Tuesday, August 31, 2004

A&E Network follows Duane "Dog" Chapman, above, in its new reality adventure series "Dog the Bounty Hunter." Fiilmed in Hawaii, the show premieres with two half-hour episodes tonight.

Dog’s life

The winning bounty hunter
show has gritty footage and
a strong sense of honesty

There's a reason sharks have been around for millions of years: They know how to survive. They don't attack blindly, but first observe their prey to assess danger. They also tend to attack in groups.

"Dog the Bounty Hunter" premieres at 7 tonight on A&E Network.

Maybe that's why Duane "Dog" Chapman, 51 and the self-described "World's Greatest Bounty Hunter," has survived his apprehending of some 6,000 human prey, who oddly end up far more emotionally shaken by their capture and the ensuing lecture about right and wrong than physically hurt.

A&E Network's new reality adventure series "Dog the Bounty Hunter" mixes "Real World" (its musical score was composed by Ozzy Osbourne), "Cops" and a sort of down-home "Brady Bunch" -- with tattoos and cussin'. It stars the oh-so-unique Chapman, a convicted but exonerated murderer, as the definitive junkyard dog with a heart -- and a pack of pups trying to emulate him.

"Meet the Chapmans" (Episode 1) introduces this unusual family that works together capturing bad guys and lecturing criminals on the perils of breaking the law. It also shows Chapman's family time, be it swimming with his kids -- he's got 12 -- or explaining to his young daughter why they must release the humuhumunukunukuapuaa they've just caught.

The fine for catching the state fish is $2,200, Dog says.

But long before we see Chapman's home life, we're on the road chasing three bail jumpers in Kona. One is tricked into coming to Da Kine Bail Bonds -- Chapman's company in Kona and Honolulu -- under the pretense of signing some papers. There he's surrounded and arrested. Another career criminal is found after a brief chase, hiding under the bed in his girlfriend's apartment.

"Brother, there is no pot of gold at the end of the criminal's rainbow," Dog tells his prisoner.

There are lots of things to like about "Dog the Bounty Hunter." The show is gritty, and the in-your- and in-their-face footage works to make you feel as though you're a bounty hunter as well. When Kona's skies are overcast or plagued by vog, when the highway out of Kona Airport is clogged with traffic, there's no cutaway shots of a tropical paradise. It gives the show a strong sense of honesty.

Chapman with three of his 12 children and his companion, Beth Smith.

Camera work is documentary style, which means -- as with "Cops" -- the audience is in the middle of the action. You might be in a car with Dog and his longtime companion Beth Smith, 34, heading out with their sons and nephew, preparing for the takedown, right up to the moment the suspect is nabbed. That kind of reality cannot be scripted, and the producers fortunately are aware of it.

There's no God-like voice-over questioning the intelligence of the criminals, most of whom don't seem that bad at all.

What's surprisingly compelling, however, is that these non-actors don't seem aware of the camera's presence, ever. There's no playing to the camera, and the audience is left feeling like one of the pack rather than an outsider.

Dog calls his captives "son" and "brother" because Dog, well, sees himself as everyone's daddy.

In one of the most touching scenes in "The Competition" (Episode 3), Dog and Beth catch bail jumper Augustine on the beach in Ewa. As Dog places the man in the van, Augustine's girlfriend brings out their infant son to say goodbye.

The large, intimidating captive cries and moans as the infant hugs him, the camera capturing tears sliding down his face behind large reflective sunglasses. Dog lays his hand on Augustine's shoulder, then turns away, trying unsuccessfully to hide his own tears.

"I understand, man," Dog says, "I understand."

Major chicken skin.

Dog doesn't dislike the criminals he's chasing nearly as much as Beth dislikes them. She's a sort of an Anna Nicole Smith on steroids who might scare bail jumpers, real or potential, far more than Dog does. She warns bail seekers that if they run, "you will be found."

Leland, 27, Dog's third son, was a self-admitted bad boy on the mainland until Dog reclaimed him and brought him to Hawaii to train as a bounty hunter. Leland has a captivating smile and the eyes of a cat. Justin, Dog's nephew from the Big Island, is the new kid, wanting to learn. He's mostly silent, attentive and effective. Tim Chapman -- no blood relation -- is Dog's hanai brother and has been working with him for 21 years.

Producers let Dog be Dog, from his distinctive outfit -- black leather vest, arm straps, black jeans, boots and a can of mace holstered like a .45 -- to his inviting smile and throaty laugh.

After Leland captures a bail jumper, Dog looks at the camera: "It makes a daddy proud," he says, grinning.

Hawaii viewers might be captivated seeing the neighborhoods where criminals are captured and surprised at how downright polite these bail jumpers are to their captors. NBC's new cop drama "Hawaii" is described as showing "the other side of paradise," which it does well in the Hollywood tradition. That show's producers might want to consider adding a "Dog" of their own to the cast.

The honesty, uniqueness, even charm of "Bounty Hunter" is a stunning surprise. A&E is to be congratulated for stepping out of the reality box to capture the real Dog.

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