It’s no secret that it’s getting harder and harder to produce an old-fashioned scripted TV series. Cable has fractured the audience, advertisers are fleeing to the Web; it takes a lot of money to stage a car chase that ends with a Porsche turning a 7-Eleven into a drive-through. At the same time, many local communities can barely afford to provide basic public services like law enforcement, firefighting and emergency medical care. Solution? Reality-TV series built around Hollywood stars who actually take on the real-life jobs they’re known for playing in the movies or on TV.
Pioneering this hybrid form of star-driven entertainment and public service: Steven Seagal. For the past 20 years, he says, he’s been a deputy sheriff in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, and now he’s got an A&E reality series, Steven Seagal: Lawman (Wednesdays, 10 p.m.), that documents his work with the agency.
Instead of battling terrorists, spies and Russian mobsters, Seagal mostly takes on teenage drug dealers, drunken spouses and other low-level offenders in his role as a real-life deputy sheriff. As he cruises the streets of Jefferson Parish in an unmarked SUV, the action unfolds at a slightly less spectacular pace than fans of his movies have come to expect. He has yet to ward off half-a-dozen ninjas with his expert aikido moves or discover an evil heroin ring operating within his own police force.
But from a producer’s perspective, well, making action-oriented entertainment out of actual events saves a lot of money! The bit players and extras all work for free; you don’t need permits to stage a car chase; you don’t have to deal with any writers. And from a community perspective, there are benefits, too. For budget-strapped city governments, celebrity volunteers like Seagal are a godsend. Plus, having a movie star at the scene of a crime always seems to lighten the mood. People who are angry or upset lighten up when they realize that big guy in the sunglasses is ... Steven Seagal. If you’re going to get arrested anyway, why not get an autograph out of the deal? Tense situations resolve peacefully, economically, entertainingly. In short, with celebrities providing basic public services, everybody wins! Granted, things might get a little dicier when, say, Hugh Laurie or Anthony Edwards start volunteering at hospitals for medical-based reality series, but that’s what liability waivers are for.