Doing Hard Time: Las Vegas


Doing Hard Time: Las Vegas

Friday 1 March at 9pm on Nat Geo

Prison is hell: it’s an important lesson and there isn’t a shortage of documentaries to teach it. National Geographic’s latest isn’t one of the better efforts. Covering a year in the Clark County Detention Centre, Doing Hard Time: Las Vegas tries to show the state of the modern US jail system through the stories of its wardens and inmates.

But it tries too hard to tell that story. Of course, every documentary is authored and offers a particular view of its subject. Every cut, edit and caption represents a choice about how the topic is to be portrayed. What a documentarist can at least strive to do is to remove themself from the picture as far as possible. The question is not “Is this what would happen if I were not there?â€? but “Does this look like what I would happen if I were not there?â€?

Doing Hard Time scuppers its own chances of genuine insight by being too laboriously authored. The ever-present voiceover consistently steps in to give structure, to foreshadow and to recap. It’s an increasingly prevalent form
of authorial intervention, intended to keep hold of as great a portion of the audience as possible over the ad breaks and to snatch any further viewers who might be flicking through.

As a result, very little of the programme actually ends up being substance, and trying to watch it becomes as difficult as attempting to follow the Super Bowl. How am I meant to care about what’s happening on the pitch when I spend more time listening to the commentators?

Compare this to Louis Theroux’s Behind Bars and the faults are obvious. Theroux may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but his light touch, eyes-of-an-innocent approach is perfect at luring stories out of people. If the documentarist plays the fool, his subject will get cocky.

There are stories to be found in the Clark County Detention Centre, but Doing Hard Time makes a very bad fist at telling them. Inmate Dawn Collins’s ‘dorm mother’ act is picked apart by wardens and fellow inmates, but the force of that impact – of the whole show – should lie in its reality. Wrap it up in such obvious facade and you might as well be watching Prisoner Cell Block H.