Officers John Zuniga and Christian Flores of the Nogales, Police Department… (Brent Stirton, Animal Planet )
Animal Planet's new reality show "Law on the Border" follows the K-9 unit of the Nogales Police Department as members "wage war" on crime in the Arizona border town, i.e., as they attempt to keep the drug smugglers, money launderers and purveyors of illegal immigrants on the other side of the three-mile-long, 20-foot-high fence.
It is neither the first reality show to follow law enforcement officials patrolling the Mexican border — National Geographic has "Border Wars," ABC had "Homeland Security, USA" — nor is it the first to showcase the talents of a K-9 unit — Animal Planet already has "K-9 Cops" to its credit. Combining the two is something different, although in the pilot it seems much more pitch-meeting conceptual than functional; the focus is almost exclusively on five male officers rather than their canine counterparts.
What "Law on the Border" does represent, however, is the first time Animal Planet has ventured into a political landscape not dominated by the animal conservancy movement. And the timing — three months out from a presidential election — is rather remarkable, especially for a network known more for shows dedicated to the bizarre behavior of cats.
Immigration law, the protection of our borders in general and the fencing of Arizona in particular, have been hotbed issues in this campaign, and "Law on the Border," which was originally entitled "Hell on the Border," could easily be Exhibit A in explaining why.
Everything about the show conspires to create a mood of tension and dread: If the sun-bleached vistas of both desert and town, the ominous music and "Blair Witchian" use of a single camera with its own illumination at night don't make it clear that this is One Dangerous Town, then the deep and anxious voice-over will.
Repeatedly, we are told that the men who don the uniform are essentially painting targets on their chests, that the enemy is ever-vigilant and utterly ruthless, that a thousand eyes watch from behind that fence, which, barely a year into its most recent makeover, quickly and disturbingly becomes the star of the show, a formidable surface of steel onto which the stuff of nightmares is projected.
The enemy, executive producer Michael Hoff points out early and often, is not the Mexican people, but the Mexican drug cartel. No further specifics are given, no names attached. The men seen being arrested in the pilot have their faces blurred and it is not clear who they are or on which side of the border they reside. Three of the officers, who all have catchy nicknames including "Gecko" and "Crash," are Nogales natives; one, Amador Vasquez ("Gecko"), came to the town from Mexico when he was 19; another is a recent transfer from Tucson.
They are all likable, seemingly capable men dedicated to protecting their town from the violent criminal minority who work for the cartel. The best scenes in the pilot come as the officers explain what they are looking for when questioning suspects — nervousness, lies, mysterious bulges — and the arrest of one man who at first denies having large amounts of cash on his person, only to remember that "oh, yeah, I have five grand" is played for grim humor.
Towns on the Mexican border are on the frontline of many real issues, and there is no doubt that these officers, and the many like them, have a tough and necessary job that is often quite dangerous. The value of "Law on the Border" comes, as it does from any reality show celebrating the daily lives of unsung workers be they ice road truckers or border patrol agents, from seeing first-hand how other Americans live their lives.
It's the hyped up mood, all the narrative bold type and exclamation points that grate, especially here. If the point is to show what it's really like, why not just do that? Why turn every moment into a life or death fulcrum? In a situation such as this, one would think reality would actually be enough.
And if the point is to do something else, to make a point about our politics and policies, well, then what the heck is it doing on "Animal Planet"?
'Law on the Border'
Where: Animal Planet
When: 10 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)