Fox is canceling America’s Most Wanted.
Sure, it’s only canceling it “as a weekly series.” There will be quarterly specials, or something.
But it’s still a travesty.
For me, this announcement falls somewhere above the news that there might not be a God and below the death of a household pet in terms of emotional impact.
I have watched it every Saturday night at 9 p.m. for over a decade. This tells you everything you need to know about my childhood.
“Go out?” friends would ask. “I can’t,” I’d say. “ ‘America’s Most Wanted’ is on, and I have to stay vigilant.”
I am being in no way flippant or tongue-in-cheek or any other such adjective when I say that the show is the best thing on television, and I refuse to see it go.
The show is hosted by John Walsh. Mr. Walsh suffered a terrible personal tragedy, with the gruesome murder of his son Adam, more than 20 years ago. Adam’s killer was never brought to justice for his crime, and this is a blow not many would have overcome. But instead of isolating himself in his pain, Walsh used his story to connect to other victims of crime — and to remind them that they could make a difference.
Those were the words he used, every week. “Remember, you can make a difference,” John Walsh told us, at the end of each episode.
“Why are you watching this horrible thing?” my mother asked, dismayed, as I stared rapt at the television.
“I’m making a difference,” I would tell her. In my case, this was not strictly true. I wanted nothing more than to make a difference, but I never saw any of the creeps responsible. Once I thought I spotted a notorious Mob hitman at a barbecue, but when he turned all the way around he turned out to be my uncle.
I used to look up the names of felons before visiting new cities. “Remember,” I’d say. “If we see anyone with a tattoo of a rose on his left bicep, who walks with a limp, likes cigars, and answers to the alias Duane Redding, we should contact the Topeka authorities.” But we never did.
For years, I thought that one of the resident tutors at my college had been responsible for a string of murder-suicides in the 1970s. I followed him through the cafeteria with watchful eyes, taking note of his movements. Once I sat down with him and tried to lull him into a false sense of security, talking about neutral topics like the weather and job prospects for English majors and studiously avoiding any mention of box cutters and plastic bags. Afterward, I was going to make my move and call the show’s hotline, but then I realized that the photos I was basing this on had not been age-enhanced.
One summer, I tried to get a job at “America’s Most Wanted.” I was so eager to help that I think I made the woman who answered their phone vaguely nervous, because they never got back to me.
Wherever I traveled, I would find a place to watch “America’s Most Wanted.” Hotel rooms, bars, college communal television sets. “Turn off the game!” I’d yell. “We can make a difference.”
It can’t go off the air.
“America’s Most Wanted” kept us safer. It was lauded by the president of the United States. Once you were on TV, your days on the lam were numbered. Just Call 1-800-CRIME-TV! They have operators standing by!
At this point, 23 years in, the show is an institution. It has assisted in 1,151 captures. It’s a public service. It’s a boon to law enforcement. And it only airs once a week, in a slot where Fox now wants to put — reruns?
Sure, we’ve caught Osama, but that doesn’t mean the show should end. Although the show did work to incorporate international terrorists in its manhunt, the heart of the program, week after week, was the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, aunts and grandparents trying to continue to write their own stories after their lives had been scrawled over with the indelible ink of tragedy.
They’re canceling it because production costs are too high?
It saves lives! It puts perpetrators behind bars! Take it off the air, and the world becomes that much less safe.
That I spent my Saturday nights watching “America’s Most Wanted” every week is slightly funny. But watching it was never a joke, and it was hard to explain why.
It wasn’t the slightly hokey reenactments. It wasn’t the sight of John Walsh following law enforcement around in a leather jacket, looking tough yet compassionate. It wasn’t the occasional To-Catch-A-Predator-style stings.
Of all shows on television, “America’s Most Wanted” was the most like life.
There are police procedurals where every week, like clockwork, the bad guys are caught and put behind bars where they can Never Hurt You Again. There are comedies where zingers fly and hit their targets to the accompaniment of just the right music. There are scripted dramas where all the acting is right and the timing is right and the characters move gradually through their prescribed arcs, and even when there isn’t closure, there’s some sort of montage that leaves you vaguely satisfied.
“America’s Most Wanted” is not like that at all. It presents us with the sometimes brutal injustice and unfinished business of life. For each of the 1,151 captures it’s assisted with, there are dozens more families that have yet to see justice, criminals on the lam, things broken that will never be fixed. And every week, it fights against that. Each week’s story is incomplete. Things have been thrown off balance. Something irreplacable has been taken — a life, or simply the sense that It Will Be All Right and They Can Never Hurt You Again. The show exists to bring back some of that balance. You can call, and you can remain anonymous, and that grandmother won’t have to lie awake every night wondering if the gunman will come again.
The show is named for the villains, and they are its focus. But it also shows us real, quiet heroism. And it reminds us that justice does not happen automatically. It is not like those procedurals, where the team swoops in and the Bad Man goes away. It is a frustrating, tortuous, mistake-ridden human process, the result of dozens of accumulated actions and inactions and connections made and missed. Things are not always wrapped up neatly. But as it tells us this, it gives us the chance to decrease the entropy of the universe in some small way. We can watch. We can call. And we can make a difference.
Yes, “America’s Most Wanted” is the best show on television. Not “best” because the scripts are the best written, or because the music is just right, or the stars the most perfectly coiffed. But “best” in the sense that it does real good. Forget makeovers or new homes or any shows that leave the illusion that life will be fixed once the cameras stop. And after all, what really good television does is tell a story well, and make you care. “America’s Most Wanted” did that, every Saturday at 9 p.m.
It belongs on the air.