Filling the vacuum left by NBC’s popular To Catch a Predator (which last aired in 2007), Undercover Underage charts the efforts of intrepid activists to identify and gather evidence on child predators so that local law enforcement can bring them to justice. A six-part docuseries premiering on Discovery+ on Nov. 2, it’s far from a graceful non-fiction exposé. What it lacks in understatement, however, it makes up for with fascinating details about the way such monsters operate, and the canny techniques used to coax them out of the online shadows and into the light.
Safe from Online Sex Abuse (SOSA) is a non-profit organization dedicated to prevention and awareness about online child sex abuse and exploitation, and Undercover Underage follows its members as they attempt to stop would-be predators from carrying out their repugnant intentions. SOSA was founded by Roo Powell, a 38-year-old mother of three who spearheads the outfit’s activities by posing as 15-year-old girls in teen chat rooms in order to attract the attention of adult creeps. Powell assumes manufactured personas for this plan, wearing a wig, communicating from a staged bedroom, and using a variety of lighting and image touch-up tricks to sell her ruse. It’s a well-thought-out charade, and posing as “Flori”—an emotionally fragile high school student from Stamford, Connecticut, who lives with her single mother, a nurse—it pays immediate dividends, eliciting tons of messages that range from the disgusting to the disgraceful to the outright abominable.
Powell is aided in this quest by a Mission: Impossible-style support team that includes social media maestro Shelby Chikazawa, who juggles Flori’s numerous online conversations with different male suitors; visuals lead Matt Monath, who handles the creation and manipulation of the photos that Flori must invariably send to these men; researcher Kelly Becker, who helps piece together the information they learn about their targets as a means of properly ID’ing them; and Norwalk Police Department Detective Mark Suda, who consults with Powell about the legal ramifications of her endeavors, as well as poses as her Uber driver whenever Flori must meet the men face-to-face. Together, they’re a crack squad of experts committed to thwarting cretins who are consumed with abusing female minors.
Through Powell and company’s work, Undercover Underage reveals the clever tactics that must be employed to gain the trust of such criminals, whom Powell refers to as Adults Contacting Minors (ACM). Casually plying them for details about their locations, their professions, their families, and their cars is central to Powell’s investigations; much of the show presents her engaged in a virtual cat-and-mouse game of show and tell, with the latter routinely interrupted by the former, as one ACM after another tries to get Powell to flash some skin and/or engage in overt sexual activity over FaceTime. These men are, of course, happy to lead the charge in that sick regard, meaning that Powell often has to struggle to maintain a brave face while receiving a barrage of dick pics or, worse still, watching them masturbate during video calls.
The toll that nastiness takes on Powell is repeatedly evident in the three episodes of Undercover Underage that were provided to press. Still, the focus remains less on Powell’s internal distress than on her staunch crusading. That’s a shrewd formal decision, and much of the show’s electricity comes from its portrait of pedophiles trying to ply their trade without getting caught. Outright lies about their wealth, their cars, or their current place of residence are generally their preferred strategy. Yet their deviousness extends to setting up in-person encounters with Powell and then lurking near the venues in order to ascertain if Powell is really a teenager (and not Chris Hansen or a cop) or masking their particular geographic whereabouts via the use of a VPN. Fully aware that what they’re doing is against the law and liable to put them behind bars for years, these men—who utilize pseudonyms in most instances, and whose voices and identities are concealed by the series—take every precaution possible to make sure that they’re not arrested.
Powell and her accomplices are even cagier than their prey, tricking them with fake screenshots of Uber rides and honeypot websites full of photos and poetry, not to mention surveilling them on the streets so they can take down their license plate numbers and report them to the police. At the same time, the scary pervasiveness of online pedophilic behavior is hammered home via the revelation that two of the perverts Powell comes into contact with are actually public-school employees. If that doesn’t turn your stomach, the crass requests she receives certainly will, along with the deviant head games these scumbags try to play with young girls—notably, “white knight” reasoning in which they warn girls about the dangers of meeting strangers online while simultaneously casting themselves as reliable and noble men dedicated to upholding their honor (save for, you know, the statutory rape).
As is the case with so many kindred reality offerings, Undercover Underage cornily amps up its drama at every available opportunity. Montages which accelerate at a rate that’s matched by the escalating, crashing-noise score are legion. So too are scenes in which Powell has to unexpectedly, and immediately, get on a call, thereby prompting her to run through her suburban-home HQ as a cameraman shakily trails behind her. There are also random, recurring low-angled shots of a staircase that leads into darkness, which serve no practical purpose other than to accentuate the mood of malevolent danger. Factor in lots of soundbite-y commentary from Powell and her colleagues, and the result is a show that cares about subtlety about as much as it likes pedophiles.
That said, no one is tuning in to Undercover Underage for a serene and sober treatment of Powell’s hunt for bad guys; they’re there for a bit of suspense, a healthy dose of sensationalism, and some enlightening facts about the schemes employed by predators, advocates and law-enforcement officers. If its first three episodes are any indication, the show’s target audience won’t be disappointed on any of those counts.