There are so many reality shows and travel specials on TV about Las Vegas that it’s sometimes easy to forget how narrow a portrait of our city they present to outsiders. Rarely do these shows venture off the Strip, and if they do it’s generally to other casinos, or to tattoo parlors or clubs or similar places. Rectifying that oversight in a big way is the new documentary miniseries Sin City Law (Sundance Channel, Mondays, 9 and 10 p.m., September 10-October 1), produced by Oscar-winning filmmakers Denis Poncet and Jean-Xavier De Lestrade, and directed by Remy Burkel. Poncet and De Lestrade are best known for the acclaimed The Staircase, also a documentary miniseries that aired on Sundance, which followed a controversial murder trial.
Like that show, Sin City Law takes a raw, in-depth approach to several murder trials in Vegas, with each of the four cases playing out over two hourlong episodes. Although establishing shots of the Strip fly by after each commercial break, none of the events depicted have to do with casinos, gambling or anything uniquely Vegas. The title underlines the location, but the subject matter shows how Vegas is just like any other city of decent size, with many of the same problems. In this way, the opening that emphasizes the glam of the city and the number of tourists who come through each year is a bit of disingenuous misdirection, an unfortunate concession to the city’s TV reputation. The implication that our city is somehow uniquely crime-ridden starts the show off on a bad note, but what follows almost never goes wrong.
Burkel uses a simple fly-on-the-wall style, eschewing talking-head interviews or much in the way of background material (brief local news clips provide basic info on each case at the beginning of the show), and it gives an excellent sense of being in the moment with the public defenders and district attorneys who try these cases. They deal with procedural headaches and limited resources, but are also amazingly good at ferreting out information and formulating their cases under enormous pressure.
And these are not in any way simple cases; what’s most impressive about Sin City Law is how it avoids sensationalizing these shocking situations, and creates sympathy for both perpetrators and victims, all trying to get the best possible outcome for themselves from a flawed system. The first case involves a horrific situation in which a 3-year-old girl is murdered and her 10-year-old sister is paralyzed. Yet as difficult as it is to watch, and as painful as it is to imagine what happened, Burkel never passes judgment, showing the likeable and remorseful side of one of the murderers, a 16-year-old girl who went along with her older brother as he retaliated for a drug deal gone bad. (Other cases include a young girl killed in the crossfire of a drive-by, an elderly man accused of stabbing his neighbor and a shooting outside a strip club.)
Burkel also deftly depicts the real lives of government-employed attorneys, who come off as dedicated and passionate as well as sometimes awkward and unsure of themselves, again without judgment or reverence. Sin City Law is intense and brutal but also strangely comforting, and after the bombardment of stories about judicial corruption and rampant crime that we get from the local news, it’s heartening to see a system that’s mostly working, and people within it caring deeply about their jobs. For those outside Sin City, the show is a welcome glimpse into the real life of a town that is often perceived only as a cartoonish fantasyland.
Sin City Law