You can keep most of TV’s “reality” shows--I’ll take “Cops.” It not only pioneered the genre, but after three years on Fox it remains network TV’s only true “cinema verite” series--innocent of re-enactments, free of fancy production effects, and doggedly faithful to its format.
The show just aired its 100th program, a milestone for any show, but especially for one so utterly unlike the highly produced material typically inhabiting prime time. When “Cops” creators John Langley and Malcolm Barber first began pitching the idea several years ago, “there was a great deal of resistance,” as Langley politely put it when I spoke with him and Barber by phone recently.
Actually, the industry thought he and his partner were crazy. No script? No host? No narrator or sets or actors? You mean just let one camera person and one lighting person ride along with the police as they make their calls?
Yes, that’s exactly what Langley and Barber had in mind. Let real life tell its own story--in half-hour episodes of three segments each--as the officers dealt with everyone from scared kids to hardened drug dealers.
What emerged is a unique series that has become the anchor of Fox’s Saturday night lineup. In its honesty of tone and commitment to recording exactly what happens--no more, no less--the show is an implicit rebuke to the excesses and sleight-of-hand committed by most other “reality” productions.
“Cops” is a stickler for authenticity. “We have lost many segments because the camera was not turned on when the police drove up,” Barber says. “Or someone will miss the cop picking up the drugs where they’ve been thrown. The temptation is to say to the police, ‘Will you do that again?’ But that’s a no-no for us.”
Even ABC’s “American Detective,” a series that does shoot real and compelling “Cops"-style footage--and features a lawman who originally gained visibility on several “Cops” episodes--is afraid to let the rhythm of each event dictate the action. It adds “interesting” camera angles, freezes, and “slo-mo"--in short, it seems not to trust the material itself. By contrast, the only concession “Cops” makes to the presence of TV cameras is a kind of low-key “debriefing” just after an event, when officers--speaking to the camera and microphone--provide a little context for what has just happened.
That’s because “ ‘reality’ is very incoherent and has no beginnings and ends,” says Langley, “and you got to have that in television so the audience can follow a story line.”
Violence is not the attraction; both producers stress this. The show’s appeal lies in moments like the time a female officer comforted a little girl worried about an abusive home life, or when some other human gesture by police helps avert violence.
“Our ideal segment is seven minutes with no cuts,” says Langley. “The perfect show would be no editing other than the first cut and the last cut--a total process that involves you from beginning to end,” he adds.
Sometimes, though, the very fragmentary structure of the show best defines it. And some of those fragments have to be routine--even a little boring--to remain faithful to the daily and nightly rounds they are covering. It’s all part of an undoctored format that viewers keep coming back to. Let’s hope no one fools with it.