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SHOT IN THE DARK: The series that shows the compelling careers of Los Angeles stringers…

Posted on December 11th, 2017
Posted on December 11th, 2017

by Coop Cooper

Ever since seeing the 2014 thriller “Nightcrawler” starring Jake Gyllenhaal, I’ve been fascinated with the careers of ‘stringers’ or freelance camera operators who roam the streets of major cities hoping to record footage of crimes, accidents and disasters in order to sell the footage to news outlets. It’s a seedy, dangerous business where the competition is fierce, but the rewards can be high. Netflix’s new documentary series “Shot in the Dark” chronicles the exploits of real-life stringers in Los Angeles as they capture tragedy on camera while trying to stay one step ahead of their cutthroat rivals. While this docu-series is compelling and exciting to watch, it does bring up ethical issues that highlight the grey-areas of the business and raises the question as to whether the stringers featured in the show are merely ambitious business men or parasitic sociopaths.

The show focuses on three stringer companies, one small operation run by struggling British brothers Howard and Austin Raishbrook, a large operation run by the cool and calculated Zak Holman and a medium-sized operation run by the brash and vindictive Scott Lane. Using fast cars, police scanners and expensive camera gear, they prowl the streets of L.A. waiting for emergency calls, then racing to the scene to beat the other stringers to the punch. However, when Austin develops post traumatic stress disorder after pulling a victim from a burning car, his absence tips the balance of power in the field, causing some rivals to clash and others to join forces.

One of the most interesting aspects of the show is seeing how the process works. The stringers assign themselves areas to cover and stage themselves while listening to emergency calls, waiting for one that guarantees sellable footage. They then road-rage their way to the scene where they try to get as close as they can and get the shots they know the local news outlets want. They then make some quick edits on laptops in the car, upload their footage to servers and call the local news stations. If the outlets like what they see, they buy the footage for several hundred dollars a segment. This is called a ‘hit’ and if a stringer can get multiple hits from the other local outlets using the same footage, they have multiplied their earnings. If the footage is truly spectacular, they can get hits from national/international outlets, and that could mean a small fortune.

It’s very difficult to morally reconcile the career choice of these guys, much less some of the actions they take to get the footage they want. Sometimes we get glimpses of humanity in them as they stop for a moment to reflect on the fact that they almost saw someone die or as they comfort someone who is traumatized from an incident as they wait for emergency services to arrive. We also see them with their loving families and children. But some scenes feel staged, like they are putting on a show for the documentary cameras, so it’s hard to pinpoint their true motives.

But then we see the dark side of their business… Their glee when they hear there are ‘body parts on the freeway’ and that they have beaten the other stringers to the site, or their unapologetic reckless driving while trying to race to the scene. They also actively try to sabotage each other by stealing employees, tattling on each other to the police and general backstabbing and badmouthing. However, it’s clear from watching the series that if they do not use underhanded tactics, they could quickly get drummed out of the business.

Although it is compelling to watch, I can understand people being turned off by the subject matter of “Shot in the Dark”. One entertainment critic was so offended by its existence, she quit watching after a couple of episodes and wrote a scathing review that questioned the morality of Netflix providing it to the public.

I loathe reality shows and I have never been a fan of TV docu-series like “Cops” or “Steven Seagal: Lawman”, but “Shot in the Dark” has a unique feel to it that I’ve never seen in this genre of shows. The people in this career are inherently flawed, morally questionable, yet they do show glimpses of humanity from time-to-time. Just when you think one has shown their true colors as a villain, they do something in the opposite direction that makes you change your mind about them. However, the stringers portrayed in the show were inspirations for Gyllenhaal’s manipulative and frighteningly sociopathic character Louis Bloom in “Nightcrawler”, so any (potentially staged) humanity shown by stringers in “Shot in the Dark” should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

P.S. This could easily be adapted into a fictional HBO series, which is something I would certainly pay to see.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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