They are a necessary hidden element of the justice system, an all important link between the criminal and the courts. Allowing for freedom at a cost, and promising promptness and courtesy from individuals who've never shown it before, they provide a ransom for release, and protection from further judicial influence until your day before the bar arrives. No one ever thinks of them until they are needed, and even when they manage the magical, and spring you from a stay in the local lockup, they can be just as quickly forgotten again. The bail bondsman is one of those 'taken for granted' careerists who does a duty that people can't fathom as being fulfilling or functional. After all, dealing with felons all day long must make for depressing, dehumanizing work, right?
So when one of these social outcasts fails to live up to their commitment, jumps bail and heads for the hills, who does the bondsman call for? Who helps this unsung hero of the human race? With a name that evokes the old west and a sense of frontier justice, and a calling that is thankless and cruel, the bounty hunter tracks personal prey, using their street skills and personal savvy to figure out where wanted men and women hide when they're on the lamb from the law. Perhaps the most famous of these fading lawmen is Duane "Dog" Chapman. Working out of the Aloha State, and famous for his mega-macho image, he is the best at what he does. So naturally, it didn't take the media long to catch up with this certified character.
Since the Fall of 2004, the A&E cable channel has seen skyrocketing ratings for a series based on Dog and his exploits. Now available on DVD on a less than complete Best of Season 1 compilation, we get seven chances to learn just what life in the bail bonds business is all about. And, oddly, enough, it's far more empathetic than exciting, much more emotional than electrifying.
In 1979, a young Duane Chapman is released from jail after doing 18 months on a murder charge (a case of guilty by association). Brought before another judge for refusal to pay child support, the biker and one time prison barber was desperate for a way to make money. The court offered him $200 to find a bond jumper and the rest, as they say, is history. As he has often said, Duane "Dog" Chapman doesn't refer to himself as a bounty hunter, he refers to himself as THE bounty hunter. Over the course of nearly 26 years in the business, Dog has captured more than 6,000 fugitives, traveled all over the world, and spread a kind of true compassionate conservatism to the people he interacts with on a daily basis. A strongly devout Christian, amiable family man (he is the father of 12 children) and hard ass law enforcement officer, Dog has become as famous for his tracking skills as his kindhearted treatment of those whom he arrests.
It only makes sense then that, after seeing a segment of the odd careers series Take This Job..., A&E would spin off an appearance revolving around bounty hunters and the paparazzi into a solo program for Dog. Following the exploits of the Da Kine Bail Bonds Company in Hawaii (Dog moved to the island from the mainland in the early 90s) and centering on Dog and his cohorts in criminal corralling – wife and bonding agent Beth, son and fellow bounty hunter Leland, brother and fellow bounty hunter Tim, and nephew and neophyte trainee Justin Bihag – Dog the Bounty Hunter is one of cable's most popular shows. Now, A&E releases a seven episode 'Best of' set, whittling the 17 shows from Season 1 into a single disc overview of the series. We are treated to the following 22-minute installments of Dog and company's felon finding activity:
Episode 1: "Meet the Chapmans" – As with most opening shows in a series, Dog and his family are introduced and we are walked through the procedures, and problems, of being a professional bail bondsman and bounty hunter.
Episode 2: "Father and Son" – Leland, who runs one of Da Kine's subsidiary offices in Hawaii, brings his father over to his island to help him nab a few of his more troublesome cases.
Episode 4: "The Godfather of Waikiki" (actually mislabeled – this is Episode 4, but the installment was actually called "Walk on the Wild Side" and this is the storyline that is featured) – Dog and his posse peruse a notorious dope dealer by using good old-fashioned legwork and lead development. Also, Tim gets a birthday surprise.
Episode 8 & 9: "Hide and Seek (Pt. 1)" & "Hide and Seek (Pt. 2)" – Dog and the gang try to locate a hard to pin down female felon deep inside the Hawaiian underworld. It will take instinct, intuition and informants to bring her to justice.
Episode 10: "Justin's Big Day" – it's Justin's turn to take the lead and bring in his first bounty. If he successfully completes his mission, he will officially be a member of Dog's crew.
Episode 11: "It's Good to Be Home" - traveling back to his boyhood home of Denver, Dog stops by a radio show, reconnects with his roots, and helps bring in some of Colorado's more elusive bail jumpers.
It is relatively easy to see why Dog the Bounty Hunter is such a popular program. Exciting, with genuinely interesting people providing both insight and action, the adventures of Dog and his clan prove that, when it's done right, reality TV can be something quite enlightening. Since many members of the audience probably have never had the need for a bail bondsman, or had a run in with a bounty hunter, this is a whole new world for the viewer, a definite insider's look at a more or less secretive segment of society. Unlike other obscure or out of the normal circumstances, however, Duane and his family, including son Leland, brother Tim and wife Beth provide a normalizing factor. Even with their leather bound hard ass approach to appearance and their adrenalin-fueled bravado, the series never lets us forget that these are everyday, hardworking people doing a job that most would never even dream of attempting.
There are indeed elements of insularity here, a true feeling of being part of a private world that few members of the public ever get to peek into. From the trips through the seedier sections of Hawaii (the state gets a strange schizophrenic reputation at the hands of the series – for every beautiful sunset or tourist traipsing along the shore, we are plunged smack dab into a island ghetto) to the unique language used by Dog and his crew (everybody is a "brah" or a "brotha", while criminals are
"tweaking ice heads", slang for crystal meth abusers) Dog the Bounty Hunter is a lesson in undiscovered wonders. From the ins and outs of the industry, with their codes of conduct, ethical standards and differing approaches to personal interaction to the manner and makeup of Dog's own family, we are getting a chance to see all sides of a single human being, both the career and the man. True, it is filtered through a camera and edited for maximum dramatic effect, but the reality of what you are watching still manages to seep through.
The core of the series and the lynch pin for all of the law enforcement and lecturing is the Dog himself, Duane Chapman. Coming across onscreen as a combination aging rock star, Bible thumping believer and grizzled old softie, this imposing ferocious figure decked out in leather and mace hides a heart of pure, polished gold. One of the best things about Dog the Bounty Hunter is the fact that for every destitute drug addict or angry resister, there's a truly sad, misguided person inside, literally crying for help and acceptance. Part of the bifurcated mannerism of the show is that each bounty is set up like a sinister assignment, a potential walk with death in the garden of danger. But once the perp is cuffed and seated in the back of Dog's SUV, the true nature of Dog the Bounty Hunter is revealed. Because of his past, Dog is sympathetic but strict, doing his best to make some impact, no matter how minor, in the life of this misguided individual.
Many of these post-arrest scenes are very moving. Dog does his best to connect, to meet these offenders and outcasts on their own terms. He offers fatherly advice, or stern lecture. Sometimes, it is just a comforting hand, a cigarette or a swig of water. He lets them make phone calls, and there are even the rare occasions where he lets them avoid the trip to jail in return for a solemn promise of obedience and change. Using his faith as the main focus for much of his understanding and compassion, as well as his time on the wrong side of the law, it's this dimension that makes Dog far more complex and compelling than other real life job-based TV shows. You sense that, for this man, the manic machismo is all an act. If he had the chance he would serve the Lord as his mother and grandmother did (both were preachers working with Native Americans on reservations). Sure, there are times when Dog bears his fangs and puts the bite on someone who truly deserves it, and he doesn't listen to just any old sob story that comes flying over the handcuff transom. Yet Dog and his series prove that there is a soul inside even the most heinous social horror. It just has to be identified and nurtured, and that's something Dog loves to do.
Helping to balance out Dog's immense philosophical and persona influence over the series, the rest of the Da Kine crew are like perfectly placed Central Casting conceits. His haughty, haranguing wife Beth is the voice of reason in circumstances where Dog lets his sympathy or his silliness get the best of him. She runs the business, buffers the arguments and rewrites the mandates handed out by her husband when it comes to leniency and/or strong-arm tactics. You can tell she gets a vicarious thrill during the arrests, and loves to put on the glam as she rides along with the boys. Dog treats her like one of the team, and her calming, sensible shrewishness is a necessary facet to keeping Da Kine in the black.
Dog's brother Tim, in a lot of ways, is Dog without the core of leniency. Always ready to take criminals down and never one to back away from a confrontation or fight, Tim is more or less the fearless face of Dog's crew, the loyal, dependable agent always ready to do whatever it takes to achieve the team's goals. He is quite, shy and rather introverted, but none of those traits make themselves known during a hunt. As the two young men being schooled by Dog and his brother, Leland and Tim are also a dichotomy, a representation of the future, and the fallacy, of a life in law enforcement. Leland, the far more experienced of the two, is the cool, calm considered one, taking after his father in both the concentration and dedication to the job. Justin, on the other hand, comes off as aloof and a little put off by being the low man on the team totem pole. He appears overanxious and tired of his babysitting position at the Chapman home. During the course of the DVD, he gets a chance to prove himself, and the results speak more for his position as part of the Da Kine family than some manner of face-to-face interview would ever reveal.
Overall, The Best of Season 1 is fairly representative of Dog the Bounty Hunter's power as a show. The two part episode "Hide and Seek" stands out because it not only features a very elusive female felon, but because it represents one of the rare times when we see the Da Kine crew confused and frustrated. "Meet the Chapmans" and "It's Good to Be Home" do a nice job of giving us more personal insight into Dog, his relationship with his wife, and his connection to his past. In the same vein, "Father and Son" gives Leland a chance to shine, as both a bounty hunter and father in his own right, while "Justin's Big Day" provides this newcomer to the team a chance to prove himself worthy.
The sole disappointment here is not the fault of the episode offered, but the bad labeling by A&E. "The Godfather of Waikiki" is not presented as part of this package, no matter what the case cover says. Instead, we get the decent cops and criminal chasing with the lesser, still legitimate "Walk on the Wild Side". Had "Waikiki" actually been part of the disc, we'd get one of the best Dog show's ever, an installment which highlights both Chapman's present position with his past illegal activities. We'd learn about his older son (who is currently incarcerated) as well as the small world situations inherent in the underworld. It was/is a powerful episode of the series, and its lack of inclusion here argues against a 'Best of' label.
Otherwise, Dog the Bounty Hunter is instantly addictive, the kind of behind the scenes scenario that never gets dull or derivative. Every criminal is a new opportunity for Dog and the series to keep the situations fresh and the insights front and center. One would assume that a weekly program that centers on a search and capture conceit would become tedious after a while, but wisely, the focus shifts away from the hunting and more on the humans involved here. While it would have been nice for A&E to release all the episodes of Season 1 on DVD (this 'Best of' concept smacks of a future double dip), this disc full of Dog will give fans and those unfamiliar with the show a chance to dive into the weird, wonderful world of a truly iconoclastic man. Dog may indeed be THE bounty hunter, but Dog the Bounty Hunter is THE reality show that best exemplified the possibilities of the genre.
Using a handheld video camera style, the 1.33:1 full screen transfer presented by A&E is very good. There is no flaring, no bleeding or indoor to outdoor image scrambling when the location shifts and light/dark floods the camera. The night scenes have some incredibly minor grain, but the overall picture is near perfect. There is nice color correction, a decent amount of detail and a seamless balance between the cinema vérité approach to the direction and the use of post-production elements (wipes, insert graphics, etc.). Overall, Dog the Bounty Hunter looks excellent on DVD, especially in the evocative shots of the Hawaiian shoreline at sunset.
Dog the Bounty Hunter comes to the digital domain in a rather flat, faceless Dolby Digital Stereo mix that pumps up the sometimes hokey heavy metal (the Ozzy Osbourne title song is not one of the rock god's proudest moments) while losing a lot of the external atmosphere of the show. Indeed, a good way to describe the aural attribute of the series is that it's a combination of power chord cacophony with occasional conversations interrupting the riffing. Dog the Bounty Hunter is not a quiet show. There are no moments were the music and the talking is taken down so we can hear the natural environment Dog and his crew are working in. While the recreation of the soundtrack for DVD is pristine, its basic makeup leaves a little to be desired.
A&E gives us a very irritating extra feature here, an episode of the series Take This Job... which commits the mortal sin of trying to tie what Dog and the Da Kine crew do to the pointless, unproductive endeavors of the paparazzi. The contrast between the two careers is laughable. No matter what kind of character Dog appears to be, he is still a genuine, hardworking man who does his job with seriousness and a sense of purpose. The celebrity photographers are just arrogant assholes, discussing their cult of personality crap in tones so somber and strange you just wish they'd shut the Hell up (or run into a 1980s version of Sean Penn and get their asses kicked). The sequences with Dog are exceptional, laying the foundation for his future show very well. The paparazzi puke should give you ample opportunity to use that rarely visited remote control. Fast forwarding through the segments featuring these money grubbing rejects is the only way to enjoy the Take This Job installment offered on this disc.
The rest of the extras are insignificant – on air promos and casts biographies that are publicity puff pieces at best. If there is indeed a double dip on the way, here is something for A&E to consider: full cast commentaries. It would be interesting to hear the Chapmans discuss how they feel they come across on camera, as well as adding some supplementary insight into the situations we are viewing. Aside from some deleted scenes (you know they have to exist, considering the editing that is put into each episode) a future release of Dog the Bounty Hunter could be a very nice DVD package. A&E merely needs to step up and provide it.
Taking the entire 'tough on the outside, tender on the inside' ideal to a ridiculous extreme, Duane "Dog" Chapman is a kind of American hero. Here is someone doing an unappreciated, unacknowledged job, a career choice seldom considered, and taking every opportunity to turn it into something positive and productive. He takes his work seriously and his family sincerely, mixing the two without ever threatening the integrity of either. He is a larger than life caricature of a creation, a self made myth wandering the Hawaiian islands in oversized cowboy boots and a bulletproof vest. It's a given that, if done correctly, a series about this man's life and loves would make for spectacular entertainment, and Dog the Bounty Hunter is just that. While A&E would have better served by releasing all of Season 1 on DVD, this Best of collection will satisfy anyone's craving for criminal justice.
Dog the Bounty Hunter enters into its second season on television the spring of 2005. It promises some twists and the introduction of a few new faces. But as long as Dog and his Da Kine crew are around, we have the basis for a blazing, perceptive show. Dog the Bounty Hunter: The Best of Season 1 is highly recommended for everything it stands for, in both reality and philosophy. Many of the criminals he picks up thank Dog for the manner in which he treats them. Hopefully, the flamboyant bounty hunter knows that the audience feels the exact same way.
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