True Grime: Crime Scene Clean-Up debuts tonight on Investigation Discovery at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Earlier this week, I covered a Spike reality series titled Bar Rescue, a great concept that was hostilely taken over by placing star/hack hospitality consultant Jon Taffer at the center of its story. ID’s new three-part verite offering, True Grime, flirts precariously with the same conflict, although it ultimately escapes any critical wounds stemming from production choices. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for clients of Oakland-rooted Crime Scene Cleaners, an independent business owned by father-of-two Neal Smithers that scrubs and sprays out the remnants of gruesome real-life CSI locations. Neal and his crew—veteran Jim Gisi, young buck Mike Downer and skittish new guy James Adams—are basically a forensic janitorial staff.
In the first episode, “Road Rage,” Neal gets a generous portion of camera time, mostly so he can provide background bites about his company, staff and the blood-curdling nature of their business. Chances are they won’t need him to do as much expository heavy lifting over the subsequent two weeks, which will work in True Grime’s favor. Like Taffer, Neal is achingly aware of his camera presence, and all too eager to play the role of tough, blowhard boss. He demeans good-natured James by calling him a “fatass,” puffs himself up while reprimanding Jim about how he has “medical comp, not worker’s comp,” motivates the team with Larry the Cable Guy-isms like “Git-r-done!” and suggests that Mike may not be cut out for the gig because young employees are always “out chasing skirt.” Yeah, you know, before they go to the sockhop and take their honeypie for a spin on a real boss hog.
Fortunately, True Grime is more concerned with the action out in the field than Neal’s tactics to keep his charges in line. This is where you expect the premise to pay off, and it mostly does. As the title suggests, James and Neal encounter a woman whose boyfriend was stabbed to death during a road-rage confrontation with another driver, and she needs to have the blood-soaked sedan thoroughly cleaned because she can’t afford a new car. Elsewhere in the premiere, James and Jim handle two successive, grisly murders in Richmond, CA, scrubbing blood, tissue and skull fragments out of asphalt cracks with an enzyme mixture and oversized brushes. All while inside a ridiculous-looking protective Hazmat suit. In one instance, the pair was surrounded by friends of the recently deceased armed with roses and candles, and were so nervous that they missed some crimson-stained areas, forcing Neal and Jim to revisit the site and finish what they started.
This is where True Grime largely falters. Somehow, they persuaded Barbara Bradford, great-grandmother of the aforementioned Richmond shooting casualty, to be on-camera and discuss the incident. Neal mentions several times during his own interviews that the interpersonal side of the job is not his forte, and demonstrates why during his cringe-y conversation with the grief-stricken woman. It’s just as clear that he’s done little in the way of training his staff on proper etiquette with victims’ loved ones. Let alone any kind of trauma-counseling or guidance for jobs that get under the cleaners’ skin. James and Mike are awkward and immature in dealing with Roschell Morgan, whose boyfriend died in their car, and Jim looks visibly rattled after restoring the scene of a meticulously executed suicide. Even worse, Bradford at one point was coaxed into an infomercial-style endorsement for CSC’s services.
That last bit was the only moment in which True Grime felt outright exploitive. Everyone involved are willing participants after all, and several police offers appear on-camera, giving the proceedings much-needed credibility. But still, the episode lacked a certain humanity that would have really justified its production in a narrative format, rather than a straight, clinical document. It was also weakest and slowest moving during final-act segments that tried to foment ongoing suspense around whether Jim would get fired and if Jim and Mike would come to blows (I guarantee you, they won’t, and feel pretty confident he won’t).
What’s interesting about sizing up True Grime against a program like Bar Rescue is that the latter missed some terrific interior drama right under the feet of its egomaniacal star, whereas “Road Rage” suffers from shoehorning a naturally fascinating idea into a pre-existing reality format. Although, mercifully, it still leaves the viewer with a very watchable series, rather than the sound of one barking tyrant recycling his own clichés for 60 minutes.
• Neal says he got the idea for CSC after watching Pulp Fiction. Thanks, Quentin.
• Side note: CSC opened for my business on my 17th birthday (June 2, 1996), also the day I could legally drive. Wish I knew I could call them if I was mortally wounded in an accident.
• Neal seems all talk, but that comment about one of Jim’s “tweaker friends” having stolen his credit card was some funny chatter.
• For someone who handles "seven-14" of these cases in the Bay Area per week, you’d think Neal would sound less like a frightened white man when referring to “the hood.”
• What the fuck is up with Neal’s Death Star-sized Bluetooth headset?
• Ah, now we see where they’re getting such sterling employees as Jim. Craigslist! (My guess is their ads of late have also promoted the chance to be on TV.)
• By the way, the gross-meter on True Grime isn’t that obscene. It’s more emotionally jarring, which is why it’s a shame that Neal and his staff are so reticent to engage that aspect of their job. Must have made producing a compelling hour around this tough.