Shortly before Dog the Bounty Hunter premiered on A&E, I was wandering around the lobby before the cable network’s press conference and noticed a blonde woman walking in my direction sporting very high heels, a very tight dress, and a very low neckline. As she passed by, she flashed me a big, remarkably open-faced smile, which was rather startling; usually women whose style is that purposefully tarty don’t bother acknowledging other women.
A few moments later I saw her onstage, at the press conference for the show: It turned out the friendly blonde was Beth Chapman, wife and business partner of Duane “Dog” Chapman. And I think the odd dichotomy I’d noticed as Beth passed me in the lobby is an essential element of this new hit’s success. Dog and his motley crew of Hawaii-based bounty hunters (most of whom are related to him in one way or another) do look rather disreputable, with their mullet haircuts and all that leather. But the charm of the reality series is the juxtaposition of this with their determined, straight-arrow decency.
The Chapmans’ two youngest children, who seem to be babysat mostly by their kick-boxer half brother and basketball-playing cousin, are always immaculately clean and plainly dressed in simple cotton playclothes. Unlike the generally inept parents who seem to have taken over reality shows lately (Supernanny, Nanny 911, Wife Swap), misbehavior from small fry is handled quickly efficiently in the resolutely law-abiding Bounty Hunter home. Beth gives her daughter an immediate time-out for leaving shoes out where people can trip on them; Dog tells the kids to quit bothering a certain fish as they play at the beach. “That’s the Hawaiian state fish,” he scolds, “there’s a $2,200 fine.”
Tracking down a fugitive in a seedy apartment building, Dog stops to give children playing in the building’s parking lot a quick lecture. “See that guy?” he says, as the neighborhood kids gape. “He’s a bad guy. He didn’t listen to his mom and dad. That’s why he’s going to jail.”
Dog and crew are normally quite kind to their hapless captives, who are mostly small-time thieves and drug addicts, making sure the handcuffs aren’t too tight and offering drinks of water plus help in the future. “We’re a little more mentally aggressive on rape, child molestation, stuff like that,” Chapman said at the press conference. “If you’re going after a guy for sexual assault on a child, you try not to hit him a little harder. Because the camera’s rolling, you know, there are consequences.”
But neither does he stand for a lot of guff. “If you’ve messed up, that’s between you and God,” Dog briskly informs one fugitive. “What’s between me and you is the court date.” Another guy is tattooed, shirtless, but strangely worried what the neighbors will think when the bounty hunters show up. “Oh, it’s all right,” Dog reassures him. “It’s a trailer park, not the Taj Mahal.”
Until the reality series, which began its second season last week, Dog was best known for tracking down fugitive rapist and Max Factor heir Andrew Luster in Mexico and getting temporarily jailed by police there for his trouble. He approaches his work with the zeal of the converted, both to born-again Christianity and the straight-and-narrow life. Three decades ago, Chapman served 18 months in a Texas penitentiary for first-degree murder.
“I was there in the car,” he explained. “The guy went to the door, committed the crime, and came back. But in the early ’70s in Texas, if you were in the vicinity you were just as guilty as the guy that did it.”
“Absolutely it helps track these guys down–when you know how they think, how they act, their weaknesses, their strongholds,” he added. “That’s why we’ve done more captures [about 6,000 in almost 30 years of business] than any police department in America, because we know what makes them tick.”
Beth and Dog met when they were both still living in Denver, where Chapman was raised. “I had an idiot for a boyfriend and happened to go to jail one night, and this is my savior,” she said, pointing to her husband, who at that point blushed beet red.
“He bailed me out,” she continued. “I took one look at him and said, ‘Oh, yes, he will be mine. Let the stalking begin.’ The easiest way to really get his attention was to become a bail bondsman”–just 21 at the time, Beth was the youngest licensed bondsman in Colorado–”and then I proceeded to write the worst bail in town so that the bounty hunter would have to come hang out in my office. And in the end, I caught the bounty hunter.”
Afterward, I caught up with Beth Chapman and asked if her husband always blushes when she talks about him. “Sometimes,” she said, her voice trailing off dreamily. “He’s just wonderful.”
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.