‘Panic 9-1-1,’ close calls, too close
Turns out the folks who are in so much danger escape unharmed
November 27, 2012
Sometimes it's impossible to give a critical opinion of a TV show without spoiling the ending.
A&E's new documentary series "Panic 9-1-1" re-creates some potentially horrible crimes using the original audio tape of the 911 calls made by the potential victims. The inherent suspense of the audio is enhanced by grainy black-and-white reenactments showing the cowering potential victims and menacing potential murderers.
If the stories ended in the callers' death, they would be depressing, leaving us feeling like ghoulish voyeurs. If the callers survived, the happy ending would be uplifting, but the show would feel like a bit of a cheat.
So here's the spoiler: "Panic 9-1-1" is uplifting, but it feels like a bit of a cheat.
The three true stories presented in the premiere, which airs this Thursday, Nov. 29, at 10 p.m., all feature innocent people stalked by dangerous, apparently deranged men. After some grueling minutes in which we're sure we're soon going to hear the callers' futile pleas for mercy, they all escape or are rescued.
Each of the stories in the premiere is given an eerie title taken from a line spoken during the 911 call. The first segment is titled "He Goes, 'Too Bad, We're Stuck Together.' "
That line was spoken by a man who broke into the apartment of a single mother named Monique Silva in San Jose, Calif., in 1993. We learn that he had been stalking her for two months before attacking her in the middle of the night.
Frighteningly, the criminal spent minutes poking through her belongings, giving Silva time to barricade herself in a closet with her son. She tells the 911 operator that she has a gun, but the operator advises her to put it down so that she isn't mistaken for a criminal when the police arrive.
The call lasted eight minutes, but it feels longer. When the attacker finds Silva, we hear him say, "I'm going to get nasty with you for a while," and then we hear prolonged screaming.
The dimly lit reenactment footage adds to the suspense, as does the fact that we see interviews with the 911 operator and with Silva's sister but not with Silva herself until the very end.
Once we learn that Silva is OK, the guilt that would accompany listening to some sort of reality snuff tape goes away, but viewers will feel misled as much as relieved.
That opening segment serves as its own sort of spoiler for the two segments that follow: Now that we know the callers might not die, the suspense is reduced.
But they still grab our attention. In the second segment, a store manager calls while he and five customers hide from a mentally unbalanced would-be Marine with a semi-automatic rifle.
In the third, a woman on a farm in Oklahoma speaks to the operator while an intoxicated or insane man tries to break into her house, with the closest responders 35 miles away. She tells the operator that she is holding a shotgun and is ready to use it. The segment's title is "I'm Going to Shoot Him Graveyard Dead."
All of the segments keep us guessing until the end. One family member even refers to a caller in the past tense, even though we learn at the end that she is alive.
Viewers will naturally resent being manipulated, a sentiment that shades toward being disappointed that the good guys survived.
The episode has some documentary interest. The single mother shares her insights about moving on after trauma, and the shotgun-wielding woman turns out to be more complex than one might expect. But the socially redeeming value is minimal.
Even though this guilty pleasure tries to reduce the guilt, it still outweighs the pleasure.
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