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'America Undercover' Reaches its Prime (Time) of Life

By Bob Fisher

From <em>Living Dolls: The Making of a Beauty Queen</em> follows the fortunes of five-year-old Swan Brooner (center) when the <em>American Undercover</em> documentary debuts Sunday, May 13.

After 17 years of being programmed at random times on the HBO schedule, America Undercover finally has a home in an upscale neighborhood. The anthology series will follow The Sopranos at 10 p.m. for 11 consecutive Sundays beginning March 11. Sheila Nevins, HBO Executive Vice President for Original Programming and IDA trustee, has assembled a package of provocative programs by Marc Levin, Daphne Pinkerson, Eames Yates, Antony Thomas, Shari Cookson and other leading-edge documentarians.

The series opened last month with Dead Men Talking: An Autopsy Special with Dr. Michael Baden, a renowned forensic pathologist who, guided the audience through a series of intriguing criminal investigations. The second program was Suicide, about the estimated 30,000 Americans who die by their own hand every year -- more than the annual number of homicides. Filmmaker Yates explores the causes of selected suicides, the debilitating affects on family and friends, and possible solutions. Both of these programs, and others in the series, offer links to interactive websites and a glimpse into the future of television.

The third scheduled program is the latest chapter in a popular, ongoing series, Taxicab Confessions 2001: All’s Fare in Love and Vegas. A hidden camera provides a voyeuristic window into the lives of three people who think they are merely engaging in small talk with a taxicab driver. The documentary series will also feature Naked States, which explores attitudes towards public nudity through the eyes of artist/filmmaker Spencer Turick; and Soldiers in the Army of God, a chilling investigation of an extremist group of terrorists who believe murder is a justifiable tactic in their war against abortion. “I really don't know how to play the television series ratings game,” Nevins confesses. “I've never had a time slot during the 20-odd years I've been at HBO.” But she isn’t coy; she’s seen how other programs with regular schedules have gained higher ratings from being scheduled in a regular prime time slot.

Pragmatically, Nevins doesn’t expect the lead-in by the popular Sopranos series to automatically bolster the audience for America Undercover.

“Maybe we’ll get some spill-over from The Sopranos,” she says. “But then it will be up to us to grab and hold them and build an audience week by week.” It’s not going to hurt that the audience will know they can find America Undercover at the same day, time and place for 11 straight weeks.

The programs Nevins selected are all original HBO productions that were already completed or in the works. She says those programs were the fruits of countless ideas— “maybe as many as 1,000”—that were pitched to her. She doesn’t have a pat explanation for why she bought some ideas and passed on others.

“I have to trust my instincts and judgment,” she says. “Sometimes it seems obvious, but the truth is that I’m never that certain. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and wonder whether I made the mistake of my life.”

Nevins backed Bellevue, one of the programs in the series, because she felt it was an important story no one has seen before. One factor was that she trusted the filmmakers, Maryann DeLeo and Sarah Teale. She was also impressed by the unusual access they had at the psychiatric hospital. DeLeo and Teale spent 12 months shooting film behind the scenes. They pieced a compelling story together from that raw material.

Nevins is still refining an idea about a hybrid form of documentary filmmaking that she brought to HBO in 1979. She is searching for the middle ground between highbrow network white paper investigations and Candid Camera.

“It’s kind of a colloquial form of reality,” she says. “I think real people are more interesting than dramas that come from someone’s mind, and they usually tell more important stories. It could be about any topic, politics, sex, murder or people who want to make the world a better place. It’s always about real people.”

Nevins considers the favorable prime time slot a vote of confidence by HBO management. She recalls that when she joined HBO, she never used the word documentary to promote programs. Nevins preferred labeling them reality programs. That was long before the word was fashionable. Now, she thinks aloud about needing a new term to differentiate her programs from the orchestrated reality shows on broadcast TV.

Nevins makes it clear that she’s not dismissing Survivor, The Mole and other hyper-reality programs ringing up big Nielsen numbers for the networks. She thinks they’re “fun,” but they lack the depth of reality that characterizes HBO documentaries.

“We never did and never will pull our punches,” she says. “Whether you call them documentaries or reality programs, they are still hard-hitting stories.”

Nevins likens some of the documentaries in the series to movies-of-the-week about real people. She cites Autopsy, Soldiers in the Army of God and Bellevue as well as Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen. In the latter, filmmaker Cookson focuses on a mother who drives her five-year-old daughter to a national beauty title.

A main distinction between those programs and fictional movies of the week, Nevins says, is that the characters are real people rather than actors reading memorized lines.

Nevins also compares the series to a book of short stories: If one of them doesn’t suit your taste, maybe the next one will. For example, The Iceman Confesses: Secrets of a Mafia Hit Man takes the audience inside a prison, where they re-visit Richard Kuklinski, a Mafia hit man who was the subject of an HBO documentary 10 years ago.

In an intimate conversation, the killer takes the wraps off various unsolved murders and provides insights into the Mafia and pure evilness.

The other programs in the series are Miracles, where Thomas bring the audience behind-the-scenes into the world of evangelical healers who are attracting thousands of desperate people to mass gathering every year; Just Melvin: Just Evil, by first-time filmmaker James Ronald Whitney, who uses the camera to bring his abusive grandfather to some form of justice; and Dwarfs: Not A Fairy Tale, where the filmmaker, Lisa Hedley, the mother of a dwarf, explores the lives of five “little people.”

Cinematographers aren’t typically lauded for documentary work, but Nevins believes they play an important role. “Yesterday, you couldn't get cinematographers to shoot documentaries, but now I have top people asking to work on them because they want to make a difference in the world,” she says. “Some are weary of working with actors playing roles. They want to be involved with real stories.

“I think the cinematographer is much more important in a documentary than a feature because you may only get one shot at something critical,” she observes. “You need someone who recognizes those moments instinctively and her or she needs the craftsmanship to make it work. If I was a cinematographer, I'd probably get my money out of features and my kicks out of documentaries.”

What’s her best hope for America Undercover? Nevins replies without hesitation, “My fantasy is that we'll get an average rating of five, and they’ll be critically acclaimed and continued in prime time.”

Despite a crunching schedule, the executive says she always has time for new ideas. “I don’t feel besieged by people who want us to help them make their films, but sometimes I get annoyed,” she confesses. “It’s obvious what kinds of stories we tell and you aren’t likely to find them on other networks.”

What’s next for America Undercover?

“We are already working on the next shows,” she says. “There’s one about (Jimmy) Hoffa's son and we spent a month on death row in Oklahoma with a mentally retarded prisoner who killed two of her lovers. We really took a gamble because we didn't know what was going to happen. We didn’t know if she would be interesting or what would happen to her. I’ll tell you this -- It changed my mind about the death penalty.”


For more than 25 years, Bob Fisher has primarily written articles about the motion picture industry, including cinematography, TV programming, music videos, commercials and post production, for industry trade publications. He is the founder and owner of CCS/PR Inc., a public relations and marketing communications agency based in Carlsbad, California.