Initially produced in response to a need for new product to broadcast in the wake of the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike, when John Langley’s Cops debuted on American televisions in March of 1989, its camcorder aesthetics and cinema verite feel established a distinct style and signaled the arrival of the modern reality show, a genre that would exponentially expand in popularity over the ensuing two decades, taking the format from being the odd exception in a sea of slick prime-time cop shows and cookie cutter sit-coms to one that now consumes a substantial portion of television airtime.
Produced by the National Geographic channel, Mexican Border Wars is another in the current roster of ‘frontline’ reality shows, where a small mobile crew follow a team of professionals into some potentially deadly combat zone to capture all the danger, drama, tension and interpersonal relationships that come with the job. In this instance, the battlefront is the two thousand miles which make up the (often desolate) United States/Mexican border, across which nearly one million Central Americans try to flee every year, with most of them either running drugs for the Mexican cartels, or seeking a better life and their own slice of the American Dream.
Throughout the four episodes released on Mexican Border Wars: Season One (Desert Breakdown/Human Stash/Under Siege/Night Shift), we accompany various units of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and agents as they intercept record hauls of marijuana, stop twelve year-old kids at major checkpoints with bags of dope taped to their bodies, and track groups of illegal aliens across the harsh desert of Arizona as they make a desperate dash for a better life. It is these later moments that are among the most effective of the series, as they really bring home just what a tough ask it is to make it across the American desert to the safety of the shelter homes in Phoenix. Many of them die from dehydration and the elements, others are murdered, and even many of those who make it don’t exactly find the dream they envisioned, or were promised.
In all honesty, it’s hard to see what sort of audience a DVD set like this is aimed at (except for maybe dads, armchair lawmen and anyone with an interested in American immigration policies). While it’s an interesting series that tackles a potentially gripping subject, and it does have the odd moments of drama, there’s really nothing to Mexican Border Wars that makes it memorable or compulsive. It’s one of those reality shows where trying to watch several episodes in succession quickly leads to a feeling of repetition…..catching the odd episode when it airs on TV will be enough to satiate most people.
Extras on Madman’s two disc release of Mexican Border Wars: Season One include Columbia’s Drug Wars (an episode of National Geographic’s On Assignment series from 2000) and the bonus episode, Border Battles. Ironically, these special features provide more interesting viewing than much of the actual series, as Border Battles provides a good overview of the whole US/Mexican border situation and the tactics employed by those on both sides of the (barbed wire) fence, while Columbia’s Drug Wars (hosted by Lisa Ling) is more raw and has a welcome sense of urgency and excitement to it that much of Mexican Border Wars lacks.
Mexican Border Wars: Season One is available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment