Heath Carpenter: Postmodern Reality Television: White County, Arkansas
A teenage boy in a faded Dale Earnhardt t-shirt approaches the podium in the White County District Courtroom, in Searcy, Arkansas. His hair is half-slicked, half wild, as if his mother gave him a hand-licked comb-over on his way out the door. He sports the most severe frown his hairless face can muster. The look suggests that this is the single worst moment of his short life. It’s the type of expression which promises that tears will follow.
As the bailiff reads off the charges of underage driving without a license and reckless driving, the District Court Judge peers down from his podium. He cuts an imposing figure. Dark tortoise shell glasses hide his small, hollow eyes. He’s a fair skinned dandy whose sartorial choices seems modeled after Jay Gatsby—all sharply starched Oxfords and lightly colored suits. His regal appearance presents a stark contrast to the generic décor of the courtroom. One can’t help but to conjure the image of a Rembrandt painting sitting amidst the toiletries at the local Dollar Store, being passed by and underappreciated by onlookers. After months of watching the judge deliver justice to the downtrodden, I’ve come to refer to him as His Excellency. In a rich, even-toned Southern drawl, He speaks with the cold indifference of a man who’s judged the guilty for decades.
From on high, His Excellency rhetorically asks the boy why he chose to disobey the law. Without waiting for a response, He delivers a homily to the youth employing a barrage of statutes and legalese, that verbose jargon of the court which I’ve come to love and recognize as one of his Excellency’s favorite tactics of intimidation. Finally, as a coup de grace, He tells the boy that this mindless act may have ruined his once promising future. Finished with His spiel, the judge looks down on the boy expectantly, ready to dismiss whatever feeble excuse he might offer.
The boy struggles to speak
I’m on the edge of my seat.
His bottom lip is trembling.
I’m quaking with anticipation.
Finally, leaning on his tip-toes to speak in the microphone, he whispers, “I was goin’ to my momma’s house to get some paste.”
“Paste?” I say aloud.
“Paste?” the judge repeats in a whisper, visibly flustered.
“Paste?” the courtroom murmurs incredulously.
“Paste,” the teenage boy confirms.
What can you say to that really? The boy needed paste. Powerful. I’ve yet to see the paste defense employed, but I’m a quick convert, so much so that I’m immediately screaming, “He’s innocent, the boy needed paste!”
His Excellency seems caught in a paste stupor. What seems like minutes goes by as He stares at the boy. My thoughts hit a frenzied crescendo as I imagine the precedent the paste defense could set, but the flabbergasted look on His Excellency’s face finally fades back into one of pragmatism and emotional detachment, and with a swift thump of the gavel, He declares the boy guilty. The drama segues not coincidentally into a commercial for a local bail bondsman, and I flip off the TV. My emotions are spent. My resolve is tarnished. All because of my obsession with what could represent a new paradigm in reality television, telecasts of White County District Court, in Searcy, Arkansas, which I’ve come to call White County Justice.
WCJ is the creation of a relatively new start-up television station in Searcy, AR called My Town TV. The show comes on daily at various times; I watch during my lunch break and in the wee hours of the morning. My obsession, I think, stems from the symptoms of small town life. When you’re born, raised, and continue to live as an adult in the confines of a small Southern town, you can’t help but be attuned to the doings of others. Our ears are always perched and adjusted in case a few trinkets of someone’s personal affairs happen to be aired in the public arena. In the end, it is a combination of small town living and an interest in the study of the various ailments and eccentricities of the defendants, that keep me coming back for more.
It took me a little while, though. When first I started watching WCJ, I kept thinking, “These are the people living around me? These are my townsfolk? The “characters” in the show seem so well developed and their accents so thick, that it’s hard not to imagine that they’re British actors, earnestly over-employing formal Southern dialect training. With a laugh track and some dry wit, you could have a late night PBS sensation.
Soon, though, I became concerned that their fate might be my destiny. A lapse of judgment here and twist of fate there, and I could be the man in his late fifties, denim clad, wearing sunglasses, with a Fu-Manchu mustache and a cocksure grin, who was caught shoplifting chicken strips from Wal-Mart, and whose only defense was the classic “I forgot I ate them before I left the store” spiel. The downtrodden look on his face as His Excellency fines him $450 for the .79 chicken strips, could be mine.
Then something came over me. The more I considered these people, the more sympathetic I became. They seem so honest. They know who they are, and they’re not changing. I find myself rooting for them, especially the seemingly harmless yet clearly guilty. The obviously guilty just seem so much more jovial. They’ve accepted their fate. They’ve pled guilty with a firm steady cadence and a strong disposition.
They are, however, never a match for His Excellency or his minions, especially the City Attorney, a well-dressed, baby-faced man in his thirties, who delivers cases with a boyish confidence accented by a slightly pompous grin, often getting ahead of himself with eager anticipation and quickly having to retract his steps and seek His Excellency’s permissions before pummeling the defendant with a barrage of questions and various lawyer-speak tactics aimed at verbally dismantling their defense. The City Attorney has a certain gleam in his eye, that same gleam the kid down the block has, the one who ties GI Joes and his kid sister’s Barbie’s to the back of their cocker spaniel’s tail by a pack of firecrackers and a few M80s. He is ready for battle.
As I’ve watched WCJ, I’ve gotten used to standing on the side of justice and eagerly anticipating His Excellency’s judgments as they reign down on to the unwashed masses. I like to imagine Him as a regal gentleman judge from Medieval England, wearing a powder white wig and disposing fines on the serfs of the feudal class. There’s a certain glimmer in his eyes when He lectures the defendants, as He sometimes invokes Latin or Yiddish terms in his diatribes, as if He were teaching the unlearned in an attempt to raise the standards of their lives and somehow inspire them to greater heights. His Excellency demands a standard of excellence and any deviance from that will not be tolerated. Nothing escapes Him.
I’ve learned a lot from White County Justice. I’ve learned about the decisive, steady hand of the law, but also about redemption and the traits we all hold in common. I’ve learned that the courtroom is no place for snickering and that crying gets you nowhere. But most importantly, I’ve learned exactly where and how I should stand so that when I make my inevitable debut, the cameras will catch me at just the right angle.