To Catch an Anticlimax
NBC's new manhunt show, The Wanted.
Coming to air just in time for Walter Cronkite to roll over in his grave, The Wanted (NBC, Mondays at 10 p.m. ET) meets every expectation of its putridity. Much of the advance wave of appallment at the show —which features working journalists and retired government operatives pursuing war criminals and terrorists—involved dismay that it conflates the business of reporting and the practice of justice. Watchdogs whimpered to see NBC News diving into an ethical morass adjacent to that of To Catch a Predator, where cops and journalists collaborate in luring alleged child molesters before cameras and into custody. Our Jack Shafer, further observing that The Wanted's boasts of conducting international manhunts were rather overdramatic, anticipated "an exploitative exercise in throwing a spotlight on what's in plain sight and calling it investigative reporting."
That was a good call, but the exploitative exercise that is The Wanted has many more dimensions than that. Some of these—the staging of conversations, just for instance—render The Wanted inadmissible as journalism. Despite some others—frenetic pandering to base instincts, risible action-flick camerawork—the shownonetheless fails to amuse. If it's not news and not entertainment, then what might it be? Perhaps it's a sports show. There is an aspect of The Most Dangerous Game to the proceedings and a playing-field spirit in the air. At one point in last night's debut episode, the home team claimed that its quarry, an Islamic fundamentalist named Mullah Krekar, "led the world in beheadings"—a statistic offered in a tone almost appropriate to matters concerning the National League and stolen bases.
Krekar is an accused terrorist from Kurdish Iraq. Since 1991 and the Persian Gulf War, he has claimed refugee status in Norway, taking advantage of all its legal protections and fresh herring. The Norwegians have for years refused to extradite the man to Iraq, demanding assurance that he won't be tortured or summarily executed upon being handed over. It was the mission of the heroes of The Wanted to address this predicament. Their plan for bringing Krekar to justice involved a quantity of lobbying, a bit of paperwork, and achieving confirmation that he still lived in his Oslo apartment, which they accomplished by hiding a consumer video camera behind some leaves. I would've tried the doorbell.
There were three Americans at the core of the hunting party—a former Green Beret, a former Navy Seal, and an NBC News producer now doubtlessly regarded by some as a former journalist. The show introduced the Green Beret with footage of him working out in front of the Washington Monument, the Seal with a shot of his Harley. Or maybe it was the other way around. It was tough to keep straight which of the elite military guys was which, but I had no trouble identifying the journalist as a journalist because he looked like a journalist, which is to say a weenie.
The most hilarious indicator of the episode's shortage of what anyone might consider substance was its excess of some unfortunate person's idea of auteurish style. The episode shaped up as a schlock thriller with art-house affectations. People held meetings on park benches and rooftops. Close-ups captured subjects from their brow lines to the bottoms of their mouths so that their firm stares and thoughtful nods filled the frame. The cinematographer most certainly rewatched Syriana before choosing his filters. As the team's plane descended on Norway and fjords appeared outside the window, hard rock lumbered onto the soundtrack, the guitars calling PJ Harvey's "Long Snake Moan" to mind, which at least gave the mind something to do. At one point, the camera fixed on a computer monitor with an anxiety befitting a scene on 24. The screen was behind the counter at a rental-car desk in Oslo. The team decided on the Nissan.
Jitter, jitter, jump cut: Iraqi authorities pinky-swore that they will consider Krekar innocent until proven guilty, which is more than you can say for NBC. Norwegian bureaucrats, being bureaucrats, nonetheless remained slow to act. The team somehow secured an audience with Krekar himself. Perhaps they decided to ring the bell after all. By this point, The Wanted had managed to convert an alleged murderer and presumptive international menace into a B-movie villain. During the interview, the team, trying to reason with an apparent maniac, grew frustrated that he would not admit to his mania and apologize for slaughtering infidels. The journalist, Adam Ciralsky, got especially huffy when confronting Krekar about his links to the 2003 killing of Paul Moran, an Australian cameraman in Iraq. After all, Moran was not a combatant. "He was wearing the word Press on his chest, wasn't he?" Ciralsky superciliously fumed. It must have escaped him that The Wanted, in presenting members of the press as something other than neutral parties, goes some distance toward turning such signs into bull's-eyes.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Still from The Wanted copyright NBC 2009. All rights reserved.