History Channel // 2007 // 611 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // October 1st, 2008
They rob, kill, and terrorize, and they've left their bloody mark on American history. This is the world of Gangland.
Considering how mystifying some of History's recent programming decisions have become (Shockwave? What the hell is that?), it would be easy to view Gangland as little more than History's attempt to cash in on the TV true crime trend kicked off by BET's American Gangster. That series' enormous success led to a run on true crime shows (these days, National Geographic Channel seems to run more shows on bikers and thugs than on tigers and sharks), and cynics might carp that History had decided to ride the trend as well. That would be unfortunate, because while Gangland: The Complete Season One might have its flaws, it's a much better show than History has shown itself capable of recently.
Here are the 13 episodes on the four discs:
* "American Gangster": Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes compete for the growing heroin market in Harlem in the early 1970s.
* "You Rat, You Die": A pregnant teenager decides to tell authorities about her life in MS-13, and the consequences are disastrous.
* "Code of Conduct": The Mexican Mafia isn't just the most powerful gang in L.A.'s prison system, but also controls violent street gangs outside of prison walls.
* "Behind Enemy Lines": A federal agent in Arizona goes undercover with the Hell's Angels, and comes close to unraveling.
* "Race Wars": In L.A., tensions between black and Latino street gangs have become so heated that innocent victims are becoming more prevalent.
* "Kings of New York": The Latin Kings emerge as the most vicious street gang in New York City, even while masquerading as a civic organization.
* "Stone to the Bone": In Chicago, the Blackstone Nation is born as a community activist group, but deteriorates into a dangerous street gang that eventually develops ties with terrorist organizations.
* "Hate Nation": Racist skinheads begin as drunken hooligans looking for a night out, but become more organized and deadly as they forge international alliances.
* "Gangster City": In the projects of Chicago, the Gangster Disciples control entire apartment buildings so thoroughly that even the police give them free reign.
* "Blood In, Blood Out": Nuestra Familia controls the northern half of California's prison population and Latino street gangs on the outside through an elaborate constitution, intricate hierarchy, and sheer brutality.
* "Basic Training": An alarming number of gang members are joining the armed services, not to serve their country, but to get the training and equipment necessary to rule the streets.
* "Blood Oath": The United Blood Nation, a New York-based offshoot of the L.A. Bloods, targets innocent civilians as a method of terror and intimidation.
* "Root of All Evil": Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, is not only the most bloodthirsty street gang in the United States, it's also the only one that has an international reach and structure.
Gangland, surprisingly, works more often than not. The history of each gang is given in clear and precise detail, so that it's easy to understand how each gang formed and currently functions. There are interviews with former and even some current gang members (most of whom are hidden or disguised), and they give an interesting perspective on day-to-day life in each gang. There's also an onscreen glossary, to define some of the slang used by the gangsters. You'll learn what an MS-13 member means by "babysitting" (you don't want it; it's very bad) and why when skinheads are planning a "boot party," you really should not expect a convivial gathering where people sip Chardonnay and exchange bon mots. The shows are also carefully arranged in order, so that viewers will learn about the deadly rivalry between the Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia before seeing later episodes, like the one on gangsters in the military, which show how that rivalry can affect even innocent bystanders. Typically tacky History reenactments are kept to a blessed minimum, and archival footage and photographs tell much of the stories. These can be gruesome and are accompanied by frequently horrific stories, which means that watching more than a few of these episodes at a time can be a draining experience. Even so, Gangland is frequently reminiscent of how good the History Channel at its best can be.
Still, Gangland does have its flaws. The first episode rehashes the Frank Lucas story yet again; at this point, could there possibly be anyone who hasn't already heard about it? Plus, it has nothing to do with the rest of the episodes, which address current criminal organizations rather than long-extinct ones. Also, the show tends to sometimes go overboard with the shock and horror. After all, Gangland's signature dramatic sting consists of a man screaming. It's also true that the series can be a bit repetitive. There are two episodes on MS-13, about two and a half on the rivalry between the Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia, and just as many on the rivalry between the Bloods and the Crips. Even the same piece of footage, depicting the violent beating of a gang initiate, is reused in several episodes. A little more variety in the gangs covered would have made Gangland even more valuable.
The full-screen transfer and Dolby stereo mix are both typical History quality. The only extra, on Disc Four, is labeled "Additional Footage" (16:16) and consists of a few leftover interview snippets from some of the episodes relating to various subjects, such as initiations, tattoos, and clothing. Nothing earth-shattering, but it's still informative. Nonetheless, the episodes themselves are comprehensive enough that the sparsity of extras is not noticeable. Gangland: The Complete Season One is not guilty; it's of higher quality than many History shows, and belongs in any true crime DVD collection.
Review content copyright © 2008 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 611 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Additional Footage
* Official Site