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'Boston's Finest': The Right Formula for Reality
February 27, 2013  | By Eric Gould  | 1 comment

Mark Twain once wrote: "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't."

Truth also often makes for better television. Case in point is the upcoming series, Boston's Finest. At first it seems to be a typical reality show about a typical subject — cops — but unspools to become something more. And, as in most cases, the true stories trump the scripted ones.

From the outset, the new TNT series (premiering Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 9 p.m., ET) isn't just a rehash of the Cops-style antics. Nor does it have the hyper-compressed drama of one of our scripted cop favorites, Southland, which airs on TNT immediately following. That doesn't mean it doesn't have its share of arrests and raids, but there's an equal amount of air time spent on the personal stories of the people doing the work.

"We've watched shows about cops, but it's our first time making this type of show," said Julie Insogna-Jarrett, co-producer of the series along with her husband, Seth Jarrett, speaking on the telephone from their New York offices last week. They're producing the show along with Donnie Wahlberg, (older brother of Mark) who knows a thing or two about law and disorder growing up in the once-rough neighborhood of nearby Dorchester.

As a reality series that's much more a documentary, Boston's Finest achieves something difficult — a worthwhile look at what it takes to do the job of law and order, and the inherent routine that is intertwined with constant threat of danger. It's a continual state of cognitive dissonance for the beat officers, detectives, and the highly decorated Gang Unit that's all too regular, and all too real.

As we follow one detective in the Fugitive Unit, Greg Dankers, (right) through the Charlestown neighborhood on the trail of a crook who's wanted in New Hampshire, he says, "we go after the worst of the worst — murderers, rapists, burglars, armed robbers. There's going to be people that want to kill you. If you're mentally prepared, physically prepared, emotionally prepared to go to work, you'll survive."

It's then that you realize that as the cops in Boston's Finest strap on a gun for work, it's for a good reason. Their firearms are not just the TV accessory we're used to seeing, and with that realization there's a kind of forced, involuntary awareness of Hollywood scripted conventions that seem impossibly shallow when stacked against the real thing.

The series goes well into the formula of combining the personal with the professional, as did last summer's reality show, NY Med, which followed ER nurses and doctors and showed the personal effects of working their high-pressure jobs. Its vérité style created a portrait of uncharacteristic clarity, as does the TNT police docu-reality series when it shows Officer Dankers dropping his kids at daycare before going on surveillance.

"It was about seeing how you take work home with you, and how you take home to work with you," said Seth Jarrett.  "A lot of these officers are not only from Boston, but they're from the exact neighborhoods they're patrolling."

One of the more compelling stories follows Jenn Penton (top photo, second from right), a military veteran who has served in Afghanistan and is now a patrol officer. She takes her physical training to the limit, working hard in the gym to be prepared for any situation. "Being a female police officer comes with certain challenges and obstacles," she says. "There are people that just don't respect a woman in a role of authority. I've dealt with quite a few people that just cannot handle the fact that it's a female telling them what to do."

Penton's police world is colored by a surprising slant to her own story, which unfolds in the second episode. She finds a family member, who has taken a very different route in life.

The real strength of shows like Boston's Finest and NY Med is that the camera captures the odd blend of highs and lows — the routine ordinariness contrasted with heart-wretching danger that creates an ongoing atmosphere of uncertainty.

"You come to realize is that, very often, if the arrest is easy, that's because they did incredible police work," says Seth Jarrett. "They figured it out. They knew where he was going to be, they were in the safest possible place to arrest them. It's the chaotic scenes that are not necessarily the ones you brag about, or that you strive for."

And sure enough, in the premiere episode, a bust starts with a team walking up to a house in vests emblazoned with "Gang Unit" across them, and with the point man simply knocking on the front door. The arrest goes down in such an oddball, innocuous way, it's the strange cousin to a scripted arrest, or the usual, low points on Cops. The real thing has much more tension because the potential for the situation to ignite is there — but it doesn't.

Not exactly what you would expect from TV cops, but infinitely more interesting.

And real.

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I don't watch reality shows, ever. But I've read your review and seen the previews. I'm surprised to see a reality show that actually looks like it's worth watching. Wonders never cease.
Mar 10, 2013   |  Reply
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