A Reality Show That Has What Others Lack: a Sense of Justice

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
May 2 2012 7:59 AM

The Incredibly Satisfying Locked Up Abroad

lockedup
A still of Erik Aude on Locked Up Abroad(National Geographic Channel)

Reality TV is, at its core, about letting viewers revel in the bad decision-making of others: those who speak without thinking, who backstab, who have sex without condoms, who cheat. Frustratingly, though, reality shows—to which I am unapologetically addicted—tend to reward bad behavior, by giving its villains notoriety, spinoffs, opportunities to endorse weight-loss products, a nice sideline in paid interviews with supermarket tabloids, and other D-list rewards.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

Locked Up Abroad is different. The National Geographic show, the sixth season of which premiered last week, gives its stars something they wouldn’t get on other reality shows: their comeuppance.

Advertisement

Having debuted in the U.K. (under the title Banged Up Abroad), Locked Up Abroad showcases one person (sometimes a couple) who ends up in prison overseas. Participants fit into one of two categories. The first group are the (largely) innocent: the married missionary couple who were kidnapped in the Philippines by the Islamist group Abu Sayyaf, for instance, or the seemingly goodhearted duo who wanted to help children in Chechnya, but ended up held hostage. These tales of the altruistic and naive can be difficult to watch.

But then there are those who rather deserve what happens to them. Typically these are drug smugglers, and their episodes follow a familiar arc. A young person—they’re almost always young—is bored or in need of cash (usually both). She is desperate or feels invincible (usually both). Someone approaches her and offers a seemingly great deal: an all-expenses-paid, luxurious overseas trip in exchange for a small favor. Sometimes the would-be employer is upfront and admits he needs a drug mule, but downplays the risk; other times, he hints at harmless-sounding illegalities, like bringing back legal goods to beat the export tax. In a few cases, the cover story is painfully thin: Come with me to check out this cool new nail polish technology only available in Thailand, for example. (That woman was in a vulnerable place: She had just been released on bail after killing her partner’s former husband—in self-defense, she claimed.)

The drug smugglers are caught, of course, usually at the airport, and brought to prison. And while a few episodes have taken place in developed countries—Spain, Japan, South Korea—the majority of our anti-heroes end up incarcerated in places with some of the dirtiest and most dangerous penitentiaries in the world.

Take last week’s episode, “From Hollywood to Hell.” (And pardon my spoilers, but this installment is too good not to describe in detail.) In 2001, actor Erik Aude was living the marginal Hollywood dream. An ür-bro, he had played bit parts in Dude, Where’s My Car? (credited as “Musclehead”) and 7th Heaven (“Boyfriend”) when a gym buddy asked him to go to Turkey to bring back “leather goods.” Aude makes the trip, and though a drug-sniffing dog alerts authorities at the Turkish airport, they find nothing—so Aude feels sure the whole thing is legit. He even recommends that one of his brothers start couriering for his friend. Then, when his brother backs out of a planned trip to Pakistan in 2002, Aude steps in, and shit gets real.

It is difficult to feel sorry for Aude. After his escort dumps him in an Islamabad hotel and warns him not to leave because the area is unsafe for Americans, he doesn’t head to the embassy or the airport. Instead, he goes jogging—and even tries to flirt with girls in headscarves on the street (with disastrous results). And when he is taken to the airport with just one suitcase, he is (he claims) not the least bit suspicious that he might be a drug mule. When a customs official asks him whether his trip was for business or pleasure, he cheeses, “Pleasure is my business.”

Aude’s episode is mind-bogglingly watchable, not least because he—of course!—plays himself in the re-enactment. In his telling, he was a virtual action star: On at least three occasions, he single-handedly fights back dozens of Pakistanis. After he takes out a prison bully, he is hailed a hero. He rejects a reduced sentence because it would require him to plead guilty—and his pride is more valuable than his freedom, he says.

Aside from those truly in the wrong place at the wrong time, the most sympathetic characters of Locked Up Abroad may be the embassy employees called in to assist the suspected smugglers. Inevitably, Locked Up Abroad participants are horrified that the embassies of their homelands—usually English-speaking countries like the U.S., the U.K., or Australia—can’t do more for them. I can just imagine U.S. Embassy workers calling “not it” every time they get word from local authorities about some young American knucklehead who thought he could sneak past security with a bag full of cocaine.

Tonight’s episode is called “The Juggler Smuggler,” and its “hero” is Mark Greening, a “party-loving” drug-runner who knows his latest trip is “doomed” when he doesn’t get his fortune told by “his favorite Gypsy woman.” I can’t wait.

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

Are the Attacks in Canada a Sign of ISIS on the Rise in the West?

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Is It Offensive When Kids Use Bad Words for Good Causes?

Fascinating Maps Based on Reddit, Craigslist, and OkCupid Data

Culturebox

The Real Secret of Serial

What reporter Sarah Koenig actually believes.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea

Can Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu Pull Off One More Louisiana Miracle?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 23 2014 3:55 PM Panda Sluggers Democrats are in trouble. Time to bash China.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 23 2014 2:36 PM Take a Rare Peek Inside the Massive Data Centers That Power Google
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Oct. 23 2014 1:34 PM Leave Me Be Beneath a Tree: Trunyan Cemetery in Bali
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 4:03 PM You’re Doing It Wrong: Puttanesca Sauce
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 23 2014 4:36 PM Vampire Porn Mindgeek is a cautionary tale of consolidating production and distribution in a single, monopolistic owner.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.