Texas jails get their close-up in new reality TV show on Spike

Eric in his Jefferson County jumpsuit in ‘Jail: Big Texas’
Eric in his Jefferson County jumpsuit in ‘Jail: Big Texas’ Langley Productions

Texas and reality TV go together like summer and sweet tea.

No sooner have LeeAnne Locken and the Real Housewives of Dallas crew packed their designer bags and vacated the airwaves than along comes the debut of a different, and decidedly more downscale, look at Lone Star lives.

Jail: Big Texas debuts at 8 p.m. Saturday on Spike.

Produced by the same company that birthed the pioneering, and controversial, reality-TV show Cops in 1989, it takes that verite, “bad-boys-whatcha-gonna-do-when-they-come-for-you” approach to the booking and intake process that its predecessor takes to chases and arrests. For this 20-episode season, the focus is on several county jails, including those in Tarrant, El Paso County, Hidalgo County (McAllen), Randall County (Amarillo) and Jefferson County (Beaumont).

“I think Americans are still fascinated with frontier justice,” said executive producer Morgan Langley, whose dad, John, was the impetus behind Cops, “and Texas has its own appeal.”

Jail: Big Texas is actually an update of Jail, which was shot in several cities — including Fort Worth and Austin — and ran for four seasons beginning in 2007. Reruns still dot the Spike schedule. Last year, the first of the Jail reboots — Jail: Las Vegas — began airing but Langley said they shifted geography to Texas this season to keep things fresh.

Langley and Fort Worth go back a long way. Episodes of Cops were shot in the city many years ago.

“Fort Worth, back in the old days of Cops, was a really exciting venue for us,” he said. “And we did feature Tarrant County in the early days of the Jail show where we had some good stories and wanted to return.”

Langley is glad he made the switch, as the shows shot in Texas — the Fort Worth episodes aren’t set to air until later in the season — have a different feel from those in Las Vegas.

“The cultural differences in law enforcement are interesting,” he said. “Most of the Texas jails I’ve seen, they’re a little bit more informal than how it goes in Las Vegas and it’s more personable between the jailers and the people being booked.”

Terry Grisham, executive adminstrator for the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department and a liaison between production crews and the department, said Langley’s streamlined approach to producing Jail: Big Texas was one of its major selling points.

“We’ve done just about every network news magazine. We’ve done 48 Hours, Dateline. They typically are a hassle for us because they bring so many people and so much equipment,” Grisham said.

“One of the things the Langleys sold us on was that they travel with two people — the sound man and the photographer, who acts as the director and producer. [They said] we don’t create a huge footprint in your jail. That was very attractive to us.”

Slower pace

But what separates Jail as a whole from Cops is not just that it documents a different part of the law-enforcement cycle but that it has a slightly less frenetic tone.

Whereas many of the suspects in Cops seem to be in a constant spasm of shirtless, inebriated fury, their counterparts in Jail are caught at a time when their rage may be spiked with shots of regret and remorse.

So, in the first episode, it’s hard to not feel a pang of sympathy for a young man in El Paso — picked up for shoplifting a pair of shoes after just having been released from prison on a burglary charge — who seems to realize he’s throwing his life away.

Or the fearful guy in Beaumont arrested for public intoxication who sadly requests to be put someplace where he won’t run into his enemies.

Or maybe it’s an act. But it certainly lends a bittersweet edge to Jail: Big Texas.

“It’s just a different pace,” said Langley. “In Cops, the officers on the street are in a very precarious situation. Corrections officers are as well, but the pace is different inside of a jail. … Cops has a bit more action; Jail has more humor and bizarre moments and more of the things you wouldn’t necessarily see on Cops.”

‘Cops’ controversy

The one thing both series share is that they humanize — and some critics would say glamorize — law enforcement while the “bad boys” — some of whom may end up not being guilty — have their faces splashed on national television at what may be the lowest points of their lives.

Cops has been heavily critiqued for having a formula that relies “heavily on degradation and mockery of suspects, presumption of guilt, and audience identification with unfailingly ‘good guy’ police protagonists,” as the activist group Color of Change charged this year.

On the other side of the political aisle, The American Conservative is sympathetic with that point of view, writing in 2013 that “obvious concerns about the show’s routine exploitation of the poor and minorities, the kicked-in doors, and the dangerous high speed chases, have done nothing to thwart the show’s ultimate success.

“And both sides enjoy the payoff: the police get the glory as street-wise heroes who never tire, toiling away at keeping civilization in tact, while the producers get the access, the ratings, and at least 25 years in a prominent time slot.”

Langley pushes back against the charge that show is exploitative.

“The people who appear are adults and they sign a legally binding contract. Generally, I’ve got to tell you that they not only sign but sign enthusiastically and ask, ‘When am I going to be on the show?’ ” he said.

“Of course, later some of them may regret that decision, but it’s hard for me to feel sorry for an adult who signs on the dotted line and agrees to let us do that.”

Much has changed in the world of policing since Cops hit the air 27 years ago. From Rodney King to Freddie Gray and most recently Alton Sterling, an outcry has erupted over some police tactics.

And Cops producers aren’t the only ones filming these days. Body cams and cellphone cameras are two pieces of technology that didn’t exist in the ’80s.

Things have changed for Cops itself. The show continues, having just started its 29th season, but it’s now on Spike instead of the more heavily watched Fox network where it used to be.

And Langley admits things have gotten more complicated as some police departments are reluctant to let him tag along.

“It’s all very political now,” he said. “Police are being scrutinized a lot right now and you have a lot of image concerns. So it makes it more difficult for us.

“People are afraid. They’re just worried about the optics so it makes our lives more difficult.”

Does this mean Cops has pulled over its last careening vehicle?

“I don’t think it’s run its course,” he said. “When it moved to Spike, there was a question of would it transition from Fox over to cable. … I’m pretty confident you’ll see a Season 30 of Cops on Spike. … It’s been as high as 2 million viewers on a Saturday night on cable.

“I don’t think it’s going anywhere in the next couple of years.”

There are others who point to Cops as the show that launched, for better or worse, the reality-TV trend. As for being part of company that, well before The Real World and Survivor, made reality TV a viable concept, Langley is philosophical.

“In America, reality TV is seen as this tawdry thing, but if you look at European unscripted programming, it’s more tied to a documentary kind of ethos and people view it differently,” he said. “It’s hard for Americans to look at an unscripted show without a feeling of exploitation.”

For next season’s Jail, Langley’s not sure where he wants to film, though don’t be surprised if it turns out to be Florida.

“On Cops, certainly, Florida is one of the hot spots. The first place we filmed Cops was in Broward County,” he said. “I don’t know what it is about law enforcement in Florida, but it gets crazy down there.”

The Tarrant angle

Grisham, of the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department, admits he was a bit gun-shy when first approached a decade ago by the producers of Cops to make a similar documentary series set in a county jail system. They’d been burned by a different production company that said it was working on a series for MTV about young inmates and young corrections officers.

Sounds like the producers were aiming for The Real World with cell bars instead of cocktail bars.

“Here’s two guys, 22-23 years old, one chose a life of crime, one chose a life of corrections. They were going to follow these people but they wanted to work outside the jail, in different courthouses and through the criminal justice system,” Grisham said.

“It was a long, drawn-out process just to get them permission [and] after four months of work, they just one morning disappeared. They never called us.”

So when Cops producer John Langley and his son, Morgan, contacted the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Dee Anderson and his crew were a little skeptical.

“It took John … and Morgan coming to Fort Worth to talk to Sheriff Anderson,” Grisham said. “We said we’d try it.”

The Morgans shot several episodes of Cops in Fort Worth, but Grisham says that really had no bearing on whether the sheriff’s office would give its stamp of approval.

“There seemed to have been a great deal of turnover and time passing since they did Cops. I don’t think we had a lot of people still there [with the police department] to talk to,” he said. “Cops is just a completely different show.”

Shooting on the Tarrant episodes began in May, and the department is allowed to review footage before it airs later in the season.

Grisham says that all of the officers and inmates involved in the show do so voluntarily. Some officers even raised their hands for some off-camera work.

“Whenever [the show] needed an escort, they’d hire someone to go into the jails with them … ,” he said. “We began to trust [the producers] and they just did their thing.”

While Tarrant is just one of several county systems on screen in Jail: Big Texas, Grisham says it’s unique because many of its inmates come from other jails; it’s generally not the first intake point.

“[The producers] liked that about us. Our intake is not the madhouse that you see in most county jails. … Our intake area is very calm compared to any other county jail in Texas. This is a good change of pace, they say.

“In other jails, you get the best dramatic stuff in intake because you have police officers bringing people in who are in physical and emotional crisis. We don’t have a lot.

“We have some,” he added. “We are not a museum.”

Jail: Big Texas

  • 8 p.m. Saturday
  • Spike