Jailers

4 out of 5

covers season 1

I’m trying to watch every series Shudder offers, just to make sure I’m fully taking advantage of my subscription.  This decision means some dedication: pressing play on series that I wouldn’t choose at a glance.  I know – I am an admirable man.

Jailers fell in to the ‘hesitation’ pile, as it didn’t really seem to be even remotely tied to horror at all, which Shudder is presumably dedicated to, and it also seemed like it might be a reality series… which is a genre I genuinely loathe.  Ho hum.

There are snippets of reality – interviews, footage of real prisons – mixed in to the otherwise fictionalized half-hour episodes of Jailers, which may make this seem like some ID TV crime special, but that’s not the case at all.  And while I wouldn’t classify the show as horror, I do sort of get it’s appearance on the streaming station, as some of it’s setups are downright terrifying.

In short: this is one of the reasons I like sticking to ‘watch everything’ type decisions.  Occasionally you get burned, but maybe you can pick up something tangential from the experience – an actor, a director, a song that plays over the credits, etc.  And then sometimes, great times, the show ends up being like ‘Jailers,’ and is quite brilliant and deserving of more eyes on it.

Adriano (Rodrigo Lombardi) is a guard in a São Paulo prison.  To my eyes, the prison is drastically different from my American expectations: it’s incredibly rundown and looks built in to a factory, and the guards and prisoners, besides the latter being locked up, are on oddly equal ground – the guards don’t seem to have any methods of control beyond trying to talk people out of violence, and have to rely on calling in support from elsewhere if things get out of control.  This seeming laxness allows, certainly, for some corruption – not that that won’t be found in our prisons as well – but also a unique tête-à-tête between both sides of the bars, and shaky friendships in which jailers get to know the visiting families of their prisoners.  This relationship leads to plenty of exploitation, though: allegiances abused and flaring up into fights, into rights; the jailers’ families threatened on the outside… with each half hour of the show (seemingly cut together from two 15-minute mini-sodes covering one incident or another).  There’s a lot mixed in to this to prevent it from becoming repetitive, as well as episodes which are more character or drama focused.

One of the keys to how compelling the series ends up being is Lombardi’s performance.  Adriano isn’t necessarily the best guy, but he’s moral, believably so, and always tries to find a reasonable, human compromise out of some of the worst situations, where things are otherwise going to shit.  But he’s not your usual head-first kind of negotiator; he’s impulsive, but generally intelligent in his approaches, or accepting of his limitations in affecting change.  Some of the tension comes from the reality of the situations: when politics or one-man-versus-many simply means hoping for the best when trying to resolve something.

One of the other key elements is a surprise to me: it’s the interviews.  Occasionally, the show will cut away to have real guards speak to their jobs, and it’s pretty haunting stuff.  These aren’t the overly-masculine boasts of dudes who talk about putting people in their places – these are confessions of people who’ve been in the midst of riots; have been held hostage.  Some of them are also cast as characters in the series… which lends the whole thing a frightening air of legitimacy, especially when some of the scenarios are intercut with what seems to be real news footage of events matching what’s been scripted.

Over the course of the show, there is some narrative with Adriano’s family – his attempts to have a baby with his wife; his father’s failing memory – but each episode is essentially a separate event, and that’s perhaps the only detraction.  It becomes a little unbelievable that Adriano is continually at the center of these massive conflagrations, one after another, especially when there’s no sense of time necessarily passing inbetween them.  Possibly having a bit more focus on serializing some storylines could’ve afforded spacing out the intensity.

Jailers is an utterly fascinating show, though, and after a few episodes have flipped by to convince you of its legitimacy with what it’s representing, it’s danged frightening as well, imagining oneself as either an inmate or a jailer… making it fitting for Shudder after all.