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Kidnap & Rescue

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Kidnap & Rescue debuts tonight on Discovery at 10 p.m. Eastern.

It’s hard to make a good true crime program. The temptation is always there to load up on reenactments, and the reenactments are going to be necessarily cheesy. Plus, how many different spins are there on the idea of showing crimes as they actually happened? And yet so many cable networks have programs that are based around showing standard shots of the places where crimes occurred, as Bill Curtis speaks sadly on the soundtrack about what happened there. (It’s always Curtis because A&E is the best network at this sort of thing, weirdly.) When done well, it’s easy to lose an afternoon to programming like this, especially if you should be doing something more productive with your life. When done poorly, it’s easy to wonder why you’re watching an overheated version of Rescue 911 or Unsolved Mysteries. (Don’t get me wrong. Unsolved Mysteries is awesome. Favorite Unsolved Mysteries segments in comments?)

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Discovery takes a crack at the genre with Kidnap & Rescue, but it finds an interesting enough way to tackle the whole idea to just barely make something that can be fun to watch here and there. The series takes kidnappings as its focus, but it focuses on EXTREME kidnappings, kidnappings so intense—or so reliant on crossing international borders to recover the kidnapping victim—that they require calling in the private contractors, rather than the usual police officers. For whatever reason, the two kidnappings in the pilot involve Mexican drug cartels, and if you’re wondering whether or not the series will spend more time focusing on the first word in the title, rather than the whole “rescue” part of the equation, well, you’d be right about that. There could be a pretty cool mission bent to this series, with the kidnap recovery experts coming up with airtight plans and then executing them. Instead, the show mostly seems interested in, uh, reenacting kidnappings.

The reenactments here aren’t bad, but they aren’t very good either. They mostly seem to be there to kill time and create the appropriate sense of rich person dread all of these shows aim for. Filmed with hyper-stylized versions of brutal violence, these reenactments use needlessly jittery camera work and fast-paced editing to disguise the fact that the actors aren’t very intense and the content has a tendency to endlessly repeat itself. (The show actually returns from every commercial break with a breathless recap of what happened before the break, just in case we’re showing up late or chronically incapable of remembering anything that happens.) The most interesting thing about the show is getting inside the heads of the people who save those who are kidnapped; the focus of too much of the show is on the more salacious aspects of the stories.

Take the second story in tonight’s premiere, which focuses on an 18-year-old college student named “Stephanie” (the names have been changed, as always) who’s taken from a house party by—you guessed it—Mexican pimps, who run her across the border, all the better to make her develop a chemical dependency on meth and become a prostitute/sex slave. The trail on Stephanie goes cold for three years, until an anonymous tip lets HALO, the group of private operatives tasked with tracking her down, in on her location in a brothel. HALO heads off after her, comes up with a plan to retrieve her, then pulls off that plan. (The segment is helped immensely by some tragic twists and turns near the end.) Anyway, where this section might focus on how HALO works with its informant to positively ID Stephanie—and it does somewhat—plenty of time is spent on the idea that our beautiful, white daughters might be taken to Mexico and turned into sex slaves. Plenty of time is spent on the process of getting one of these girls to sleep with you and the process used to brainwash the girl. Less is spent on the actual process of rescuing her.

There’s a heavy element of “Look out! This could happen to YOU, too!” in all of these shows, but there’s lots more of it in Kidnap & Rescue than usual. The first segment—about a man who’s taken directly by the cartel and held for a $250,000 ransom—seems almost to be a “here’s how you should react when you are inevitably kidnapped” primer at times, with bizarre digressions on ways kidnappers might try to scare you and on the tactics they could use to keep groups like HALO off your trail, even as you’re gushing blood from your broken nose. I suppose that if there were more focus on the tactics HALO uses to recover these victims, the show would very quickly get boring, but the parts of the show where the crimes are reenacted or revisited are simply less interesting than everything else.

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Fortunately, the personalities—at least in the one episode Discovery sent out for review—are intriguing enough to keep viewers watching. Brad Barker, founder of HALO, is the focus of this episode. (Future episodes will zero in on the heads of other kidnap recovery organizations.) Barker’s one of those people who’s just interesting to listen to because he so clearly knows his stuff. As he pontificates about why kidnappers might move their victims endlessly or about all of the work that went into making sure HALO was going to be recovering Stephanie, there’s a sort of muted passion in his voice. He loves this work, and he wants to make it as edge-of-your-seat exciting for the audience as he possibly can.

And, yeah, a lot of what’s here is pretty exciting. There’s a visceral sense of being on the hunt when the show isn’t pushing the reenactments too hard, and though HALO seems to get a lot of helpful tips that send it on the right track, the focus stays so squarely on the process of tracking down the kidnappers and making sure the good guys are retrieved unharmed that the thing takes on a certain propulsive sense without really trying. And at every turn, there’s a solid sense of how awful it would be to be taken by someone, to be removed from everything you know and forced into something terrible and new. Kidnap & Rescue is a damn dark show in spots, and it’s nice that it doesn’t feel the need to shy away from the darkness.

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