When President Donald Trump talks about “LAW & ORDER,” what’s the first image that comes to mind?
It’s probably not the scales of justice or a police badge, but rather the red-and-blue logo of NBC’s long-running cop and lawyer drama.
The series and its many spinoffs, created by Dick Wolf, are among dozens of TV series about law enforcement. From “Dragnet” to “NYPD Blue” to “FBI,” the cop show is a prolific American institution that is immensely influential. In the 2019-2020 TV season, three of the top five dramas were cop shows, according to Nielsen. With 21 seasons and at least three more on the way, NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU” is the longest running live-action drama in U.S. history.
Yet the protests against police brutality and systemic racism – sparked by the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes – raise questions, not just about real-life law enforcement but the fictional kind, too.
What role do police dramas and comedies play in perpetuating institutional racism and unpunished police brutality? Television is a powerful medium, and it’s long past time to reckon with decades of stories that portray cops mostly as heroes and protagonists and black people as the criminals they lock up. If we can’t get rid of cop shows entirely (although it’s not the worst idea), we need to change them.
Hollywood has a long entanglement with the police over the last century. The glorification of cops and their power isn’t just a side effect of the action and crime dramas movie and TV studios put out – it’s often the intent. Cop shows are created to valorize the police.
As cultural critics have recently pointed out, police censorship shaped film and TV into propaganda machines in the 20th century. Early Hollywood needed the help of law enforcement to cover up the misdeeds of stars and grant permits for filming in public spaces. As a result, the police became both the inspiration for shows and heavily involved in their messaging. Famously, the scripts for late 1960s series “Dragnet” were vetted by police before filming.
Their involvement in TV continues to this day, from “technical consultants” who provide “authenticity” to series designed expressly as propaganda. Chris Long, the producer of Fox’s since-canceled “Deputy,” said in January that the show was inspired by Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who asked him to “depict the department in a manner which is accurate and help him show young people that becoming a deputy is a good thing, and all the negative publicity around being a police officer or a sheriff’s deputy are those bad apples (that) don’t wreck the entire batch.”
Decades of cop shows have coalesced into a pattern, particularly in network procedurals like “Law & Order,” “FBI” and “CSI.” Heroic cops, federal agents or forensic techs are the main characters, and each week they tackle a new case. The victims and suspects are, by definition, disposable guest stars whose names you can barely remember (although you can remember the victims are frequently white women).
The cops always find the guilty party in a satisfying final act. There are few instances of police brutality or misconduct. The innocent are rarely convicted. Anyone who gets in the way of policing – an uncooperative citizen, an internal affairs investigator or even other law enforcement agencies – is the enemy. If a cop does anything wrong, it’s always for the greater good.
TNT’s “The Closer” saw Kyra Sedgwick’s deputy police chief Brenda Leigh Johnson bend the rules of Miranda rights to get her suspects to confess, while villainizing an Internal Affairs investigator. On CBS’s “Elementary,” “police consultants” Sherlock (Johnny Lee Miller) and Watson (Lucy Liu) conduct warrantless searches and hand over fruit of the poisonous tree to detectives who make arrests using illegally obtained evidence. The network’s “Blue Bloods,” perhaps the most pro-police series on TV, is rife with this kind of misbehavior among cop characters and baffling decisions by suspects, and even aired an episode where a black man threw himself out a window to fake police brutality.
When we talk about representation in movies and television, we often point at the voices and faces that are missing. But we also need to look at the voices and faces that are overrepresented. Too often police are beacons of morality who never do wrong. Too often criminals are people of color, particularly black men. Too often victims are forgettable and laws optional when you carry a badge and a gun.
A January report by advocacy group Color of Change studied the effects of this kind of glorified portrayal of law enforcement. The study said “the crime TV genre – the main way that tens of millions of people learn to think about the criminal justice system – advanced debunked ideas about crime, a false hero narrative about law enforcement, and distorted representations about black people, other people of color and women. These shows rendered racism invisible and dismissed any need for police accountability.”
There are problems to be found even in more nuanced depictions of the police. HBO’s “True Detective” and FX’s “The Shield” are full of corrupt cops, but they do wrong in pursuit of horrible rapists and murderers, and thus are vindicated. NBC’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” centers on a goofy, well-meaning precinct of racially diverse cops from different backgrounds and sexual orientations. Although it breaks stereotypes, it is still one more example of making officers infallible paragons of moral good.
Yes, cop shows can offer well-crafted and compelling stories. Many are among my favorite TV series. “Law” is a classic for a reason. USA’s “Psych” is a family favorite comedy. FX’s “Justified,” about a Kentucky U.S. marshal, begins its very first episode with an unforgivable abuse of law enforcement power, but is on my list of the best TV shows of the 2010s.
But art doesn’t exist in a bubble. Just as many called for muting R. Kelly in response to his alleged sex crimes, canceling cop shows in response to systemic abuses across the institution they portray isn’t unreasonable.
How would we replace them? Maybe more series like HBO’s “Watchmen,” ostensibly a comic-book adaptation but in actuality a nine-episode meditation on racism and policing in America. What makes “Watchmen” rise above most series that try to add nuance to policing is that it lulls you into thinking the cops are heroic protagonists, only to reveal that they are the villains, and prejudice is woven into the fabric of the department. The metaphor extends to what we see in a world without superheroes.
TV occasionally shows other perspectives. ABC’s “For Life” is based on the true story of a wrongfully convicted man fighting corruption in the justice system as a jailhouse lawyer. HBO’s seminal “The Wire” had as much empathy for the people being policed in Baltimore as the officers doing the policing. Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” was a big step in showing it’s not just the innocent or wrongfully convicted who deserve to be treated as well-rounded humans by TV writers (although its cartoonish cop characters could have been improved).
I’m not so naïve as to think that cop shows are in any danger of disappearing, even in light of current events. They are too ingrained into the current profit machine in Hollywood. Eliminating NBC’s popular first responder trifecta of “Chicago” series, also produced by Wolf, would wipe out a whole night of its schedule.”NCIS,” “FBI” and “Blue Bloods” are CBS’s highest-rated dramas. Cancel Amazon’s “Bosch” and lose one of the streamer’s biggest draws. Clearly, however damaging these series are, their popularity remains, so far, intact.
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But we shouldn’t act as if they’re harmless entertainment, or “just TV.” If TV didn’t have the power to influence and change the minds of viewers, there would be no point in selling commercials that fund your favorite shows.
But some change – in the tone of cop stories, in what series get picked up by networks – feels possible. Celebrity actors are showing up at protests. Others, like “Brooklyn” star Stephanie Beatriz, are calling on their colleagues who portray law enforcement to donate money to fight racism and support anti-brutality organizations. NBC fired a writer on its planned “SVU” spinoff who threatened to “light up” looters. Producers of CBS’s “S.W.A.T.” have publicly vowed to “do better” in portraying racial issues.
Does all that undo decades of damage? No. But it’s better than pretending that nothing was ever wrong when we heard the familiar “Law & Order” “dun dun.”
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/tv/2020/06/05/george-floyd-protests-should-we-cancel-cop-tv-shows-good/3145692001/
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