Shot in the Dark review: Journalism dies in the darkness, but that’s when Netflix’s new show comes alive

Shot in the Dark review: Netflix’s new documentary series chronicles the ethically ambiguous adventures of the real life versions of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character from Nightcrawler.
Howard Raishbrook in a still from Netflix’s Shot in the Dark.
Howard Raishbrook in a still from Netflix’s Shot in the Dark.
Updated on Dec 06, 2017 09:43 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | By Rohan Naahar, New Delhi

Shot in the Dark
Cast - Howard Raishbrook, Zak Holden, Scott Lane
Rating - 4.5/5

In early 2017, the Washington Post, in a first, adopted a motto. It would take second-billing on the masthead, innocent yet indiscreet.

The juiciest interpretation of “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” aided in no small part by the fact that it was adopted a month after Donald Trump’s swearing in as President, was that the Post was, characteristically, taking a swipe at him. It was too much of a coincidence, considering especially that the newspaper had publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton in the race, and Trump’s habit of incessantly attacking the press.

It was – and still is, despite the Post’s declaration that it wasn’t made as a response to Trump – a grand, and far too rare statement by journalists about the difficult situation their profession finds itself in.

And while the death of journalism can come in many forms, you’d be hard-pressed to find one as unexpected as the sort shown in Shot in the Dark, the new documentary series on Netflix – a show that I must admit took me by surprise (I had no idea it existed until it popped up on my suggestions) and compelled me to write about it.

It isn’t about weathered investigative journalists, working months on cracking a cover-up; it isn’t about streetwise crime reporters, juggling friendships with cops and criminals; and nor is it about brave editors, constantly challenging and supporting the truth. And yet, it is about all of them.

In the three men that it makes its subjects, Shot in the Dark explores an almost subterranean offshoot of journalism: Stringing – specifically, in Los Angeles, at night.

Howard, Zak and Scott are independent ‘journalists’ who prowl the street of LA at night, armed with police scanners and camera equipment, looking for stories to sell to news channels in the morning – the bigger the disaster the better. Democracy may die in the darkness, but it is when the three of them come alive.

And once the initial shock of watching them pray for violent deaths and mass carnage wears off, you realise that while the ethics of chasing these frankly salacious stories for financial gain are shady at best, Howard, Zak and Scott are just as weathered as any investigative journalist, just as streetwise as any crime reporter, and just as brave as any editor in search of the truth.

Their intentions behind capturing these images of death and loss may be murky – despite their insistence that they’re simply journalists doing their jobs (they’re not) – the nightly game that they take part in is truly frightening.

Every night, for decades, Howard, Zak and Scott have prowled the streets of Los Angeles – from the affluent Hollywood Hills to the infamously violent South Central – on the hunt for their Shangri La, an incident so scandalous that every news channel would want a piece of it. They like to call it The Story of the Night. It could be anything from a gang-related death (although they’re so common these days that no one seems to be interested anymore) to car chases (capturing the passing shot is vital) and rescue operations (dead bodies are a plus).

They’re all equipped with police scanners, which means that often, they arrive at the crime scenes before the emergency services. But what this also means is that they’re all essentially chasing the same story. Shot in the Dark utilizes a neat map of LA that charts Howard, Zak and Scott’s race to get to the scene, and ends with a scoreboard that tallies the number of ‘hits’ they got for their footage – hits are basically channels buying what they shot. The Sisyphean exercise begins again the next night.

And in these moments, while they race through the streets of Los Angeles – like characters out of a Michael Mann film – they’re at their most uninhibited. Slowly, over the course of eight excellent episodes, a narrative builds.

Zak, while exuding enviable calm on the surface, reveals himself to be a cunning businessman, constantly making attempts to poach stringers from Scott’s team and to run Howard out of business. He always has a smile on his face when he addresses cops and firemen -- a business card at the ready, along with the promise of footage of their heroism were they to express interest.

All this annoys Scott to no end. He’s the live wire, never above breaking – or at least bending – rules to get that perfect shot. It’s a cutthroat business, and he’s the one wielding the knife.

Howard, meanwhile, comes off as the most sympathetic of the lot – although that’s damning with faint praise, because even he can’t block out the smell of blood when the scanner announces a seven-car pileup on the freeway. His is the smallest business of the three, under threat from Zak’s enterprising ways and Scott’s ‘malpractices’.

None of them, however - despite how accurate Shot in the Dark is at resembling a Los Angeles crime movie - is a patch on Jake Gyllenhaal’s character from Nightcrawler – although that was never possible for Howard, who is listed as one of the show’s executive producers – but then again, Nightcrawler isn’t a documentary.

It’s a moral quagmire that I, despite having witnessed the energy change around a newsroom in moments of tragedy, still cannot comprehend. Howard, Zak and Scott found the truth, just not where they were looking for it.

Watch the Shot in the Dark Trailer here

Follow @htshowbiz for more
The author tweets @RohanNaahar

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