Barbra and Tami

In the “new golden age of television,” the most ambitious, scripted prestige fare is endlessly dissected while the rest of the broad television universe is ignored. In We’ll Watch Anything, The A.V. Club challenges the boundaries of television criticism by valiantly consuming anything on the dial. In this installment, A&E’s imprisoned innocents reality show, 60 Days In.

The pitch: This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in an Indiana jail, work together to avoid being assaulted, and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people take leave from being assholes in their real lives and bring their assholery into an unpleasant new environment. Following the demise of the hugely successful but deeply distasteful Beyond Scared Straight, which concluded a nine-season run last year, A&E found a new way to sate its viewers’ appetites for human misery and rape threats. Instead of briefly putting wayward youths in jail in the hopes of inspiring them to straighten up, 60 Days In puts seven innocent adults behind bars for two months to get an unvarnished look at prison life through the eyes of people who haven’t been convicted of a crime. The twist: No one except the producers, including the other inmates and the prison guards, know the participants are innocent.

Could it be worth watching? Geez… uh… I guess? There is something undeniably fascinating about prison culture, which is why Orange Is The New Black became a huge hit for Netflix, and why MSNBC often pads its weekend schedule with its long-running Lockup docuseries. 60 Days In essentially combines the former with the latter in a reality format, tossing prison newbies into the deep end and seeing if they have the mettle to survive. It’s one thing to observe the lives of teardrop-tattooed inmates who know prison culture in and out, another to watch a fictionalized account of someone transitioning into prison life for the first time, and still another to hear from real people as they’re tossed into this singularly hostile setting. Reality television is teeming with shows fueled purely by the audience’s morbid curiosity and schadenfreude (see: Naked And Afraid). 60 Days In is certainly no more exploitative than Naked, and could be engrossing to those who already gravitate to depictions of prison life.

What’s not to love? It’s always a bad sign when a reality show bills itself as an “unprecedented television experiment.” The phrase implies an idea so bold, brave, and interesting that no one had the ingenuity or the chutzpah to pull it off before now. Of course, there’s also the possibility that it’s simply a terrible idea, and from its trailers alone, 60 Days In makes clear why there’s no precedent for it. There’s no clear benefit to sending seven people into a prison who don’t belong there, and there really isn’t much novelty to it either, considering Lockup has been providing warts-and-all depictions of incarceration for over a decade now. Lockup is arguably exploitative too, since it profits by telling the stories of people who can lay no legal claim to having their stories told. But at least Lockup tells those stories from the perspectives of the actual prisoners and guards who live and work inside the facility, while 60 Days In is just affected prison tourism.

How was it? Bad enough that there would be several punch holes in my living room wall if I could have mustered the energy to get off the couch. Beyond Scared Straight was a lightning rod throughout its nine seasons on the air, with behavioral and criminal justice experts calling into question the efficacy of juvenile crime-prevention programs that exclusively rely on threats of physical abuse and rape and close-range halitosis. But there was at least some kind of logical argument to be made for a show like Beyond Scared Straight. Last year, a Baltimore teen was murdered after appearing on the show, which certainly undermines the success of the program, but reinforces the idea that intervention for felonious teens is important, even if the show doesn’t represent the best execution.

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60 Days In has no reason to exist other than to replace Beyond Scared Straight with a similar concept that doesn’t rely on the psychological abuse of children. Of course, no one can just come out and say that, so the first episode of 60 Days In is devoted to introducing the prison, the warden, and the seven participants, then belaboring their motivations for participating in the show. Sheriff Jamey Noel heads up Jeffersonville, Indiana’s Cook County Jail, a facility he says has been plagued by abuse, graft, and drug use that he and his staff are powerless to stop. Noel supposedly “hand picked” the participants himself—though I can’t imagine he was flooded with applications—in the hopes of getting an unbiased, outsider view of what’s going on in his prison so he can better keep an eye on the inmates.

To that end, the producers install a state-of-the-art camera system, including cameras placed inside actual cells, to document the participants as they go undercover to suss out wrongdoing. Shouldn’t the intrusive surveillance system, with its round-the-clock monitoring, be enough to expose and curtail the behaviors Noel is concerned about? Yes, probably, but the system is only there in the first place because the producers needed lots of coverage, so I suppose the Cook County Jail is theoretically better off after subjecting itself to this program.

But while Noel’s aim is to flush the drugs out of his prison, the participants have motivations of their own, which is where 60 Days In really trips over itself trying to justify its own existence. Some of the participants have relatable, or at least reasonable goals. Maryum is a social worker who specializes in preventing gang violence and wants a closer look at life on the inside. A few more of the innocent prisoners cite professional curiosity as their motivation: Zac, a former marine, has dreams of becoming a DEA agent; Tami currently serves as a police officer; and Jeff, a long-time security guard, wants to take steps toward becoming a correctional officer. Then there’s Isaiah, a 19-year-old kid from Philadelphia who wants to experience prison life to better understand the plight of his incarcerated brother.

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Because 60 Days In is a spiritual successor to Beyond Scared Straight, there has to be a couple of participants who are motivated by sheer hubris. Barbra, a mousy stay-at-home mom, is convinced that prisoners have it too easy and wants to see it for herself. Robert, a teacher, shares Barbra’s view that the resort-like environment of American prisons encourages criminality, but says in the same breath that he wants to experience prison so he can impart to his students the potential consequences of their bad behavior. These are the people Sheriff Noel, in his infinite wisdom, “hand picked” to go undercover. Most of them are wholly unprepared to be put into the environment at all, let alone able to acclimate quickly enough to start sussing out drug activity within a span of two months. And why exactly are there no paid professionals able to go undercover inside a prison? I’d almost have more respect for 60 Days In if the producers embraced how disgusting and pointless it is rather than trying to pretend this unprecedented experiment is doing anybody any good.

Then again, even the most bloodthirsty reality television viewers would be turned off by 60 Days In if not for its patina of benevolence. It’s so exploitative and distasteful, it makes Lockup look like The Farm: Angola, USA. First, there’s the implication that everyone in the Cook County Jail is guilty of the crime of which they were convicted, and that their time in prison has been purely punitive and has done nothing to rehabilitate their behavior. The premise of the show relies on our worst fears about the incarcerated and the dangers they pose to “innocent people,” ignoring the fact that a few are no doubt innocent themselves, and many others are in jail for non-violent offenses. 60 Days In is edited to suggest the participants are under constant threat of physical harm, which they don’t “deserve” because they haven’t been convicted of a crime. Every act break suggests one of the participants is going to be mauled to death by their fellow inmates, and all you have to do to see it is sit through a few commercials.

In reality, many of the inmates are friendly and helpful, but because of the show’s premise, the producers turn those qualities into threats, like a shiv fashioned from a piece of flatware. Of the four male participants, Isaiah takes to the experience worst. He lies in his bunk and succumbs to depression, reluctant to interact with the inmates in his pod. It doesn’t help that Isaiah spends days stewing in his own body odor because the prison won’t give him the identification number he needs to receive commissary money, which would fund the essential toiletries the prison doesn’t provide. The inmates rally around Isaiah in spite of it all, asking him why he’s there, and lobbying the cameras on his behalf when they learn he’s been held for days without appearing before a judge. Isaiah becomes concerned that all the attention might lead him to blow his cover, so he utters the predetermined panic phrase (“I really miss hot coffee”) so the producers will pull him out and talk through a solution to keep his secret safe. There’s no attention paid to the fact that the inmates went out of their way to help a musky stranger, only to the fact that by doing so, they risked outing Isaiah as a plant.

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Robert is, by far, the most odious of the bunch, and he’s placed in a pod known for its hostility and violence. Literally the first words out of Robert’s mouth to one of his new neighbors is to ask if the television comes equipped with the NFL Network so he can watch an upcoming game. The situation quickly spirals out of control as Robert commits faux pas after faux pas—not violations of nuanced prison etiquette, but rules of basic human decency that exist everywhere. When he’s invited to Bible study, Robert goes off on a weird tangent about how much he hates child molesters, part of a misguided effort to endear himself to the inmates. Then, the inmates say their benediction, and Robert refuses to join hands with the other inmates, leaving their prayer circle incomplete. Between his rudeness and inability to keep his cover story straight, Robert’s podmates quickly conclude he doesn’t belong and start plotting against him.

If the goal of 60 Days In is to stoke, then satisfy the viewer’s bloodlust, Robert’s arc has the best chance of doing so. Unfortunately, someone else suffers for Robert’s behavior. Shortly after arriving, a kind, round inmate named DiAundre—the Piggy in this Lord Of The Flies scenario—takes Robert under his wing despite the other inmates’ growing suspicion. DiAundre doesn’t look like much of a threat, unless you’re Matt Lucas and you’re afraid of DiAundre successfully passing himself off as you. He’s new to Cook County too, and does his part to help a guppy who will get swallowed if left to his own devices. His reward? Another inmate punches him in the side of the head for refusing to stop associating with Robert, and both DiAundre and his assailant get ejected from the pod. In a talking head, Robert talks about how awful he would feel if he’s the reason DiAundre got assaulted. But there’s no question that DiAundre, whose life in Cook County Jail will go on long after the participants and camera crew have packed up, got assaulted because someone who wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place placed him in peril by being a fucking asshole. Robert feels awful about the whole thing, but apparently the producers don’t. A&E announced a season two renewal ahead of the first season’s premiere.

Would you watch it again? Nope, not even as community service.

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