When I was a teenager, a Friday night at home was considered a missed opportunity. I wasn't the most popular heifer in the slaughterhouse and so spent many such evenings alone in my room. I'd lament my lack of social capital and dream about what my adult life was going to be like. I pictured events of every stripe: house parties, kitchen parties, crowded dance clubs, smoky jazz bars, lively dinners, group Boggle, and late night skinny-dipping with hunky models who go for a midnight swim and I'd discover their hideaway and they'd be like, "Water's fine!" and I'd straddle a pool noodle with stunning masculinity and laugh til sunrise. And I'd never, ever again spend a Friday night sitting at home. Well NBC had other plans for an Adult James.
Friday night is Dateline night in our home. If the program airs at another time in the week, we record it to watch on Friday, as we did earlier this year when the program aired on Wednesday for a few months (not sure who was responsible for that programming blunder, but catching Dateline on a Wednesday was a bizarre, out-of-context experience like seeing your French teacher buying underpants at the dollar store). At this point, I should mention that this is a Dateline-exclusive blog entry and, if you don't watch the show, maybe join me back here next week. But statistically, some of you reading this not only watch the show, but make it appointment television.
For the unfamiliar, I should mention that Dateline is a weekly newsmagazine show that typically deals with a missing persons or murder case. They interview the families of the victims and (alleged) perpetrators, they talk to cops, investigators, and lawyers, they usually introduce a third-act twist, and then the show is over. Finding another Dater (or, if you prefer, a Lineman) is such a life-affirming experience. Next time you're at a party, casually mention Heather, the co-conspirator in the brutal murder of a young woman she met on a train. If another party guest gasps and says, "Was she the one with those hideous drawn-on eyebrows?", you've got yourself a friend forever.
The Doc and I have watched Dateline throughout our entire relationship. We have rituals and rules that coincide with each airing. We're allowed to wildly speculate as to the prime suspect and their guilt or innocence, up until halfway through the program, where we must render our definitive opinion. I don't know why we do this, we just do. Also, we spot "ourselves" in every broadcast. If I see a particularly irritated overweight court stenographer when they cut to a trial scene, I will say, "Oh there's me! Did you see? Go back!" And Doc will often cast himself as the baby-faced uncle of the murder victim, who offers vague platitudes like, "Death is hard."
It is to the point now that my expertise in this program takes me beyond superfan status. I am an aficionado, I am an enthusiast, and I deserve to become a correspondent.
Dream: Become a correspondent for Dateline.
Goal: Achievable. Here's the thing about Dateline correspondents, the bulk of the job seems to be sitting there looking skeptical. I can totally do that! And the show is formatted in such a way that the correspondent doesn't host the show, or even have to inanely chat with the host. They just stand on a street corner or in front of a gorge and say, "Nothing out of the ordinary ever seems to happen here. Oh yeah, except for a triple-murder that happened last year. Let's learn about it for an hour."
Plan: Offer up all I know about this stellar program in the hopes that some NBC head honcho reads this and says, "The kid's got spunk! Let's buy Josh Mankiewicz some bunk beds so James can shadow him and learn the ropes!" Here is all that I know about Dateline.
1) Murderers have poor follow-through. You have to marvel at these people who kill other people. They are callous and soulless and yet possess a calculated cunning that allows them to stab, shoot, drown, poison, etc their nearest and dearest. But for all the planning that goes into Act 1, after they do the deed, they become the party hostess who realizes there aren't enough chairs to seat everybody. They panic and fret and everyone around them thinks, "You didn't realize that this was going to happen, you unbelievable moron?" There was a guy last week who put cyanide in his wife's calcium supplements and so she took them and died. He maintained his innocence, even when police were tipped off, searched his house, found the remaining pills in the bottle, analyzed them, found traces of cyanide. The accused was like, "I don't know, that's really weird." Come on! Or a guy I saw who was an anaesthesiologist whose wife died of carbon monoxide poisoning, while he, in the same house as his wife throughout, never succumbed. Turns out, the night she was poisoned, he slept in a spare room downstairs with all of the air vents and ducts closed off. He told reporters he only did that because he was gassy and didn't want to stink up the house with his farts. I'm serious. This guy also wrote in his diary, "Not getting along with the wife. Maybe I should carbon monoxide her." He wrote that! And when confronted he said, "That was just fantasy. I'd never actually do that." Which is strange because that's how your wife died, buddy! The night you had those bad farts!
2) Lester Holt can't wear his suit jacket. Lester is a kindly man who hosts the show and he introduces the segment standing in a studio in pants, a shirt, and a vest. Behind him is a chair with his jacket slung over it. It is as if he ran into the studio five seconds to air, threw his jacket on the chair and shouted, "LET'S DO THIS!"
3) Every dead person or accused murderer has one really hot relative or friend, and that's who will speak to the folks at Dateline. It's amazing how someone can die in the grizzliest of circumstances, the investigation is open, the case is pending, and their telegenic bombshell cousin is just ready with those soundbites. If I get murdered, I only want my hot friends to say stuff about me. It just lends my life an air of sexy mystery. Plus, people watching at home go, "It sucks that this guy died but I feel even worse because look at how upset his passing has made that hot girl."
4) If you're watching Dateline, and the suspect is being filmed in a very tight shot (as in the camera is only filming his/her face and neck), not only did the suspect commit the crime, but they have been convicted. The reason a tight shot equals guilt is because Dateline has managed to secure a jailhouse interview but they can't film the accused person's body because you'd see the prison jumpsuit right away and the mystery would be ruined.
5) Dateline is one of the most emotional experiences on television. Perhaps there is something inherently exploitative about filming someone during the hardest time in their lives, but I often think the family of the murder victim just wants the chance to tell their story. There's something about the public expression of genuine grief that is so powerful. It reinforces the idea that we are more alike than different; that loss is universal.
6) This program is a master class in structure and editing. Dateline isn't really news, because it rarely presents the facts in a completely straight-forward way. Instead, they dangle clues and red herrings for the better part of an hour. Plus, they often have so little to work with. They might have one picture of the victim, or some grainy home movies, and they have to strategically show us the same thing one hundred times. Ten seconds of a wedding video becomes especially poignant on the 10th viewing once you realize the wife kills the husband five years later.
I can't decide if Dateline is gourmet fare, or comfort food. Do I take genuine pleasure or guilty pleasure in my weekly viewing? I feel a bit sick that the terrible experiences of the show's subjects are so entertaining, but it's also a real look at a human experience that's less contrived than a reality show and not as directly manipulative as scripted television. There really isn't anything else like it, which is reason enough to tune in.
If I was a Dateline correspondent, I'd give viewers the chance to learn a bit more about the ugliness and beauty that surrounds them. I'd deliver that glorious empathic push-and-pull where you watch and simultaneously think, "Oh, those poor people!" and "Glad that's not me." I'd throw my blazer off like Lester Holt, slouch skeptically like Josh Mankiewicz, wax poetic and wear Converse like Keith Morrison, and be the pretty and skillful new kid like Andrea Canning. I'd beam it all into your living room and make you think differently about the world, but I guess if I did that, I'd never be home on a Friday night.