Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

City Confidential was true crime that put the “guilty” in “guilty pleasure”

Illustration by Nick Wanserski

In 100 Episodes, The A.V. Club examines the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity and/or longevity. In this edition, City Confidential, which ran for 11 seasons and 134 episodes between 1998 and 2005.

True-crime television: Once solely the providence of the network-newsmagazine special and basic-cable tabloid, the genre has received a noticeable boost in prestige in the past couple of years. From the haunting cat-and-mouse game of HBO’s The Jinx to the Kafka-esque descent of Making A Murderer, television’s explorations of real-life felonies have become high art—or at least upper-middlebrow entertainment. Lurid guilty pleasures like Dates From Hell and Killer Kids might still thrive on the fringes of specialty channels, but they’re becoming increasingly overshadowed by the shame-free public consumption and discussion of thoroughly respectable documentary programs.

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Before true crime on TV attained maturity, it enjoyed a raucous adolescence. Between 1998 and 2005, one example of the form saw no need to distinguish between good and bad television—it exhibited almost no awareness that such a distinction ever existed. City Confidential unapologetically blended serious documentary and pulp presentation in the pursuit of scandal, gossip, schadenfreude—pause for dramatic effect—and murder.

City Confidential was an anomaly on A&E’s late-’90s schedule, debuting in the middle of the network’s transformation from semi-stodgy culture purveyor to destination for shows about storage lockers and duck-call manufacturers. The station had recently scrapped most of its original programming like Caroline’s Comedy Hour and An Evening At The Improv in an effort to shed the “arts” portion of its moniker, and was green-lighting an increasing number of infotainment programs. Many were hosted by television journalist/future Anchorman narrator Bill Kurtis, and featured Kurtis digging into scams and scandals (Investigative Reports), exploring unsolved crimes (Cold Case Files), and most popularly, presenting the perpetration and prosecution of a variety of heinous felonies (American Justice). They were solid if unremarkable efforts, offering much of the same safe voyeurism as A&E’s afternoon block of syndicated procedurals, but with the added clout of journalistic endeavor.

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On the surface, City Confidential looked like another American Justice, but it was as far from Kurtis’ flagship series as it could get while still functioning within the hour-long true-crime format. Where American Justice devoted the majority of its time and attention to the crime itself, City Confidential took a broader view, exploring the crime in the context of where it took place, and analyzing both the conditions that led to the act and the long-term damage it caused. As a result, Confidential’s beats were wildly different from its brethren, dedicating long stretches of time to setting the scene of the crime. The main players generally received another 10 to 15 minutes before the act finally occurred. The actual crime, investigation, and punishment were then economically tackled before the show returned to the community in question and the ways in which it had been changed forever. Even City Confidential’s selection of talking heads was idiosyncratic, augmenting the usual suspects, experts, victims, and authority figures with fantastical bursts of local color: town elders holding court at the local Dairy Queen (“Ingleside: Dirty Deals, Buried Secrets”), an old-fashioned lawyer spouting potent quotables like “I’m afraid I believe you’re guilty as homemade sin” (“Macon: Spoonful Of Arsenic”), or a cranky old lady who misses the manners and sartorial efforts of mob-run Vegas (“Las Vegas: Deadly Jackpot”).

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But City Confidential’s greatest asset and its most defining characteristic was its narration, which negotiated—or, on occasion, completely flouted—a delicate balance between stoic documentary and shameless scandal sheet. These self-aware voice-overs made an impression by mixing hokey dramatics with bizarre asides and borderline perverse humor. The setting of “Cherry Hill: Sins Of The Rabbi” “didn’t miraculously spring from the ground overnight. After all, it’s not as if God looked down on this formless patch of South Jersey farmland and commanded ‘Let there be tract housing.’” Major gains made by questionable people were underscored with backhanded quips like, “Not bad for a kid whose strongest character traits were his heroin-addict complexion and his propensity for violence.” Court proceedings were often handled with penetrating insight like, “The case seemed as open and shut as the box in which Brueggen was allegedly asphyxiated.” But what really sold all of these bewitchingly off-kilter words was the man giving voice to them: Paul Winfield.

Paul Winfield as Captain Clark Terrell in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan
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Winfield was both an unexpected and inspired choice for the gig. While most true-crime hosts at the time had backgrounds in journalism (like Kurtis) or law and order (like America’s Most Wanted’s John Walsh), he was a stage, film, and television actor with a few voice-over credits to his name, including Don King-esque boxing manager Lucious Sweet on The Simpsons. Winfield was a major talent, earning an Oscar nomination for his starring role in 1972’s Sounder and a pair of Emmy nods for his turns in King (as Martin Luther King Jr.) and Roots: The Next Generations. Despite memorable roles in The Terminator and Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan and a 1995 Emmy win for his guest appearance on Picket Fences, Winfield wasn’t working much when the City Confidential producers came calling. No one was more surprised by their interest than Winfield himself—he didn’t believe that he had a particularly strong voice. “I’m very envious of other actor’s voices, like James Earl Jones, who has that great resonance,” he admitted with a self-deprecating laugh in a 1989 Fresh Air interview. “I don’t take lessons and do all of the things that I should be doing if I was a better actor.”

The Confidential crew disgreed. They were so convinced that Winfield was the right man for the job that they didn’t even make him audition; he worked on the show until his death in 2004. “If you watch the show, you know it’s not that straight earnest delivery most crime shows have,” executive producer Geoff Proud told The Crisis in 2003. “While it’s certainly not a comedy show, there are elements of black humor. I don’t think we could pull off the things we do with your basic announcer. Paul is a unique voice [for] a unique show.” If Bill Kurtis was A&E’s paternal figure, offering moral condemnation of terrible crimes, Winfield quickly became the network’s favorite weird uncle, the kind who knew where all of the bodies are buried and was more than happy to spill everyone’s deepest and darkest secrets in blissfully lurid detail after a drink or two. “A major part of what makes City Confidential so engrossing is the narration, which as in many true crime shows, drives the action. The original narrator, the legendary Paul Winfield, almost had a gleeful schadenfreude as he described haughty towns suddenly forced to face ugly facts,” MSNBS’s Gael Fashingbauer Cooper wrote in 2004.

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Sly humor and severe real-life consequences are a pair of extremely combustible elements and City Confidential didn’t always handle them with the proper care. In one particularly unfortunate incident, the murder of three inspectors in a meat processing plant in the season 11 episode “San Leandro, CA: The Sausage King,” was underscored with the line “And more than the sausage would wind up getting smoked.” That joke drew the ire of The New York Post, prompting the paper to opine, “Three people murdered and their families get to view a nationally televised show in which the narrative calls for giggles to be applied to the video of their loved ones being shot dead. Good grief.” This from the bastion of good taste that ran the infamous headline “Headless Body In Topless Bar.”

When the show’s wicked humor wasn’t directed at the victims, though, it bordered on the sinisterly brilliant, a stunning synthesis of seedy voyeurism, schadenfreude, and the condemnation of a community’s hypocrisy and/or its complicity in the events that transpired there. This sometimes made for uncomfortable viewing for the places in question. Not everyone liked what they saw when that mirror was held in front of them. The residents of Pikeville, Kentucky were so incensed by “Kentucky Gothic”—an episode about a multiple homicide involving a well-meaning family of Jehovah’s Witnesses and a group of Satanist teens desperate to escape their hometown—that municipal officials demanded an apology from A&E. “Obviously being labeled the town from hell can not be interpreted in any way as positive,” City Manager Donovan Blackburn wrote in a letter to the network.

But Pikeville got off easy compared to other, more worthy targets. “Archer City: Under Suspicion,” a seventh-season exposé of a beloved small town Texas sherif’s rape trial, is a particularly riveting example: In 1990, the town made famous by local author Larry McMurtry is shocked when Gail Bennett claims that Sheriff P.L. Pippin raped her after she shot her husband in self-defense. Pippin was willing to confess to adultery but insisted that the sex was consensual and the town rallied around him, with sadly predictable results. Although the show’s handling of the more sensitive elements of the story isn’t entirely appropriate, Confidential still managed to produce an insightful take on sexual assault and abuses of power. Through pulpy evisceration and Winfield’s sneering proclamations, the episode handles these topics better than other, more-serious minded programs (and public discourse in general) can more than a decade later.

City Confidential’s crowning achievement, though, was the season nine episode “Portland, OR: Skinhead Slayer.” Kicking off with the classically Confidential line “In November 1988, swastikas and jackboots replaced tie dyes and Birkenstocks and peace and love were smashed by a blitzkrieg of hate… and murder,” the episode charts the rise of neo-Nazism in the hippie enclave of Portland, which culminated in the murder of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw. Winfield is particularly stunning here, satisfyingly destroying the city’s white-power proponents and gleefully detailing their downfall with sharply pointed line readings, while also bringing jeering tones to his descriptions of Portland’s well-meaning but oblivious caucasian counterculture. Somehow, magically, it manages to work both as the Platonic ideal of trash television and a searing indictment of white supremacy in both its most obvious and most subtle forms, almost as thought-provoking as it is viciously funny.

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Unfortunately, while Winfield remained in top professional form for the entirety of his 10-season run on City Confidential, his health rapidly deteriorated during later seasons. Fellow actor Keith David stepped in to fill his shoes as the narrator for season 11, but while David was perfectly competent in his role and the writing remained as bizarre as ever, things just weren’t the same. City Confidential finished its run in 2005, at the end of David’s first and only season.

It’s a testament to Winfield’s genius in the role that even the talented star of They Live, among countless other films, couldn’t follow his wryly drawling example. And even if Winfield had survived, or David’s diction hadn’t been just a little too perfect for the boozy tenor of the lines he was delivering, there’s no guarantee that Confidential would have lasted much longer. A&E’s priorities were already beginning to shift, and the channel had little room on the schedule for its initial forays into reality television. Investigative Reports finished its run in 2004. American Justice followed a year later. Cold Case Files closed for good in 2008.

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With the exception of The First 48, A&E has moved on from true-crime, now focusing on a combination of scripted drama and reality shows like Storage Wars and Duck Dynasty. The genre, along with its audience, has moved on, too, experiencing the kind of artistic breakthrough that its written counterpart had when Truman Capote published In Cold Blood, in 1966. The subject matter found a new home, and a whole new level of respectability, in podcasts (Serial), on premium television (The Jinx), and on streaming services (Making A Murderer). Its fans can indulge in the heady thrill of binge watches, memes, obsessive online discussion, and real-life sleuthing while grappling with major issues like the corruption of the legal system and the elusiveness of the truth.

It’s all admirably adult, but for the genre’s gains in sophistication and overall quality, there’s a loss in the gleeful voyeurism of City Confidential and the (possibly unintentional) soul-searching that all but the most superficial indulgence inspired. There’s no reason to feel dirty after watching the new breed of true-crime show, which manages to provide both quality entertainment and a solidly moral perch from which to watch the proceedings. While their stories are filled with ambiguity, the consumption of those stories can be relatively straightforward. It’s easy to be horrified by the miscarriages of justice that Adnan Syed and Steven Avery have faced—and the justice that Robert Durst has largely skirted—regardless of what you believe about their guilt or innocence.

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Watching City Confidential and giggling about brutal real-life events could be vicious fun, but Winfield’s and David’s devilish observations could also provoke self-reflection. The new breed of crime programs has demonstrated how well it can instigate potentially meaningful public debate about the entire system, but City Confidential posed its own questions for viewers as they secretly watched alone at home: If some heinous crime can happen in your average bucolic small town in America, what does that say about our ostensibly civilized society? More importantly, though, if you can laugh at it from the safe divide provided by the TV screen, what does that really say about you?

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