Unlock the Gates: Genre and Rhetoric in MSNBC's "Lockup"

Curator's Note

MSNBC’s Lockup is the longest running and most highly-rated prison series on television. The first six episodes were released as a part of the documentary series MSNBC Investigates in the early 2000s. These episodes were repackaged with six new episodes in 2005 as the new series Lockup, whose success has spawned the spinoff titles Lockup: Extended Stay, Lockup: Raw, Lockup: World Tour, and Life After Lockup. Reruns of the show dominate MSNBC's nighttime documentary programming schedule on weekends, typically airing from 10:00PM until 5:00AM. The entire Lockup franchise is produced and edited by 44 Blue Productions, which is responsible for a wide range of nonfiction and reality programming. MSNBC insists upon the show’s documentary credentials, but its evolution suggests otherwise.

Early episodes in the series were consistent with MSNBC's documentary style, which closely resembles a typical news magazine program. Long-time NBC Nightly News Weekend anchor John Seigenthaler hosted these episodes which focused largely on the administration of prisons from the perspective of guards, wardens, medical staff, and a few inmates. Seigenthaler's voice-over narration and the interviews all suggested that prison was dangerous; violent and mentally ill inmates were difficult to control; and prisons were underfunded, overcrowded, and failing to rehabilitate criminals. Later seasons and spinoffs of Lockup broke out of this style and adopted more conventions of reality television. If earlier episodes downplayed more controversial subjects in favor of a particular message about the failures of prisons in America, subsequent seasons and iterations of the show focused more heavily on inmates' perspectives and sensationalized narratives of sex offenders, serial killers, drugs, sex, and gangs. 

What I find fascinating about the show is the ways in which it has managed to recycle many of the conventions of earlier reality crime programming (like COPS or America's Most Wanted) in the prison context and market the franchise as documentary with little pushback. These conventions--like the uncritical celebration of law enforcement--were somewhat balanced by the news-magazine-like narration of earlier episodes which advocated for prison reform. However, the shift toward more shocking material on the show reinforced the type of "tough on crime" rhetoric that lead to overcrowded prisons in the first place. The show's success speaks to the salience of these discourses, and to the ways that earlier narratives about prison, from Hollywood films and shows like HBO's OZ, have shaped audiences' expectations for what can be "entertaining" about prisons and prisoners. 

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