and “vagina” on the air. (And here I thought that’s what public-access cable was good for.) Joan decides Croft should be her opening-night guest, which seems like an odd choice at first, but proves to be must-see TV.

“Television’s a facade,” Joan’s cable-access producer tells us. “You only see what you see.” That’s especially true with the reality genre, where clever producers like Druckerman and Tarver can turn real people into live-action cartoons. That’s essentially what they’ve done with Small Town Security, which even features animated segments used as flashbacks and connective tissue. Even minor characters, like the uniform delivery man who also brings used porn magazines, or Joan’s perpetually yapping and leg-humping Chihuahua Lambchop, seem part and parcel of an off-kilter alternate reality. Yet Small Town Security doesn’t play like a freak show; as in a John Waters movie, there’s acceptance and genuine affection among the weirdos who populate the series. This is never going to be one of AMC’s signature shows, but there are worse ways to decompress after a stressful episode of Breaking Bad.

Stray observations:

  • Some of the show’s funniest moments come from brief glimpses of a security training video that must have been made in the mid-80s, and looks every bit as dated as that suggests. With any luck, AMC will put the whole video online.
  • Someone tell the Chief she’s got lipstick on her teeth.
  • Next week’s episode takes us further into the strange co-dependent relationship between Joan and the Lieutenant, and finds Irwin dabbling with testosterone treatments in order to get his mojo back.