What TV’s rogue cops reveal about the American self-image — and American selfishness
It has been a historic couple of weeks in the nation and the world, and amid this turmoil we have been looking at the police — the real police on television and the police as television pictures them. Then again, we are always looking at the police, who have traditionally occupied a large tract of our popular culture. Just last week, I streamed a randomly chosen episode from the first season of “The Carol Burnett Show,” and there was Jonathan Winters playing a contemporary Texas sheriff and making police brutality jokes, a mere 53 years ago.
In January, Color of Change, a consulting firm focusing on racial diversity in the entertainment industry, and USC Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center issued a collaborative report, “Normalizing Injustice,” that asked the question, “Is scripted television essentially a PR machine for the police?” It answered yes. According to its analysis of 26 crime shows from the 2017-18 season, the medium “advanced debunked ideas about crime, a false hero narrative about law enforcement, and distorted representations about Black people, other people of color and women … rendered racism invisible and dismissed any need for police accountability.” It also points out that the creators, showrunners and writers of these series (a third of them on CBS, which has hitched half its wagon to procedurals) were all white and mostly men.
For the record:
1:59 p.m. June 15, 2020An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Michael Chiklis’ character in “The Shield.” It is Vic Mackey, not Vick.
This may sound obvious, but in the absence of pressure, power tends to forget. “Cops,” which has just been canceled (along with the “Cops"-esque “Live PD”), went about its business for decades. The bad smell coming from its direction may have been noted now and again, but when 10,000 people march in at once to announce that something stinks, a response is in order. That is what is happening now, a sort of fumigation.
Critics say the popular TV shows of “Law & Order,” “Chicago PD” and “FBI” creator Dick Wolf create harmful misperceptions of the criminal justice system.
Perhaps the first thing to say about the police on television and in film, and this would include much of what purports to be “reality,” is that, whatever effect they have on viewers’ opinions about actual police, they are an invention: They work in show business — the world of “Law & Order,” not law and order. (Without any sort of data before me, I’m going to hazard that people who don’t have much interaction with the police might form opinions on the basis of these representations, where those into whose neighborhoods they more frequently roll up will base them on the actual police.) Officers and institutions may be portrayed as better or worse, more honest or corrupt, goofier or grittier, more fanciful or more lifelike. Firefighters put out fires; and doctors almost always try to make people better. But cops are good and bad and sometimes both, depending on what the story and venue require of them.
Is the hero a person who is falsely accused? Wrongly convicted? The cops may be bad. If the hero is a private detective, the police are likely to be portrayed as incompetent and interfering, all the way back to Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Lestrade, and forward to the latest episode of “Father Brown.” Is the (anti)hero a criminal, in the way of “The Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad”? The police will be just another gang in a crooked world; in any case, you will not root for them. Where defense lawyers take center stage, prosecutors are wanting; where prosecutors reign, defense lawyers stand in the way of justice, or at any rate, a conviction.
With calls out to “defund the police,” will we see the defunding of police shows? Not likely. Stories of crime and punishment go back to the beginning of … stories, probably. Odysseus’ crew steal the Oxen of the Sun, and Zeus sinks them all with a lightning bolt. Cain slays Abel and is sent wandering. Dostoevsky wrote a book actually called “Crime and Punishment,” about an ax murder, and a century later it inspired a TV series called “Columbo.” “The Great Train Robbery,” from 1903, set the arc for action films to come: holdup, chase, shootout. For generations, kids have grown up on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. In a world of problems that are hard to solve, such stories resolve with a reliable, satisfying click. Some may ask you to think along the way, by forcing characters into ethical binds, or reflecting current events — even “Watchmen,” which if anything has become more timely for its racial themes, keeps you watching in hope to see the bad guys lose.
There is something neutral in the term “procedural” — a process, a by-the-book progression from crime to closure, settling whatever straw-man scenarios the writers care to invent or adapt. The purest form of this mechanism is “Dragnet,” a formulaic anti-dramatic drama whose cases were drawn from the files of the LAPD — “The story you are about to see is true” and all that — in which two deadpan detectives go from person to person gathering “the facts” until an arrest is made and, following a commercial, a verdict announced. (It’s the very definition of summary justice.) Creator-star Jack Webb’s Sgt. Joe Friday is barely a person, a collection of questions, ironic comments and an occasional lecture.
In the wake of the cancellation of “Cops” and “Live PD,’ the makers of the podcast “Running From Cops” explain how ride-along shows manipulate the reality of policing.
There were two Webb “Dragnets” on television, the first spanning the 1950s and the second in the late 1960s, a kind of bulwark of establishment principles set against an era of cultural upheaval. They were followed by “The New Dragnet,” in 1989, and in 2003, “Dragnet,” from Dick Wolf, whose “Law & Order” is Webb’s real heir. Ripping stories from headlines rather than from actual case files, with short scenes set off by title cards and a percussive musical cue and toned-down dramatic approach — with plenty of room for ironic comments — it was very much a “Dragnet” redux, with that show’s coda expanded to a half hour of courtroom drama. (It borrows a structure from the early ’60s series “Arrest and Trial.”)
Wolf, whose shows occupy five hours of prime time — “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” plus his Chicago franchise (“Chicago P.D.,” “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago Med”) on NBC, and “FBI” on CBS — has come under fire for the lack of diversity in his writers room and for “glorifying” police and prosecutors, an effect perhaps intensified by “Law & Order’s” semi-documentary style. Newer shows like “Chicago P.D.” and “FBI” behave more like other cop dramas, with teams of good-looking investigators bringing their sometimes difficult personalities and soap opera storylines to work.
Cop shows have been vehicles for social comment in socially conscious times, or under socially conscious creators, but the times are often socially unconscious, and much of their business is a fearful escapism. There is a crime, and there is a comeuppance; in between, there may be running, yelling, shooting and so on. (For an instructive contrast, see the CBS All Access comedy “No Activity,” in which mostly nothing happens.)
Many are based on a team of detectives, a surrogate family unit, usually with a middle-age white man to lead them, attended by prosecutors, medical tech geniuses and grumpy superiors; this is how all the “NCIS” and most other CBS procedurals have worked. (Sometimes, as in the dynastic drama “Blue Bloods,” they are actually family.) These teams are nearly always multi-ethnic now, though, as the Color of Change report notes, often minus any racial tension; one might charitably regard this as aspirational.
As Alyssa Rosenberg reported in a 2016 Washington Post piece, the historically cooperative arrangement among film and television studios and the local police — mostly but not exclusively the LAPD and the NYPD — has colored the way police have been represented on television; that is to say, they have been treated well. As “Normalizing Injustice” points out, television cops are almost always good, even when they do bad. Police and other official corruption are part of the dramatic tool kit of most of these shows, but the bad apple rarely spoils the barrel — the good ones toss it out. (And the barrel itself is always fundamentally sound.)
In a furious, unfunny 27-minute set posted to the Netflix Is a Joke YouTube page, Dave Chappelle traces a path from slavery to the death of George Floyd.
The “good rogue” cop comes in a range of flavors from disgusting to delightful but remains popular across the spectrum. (They are almost always detectives; uniformed police are bit players in most shows.) On the low end, there is the thug with a badge, who breaks the rules to do the job the bureaucracy is too petrified to handle, bringing order through violence and intimidation. (Say, Michael Chiklis’ LAPD Det. Vic Mackey, in “The Shield,” based on L.A.’s morally fraught Rampart Division.) At the other end is a scamp, a trickster with a badge, who breaks the rules to do the job the bureaucracy is too hidebound to handle, bringing order with a wisecrack and a laugh. (See: Andy Samberg’s Jake Peralta on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” based on “Barney Miller.”) Most fictional police detectives occupy this space at some time, often to the frustration of their superiors, and sometimes to the thanks of a grateful citizenry, with some contextually acceptable degree of collateral damage.
Our worship of the rule breaker is key to the American self-image, which so easily slides into American selfishness. (It’s why, for instance, we are so terrible dealing with COVID-19 and will never have universal healthcare.) What makes the present protests feel so promising is that communities are coming together in a larger community — or, to put it bluntly, white people are showing up for Black people, to lend support without grabbing the megaphone, or throwing a brick in someone else’s name. (There has been a learning curve, to be sure, and some early exceptions, but they have faded way as the movement has grown.)
And that is the salient point here, where Hollywood meets the world. The line between revelation and backside-covering may be a fuzzy one, but if doing the right thing for the right reason is best, it’s not the worst thing when it’s done for the wrong one. Every writer assumes voices not their own, but in the writers room, as in the streets, even the most sympathetic, articulate imagination is no substitute for an authentic point of view, born of experience.
“Normalizing Injustice” notes that real-life police clear cases at a much lower rate than their TV counterparts, who clear nearly all of them. Can failure be integrated into a cop show? We are so far inside the old models that we can’t really know how the new one will work until we see it. There has been voluble support for increased diversity and for general self-reflection, from every sort of company, platform, medium and brand, some of which will prove meaningful and some of which will have been only expedient. Whether this moment is, well, momentary or a permanent turning point in the country and the culture remains to be seen. Or else we will be back here again, asking and answering these questions as if for the first time.
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