Joe Mazzilli has the blunt appearance of guy who really likes to eat meat.
Sausages, in particular.
Looking at him, you’d think that in his younger days his buddies on the Jersey Shore might have called him The Mazz, or maybe The Mazzurbator.
He has that sort of vibe about him.
Likely closer to 60 than 50, Mazzilli is pumped up and beefy, proudly sporting his thinning, dyed hair like it was some studly crown. Always in a tight, black muscle shirt and wearing a jangle of classy jewelry, he’s an utter cliché, the sort of guy who probably sits around laughing his ass off while watching ancient DVD’s of Andrew Dice Clay. And it’s this man who is the PI at the helm of A&E’s new reality series “Runaway Squad.”
Like A&E staples “Intervention,” “Hoarders” and “Paranormal State,” “Runaway Squad” follows a formula that exploits the sensational and lurid circumstances of its subjects, and then attempts to redeem this exploitation by transforming our prurient fascination with them into compassion. It’s a gritty kind of sentimentalism, one that purports to find the humanity in the afflicted, rather than strip it away.
The premise of “Runaway Squad” is simple. After being contacted by the desperate family of a runaway, Mazzilli leads his team on a search for the missing teen, before hopefully, reuniting them with their worried family.
Like a film noir hero, Mazzilli, in a voice-over thick with hard earned experience, tells us that he served with the NYPD for 15 years busting pimps, mobsters and all manner of miscreants, before applying himself to the mission of finding lost youth. Ominous, one-chord music hums as depressing footage of a pitiless and decaying NYC scroll by. In short order we hear the recorded voice message of a broken parent, imploring Mazzilli for help, and then we see Joe, in extreme close-up, putting on his bling—a warrior girding himself for battle.
The first act of each episode takes us on a fact-finding mission where Mazzilli interviews the parents. It’s here where the emotional context of the show is established. We hear a trembling mother tell us that Jennifer is a “good girl,” while home movies of her in a happier time play in the background. Later, we see a note that Jennifer left her dad, written in the loopy, girlish script of a child, in which she melodramatically apologizes for running away, all the while insisting that she “knows what she’s doing.”
Now, armed with a little background information, Joe and his squad spring into action.
There are about a half-dozen members of the team, each one performing some vague task in the service of the rescue. Primary amongst them is Steve, who like Joe, is also a bulky, ex-NYPD officer who looks like he kind of enjoys kneeing people in the face. Steve always refers to Joe as Boss, and what little levity is present on the show takes place through the Wise Guy interplay between the two men.
Example: While at a gas station, Joe looks out his window at Steve, who is filling up his car in the pouring rain. Jokingly, Joe asks if he would mind pumping his gas, to which Steve, with a big, sloppy grin on his face, replies, “Hey, pump this, OK?” while gesturing down toward his man package.
And that’s pretty much it for the humor.
Like Dog The Bounty Hunter, Mazzilla employs his family on his show. This includes Gemma, his wife. She’s portrayed as a kind of Empath, a calm, non-judgmental frizzy-haired entity who feels your pain. Also in the mix is Joey, Mazzilli’s quiet, slightly emasculated son, who clearly has more of his mother in him than his dad. He’s a behind the scenes, data-entry kind of guy, the person you don’t notice sitting on the bus beside you.
There’s absolutely nothing remarkable, or even particularly interesting about the detective work that Mazzilli and his crew do. They do the obvious and follow up whatever leads that they have.
In the case of Jennifer, we watched through night-vision cameras as Mazzilli staked-out her boyfriend’s home, waiting for some sort of activity to take place. Instantly, the night-vision cameras recall the ghost-hunting genre of reality TV. Watching, I was expecting to see some inexplicable shadow emerge from the gloom, and this seemed oddly appropriate. For those who’ve had a child vanish into a place like New York City, that child must become a kind of phantom, a sorrow that inhabits and haunts every thought and corner of their remaining days.
Usually, Mazzilli is able to facilitate some sort of reunion, where the child—who is never strong-armed to reconciliation—is allowed to return to the family that initiated the search. Jennifer, who never wanted to see her mother again, meets her at a bus station, tightly clutching a little dog in her arms. Mazzilli, all wisdom and tough-guy authority, assumes the role that the hated parent cannot. Portrayed as a kind of Runaway Whisperer, he initiates the first round of therapy, where stubborn parent listens to frustrated child, and they begin to make their awkward and stilted amends.
“Runaway Squad” would almost surely be a more compelling and interesting show if it told its story from the ground level perspective of the child in flight, but that’s a logistical impossibility. And so, over the course of a lightning quick 30 minutes, we see the story through the determined yet passionless eye of Joe Mazzilli, or more appropriately, the production team of Runaway Squad. It’s a superficial formula that’s stamped onto a very complex and difficult transition in the life of a family, but all the same, even in the over wrought, symbolic shorthand the show employs, it’s virtually impossible not to be touched by the sincere presence of love in the lives of real people.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.