Somebody Call the SWAT Team, We’ve Got Ourselves a Cockfight!
First there was Parking Wars. Then there was Wreck Chasers. Then Tony Danza supposedly made a reality show about our public schools, though I’ve never met anyone who’s actually seen it. Now, we can lay claim to Philly Undercover, National Geographic Wild’s new show about a crack team of armed undercover PSPCA agents who scour the city looking for the bad people who mistreat animals. It’s the latest installment in a series of reality shows that makes Philly look like the country’s most depressing place to live, and I watched it last night so that you didn’t have to.
Philly Undercover actually debuted last week, though it seems that few knew about it. Yesterday, NatGeoWild ran the pilot as well as a new episode. The show follows PSPCA Director of Law Enforcement George Bengal and his team around decrepit sections of North and South Philly that make the gritty Philadelphia shown in Rocky seem like some beautiful dream. The people, homes and neighborhoods that Philly Undercover depicts are just as depressing as the animal cruelty itself.
And there’s plenty of cruelty to go around.
Pit bull after pit bull is shown—up close—with injuries that will make viewers squirm. There’s a gnawed-on leg. There’s a ripped-off ear. There are scars, tumors, bite wounds and scabs. There are dog-surgery videos. Bengal removes a piece of drywall from the site of a suspected dog-fighting ring, the white wall marred by dried-up blood splatter reminiscent of a Law & Order: SVU episode. Then there’s a pit bull tethered to a basement ceiling with a piece of chain so short that the animal—surrounded by urine and feces—is unable to lay down.
Dogs are rescued and loaded into the back of a PSPCA van while cops are brought in to arrest men and women, loading them into the back of a police wagon. Agents go undercover in bright hardhats and orange maintenance-worker vests to an overgrown yard suspected of housing fighting cocks. As we watch undercover video of the agents pushing their way through branches and bushes, emerging to a complex of caged animals, the doom-and-gloom narrator (who is present far too often throughout the show) announces, “They hit pay dirt. At least a dozen coops full of birds dressed and ready to fight.” And yes, the SWAT team is called in.
In another undercover video, a young, tattooed Latino agent dons a Yankees cap. “I’m trying to look like an out-of-towner,” he explains. “But I’m a Phillies fan all the way.” There are more lighthearted moments like this that try to add some levity to the episodes while also getting at the person behind the badge. Another young agent mocks the gray-haired Bengal for eating broccoli for lunch. One colleague punks another by making a fake phone threat during a segment when the agents are explaining that they’ve been getting phone threats. What fun!
There’s no question that Bengal and his team are doing the Lord’s work, putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of animals. Also to their credit, they consistently push the idea that it’s the people who are bad, not the animals, who, after rescue, are shown licking their new friends and rolling over for tummy rubs. But Parking Wars caught on because the characters were amusing and the situations they were in were of little consequence. In Philly Undercover, the characters aren’t particularly interesting and the situations they find themselves in are simply gruesome and heartbreaking. I won’t be tuning in again.