Locator’s Troy Dunn: “when I fix a fractured family … I’ve given them a little bit of what I feel like I have”

The highest-rated show on WE is The Locator, which is currently airing new episodes air Saturdays on WE and has been renewed for a fourth season, which is now in production. The half-hour show follows Troy Dunn searching for and reconnecting people who’ve lost touch with each other or have never met, and episodes end with some kind of emotional family reunion, although not all end with a person finding who they were looking for.

Like fellow WEtv star Charles Stuart Platkin, Troy Dunn is truly passionate about the work we see on the show, and he attributes his success to that passion. “I feel like it’s my life work,” he told me. “I get to make some of the most exciting phone calls any human being ever gets to make.” Doing this as a TV show has been gratifying, too, he said, because “the majority of the time we’re helping people who we don’t see reunite. … That’s been one of the selfish blessings with me with the television show is actually getting to be there more often than I actually am to see and facilitate that part of it.”

While those reunions are genuinely emotional and compelling television, I haven’t really watched the series because the segments leading up to that, the ones focusing on the search, feel fake and staged to me. I have no doubt that Troy and his staff, which includes his mother, do the work necessary to find people, but it seems like they recreate moments–like phone calls between Troy and his mom, who works with him–in order to craft their work into a show.

Before I had a chance to ask him about this, Dunn told me, “I actually passed on a couple of other networks when we were approached for this show because they wouldn’t give me a couple of things in my contract–none of which were materialistic. One was a morality clause, and one was no faking it. One of them tried to enlighten me that’s what reality TV is.”

He said another network gave him “some crappy spin” but “I said, not in my mind. In my mind, this is a documentary, and this camera crew is just going to shadow behind, and they’re going to capture what happens and then they’re going to tell the story. There’s no faking, no recreating, no three takes. That’s why I ended up with WEtv because without even hesitating, they said absolutely. They’re the ones who said we want to shoot this documentary style. … If there’s such a thing as real reality TV, I can first-hand testify that The Locator is that.”

When I cited the awkward conversations and other moments that didn’t feel genuine to me, Dunn said, “If I had to try to defend that thought in any way, the crew isn’t always there the entire time we’re working on a case, so when they do pop into town, they get fragments of the research. I think that might even frustrate the producers sometimes, that we keep working with or without them there” because “they’re not capturing our whole search process.”

He also admitted that he acts differently at different times, and suspected that may be what I was responding to. “The part of the show that makes me feel less comfortable is those parts where I am talking to my staff, because I am so focused on getting work done, that I actually worry that people are going to see it and go, ‘That guy’s a jerk,’” he said. “I don’t take the time to have little genuine, sweet conversations” because “if we’ve got a deadline, I do move rather efficiently, which I know sometimes is a contrast to when I sit down with one of our clients.”

Dunn said, “I am a different person with my staff than when I sit down with somebody, because I feel I have to be slower, more sensitive.” He also told me that a crew member who overheard an off-camera phone call with his mom “laughed and said, ‘You really do talk to your mom like that, don’t you?’”

As to what the 22-minute episodes don’t include because of time restrictions, Dunn said there’s “friction amongst us internally” about how much of his family they should show. “I’m proudest most of my family, and I don’t want people to think I’m some kind of a workaholic who’s never with my family and kids. … I don’t want the show to misrepresent me as someone who’s so driven towards his life’s work that somewhere in the background in the ashes lie his wife and children.”

Dunn called himself a “die-hard family fanatic” who thinks family “solves the world’s problems,” and has seven kids with his wife, who he met in high school. “I think what I love is when I fix a fractured family, that in some way I’ve given them a little bit of what I feel like I have,” he said. He said that “everything is centered around my family,” including the dates that filming occurs. “My black-out dates where I won’t and can’t travel and shoot are based around my kids’ schedules.”

Dunn also told me that he wishes the show could include how the process affects his own life. “Sometimes the easiest part of the process is finding somebody, and the hardest part is the facilitating of bringing two people back together who’ve been separated for years or decades. Personally, I grow from them … as I kind of coach them through that,” he said.

Dunn has a free web site, troyslist.org, on which he said two or three families are reunited daily, and said “there’s enough technology and help out there now that people can do it if they have access to those resources.” Those people who come to him have tried all of that and still fail, so he said he’s always focused on the next reunion: “I suppose this is a character flaw, but in my heart, instead of celebrating the one family we helped, I’m thinking about the 99 we haven’t got to yet.”

Working on The Locator, Dunn said, “I’m definitely spending more time than I ever thought I would working on these showcases, but that was my life dream from the beginning when I started it 20 years ago, was I hoped that someday it would be more of a philanthropic effort for me, where I didn’t have to think about the business side of things, and I could really focus on picking families who need miracles in their lives.”

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.