A Tale of Three Cop Shows: True Detective, Bosch, And Babylon – Look! It Moves! By Adi Tantimedh

Adi Tantimedh writes:

HBO's "True Detective" Season 1 / Director: Cary Fukunaga

Three new cop shows this month have caught my eye: True Detective, Bosch and the British series Babylon.

Cop shows are like the bread-and-butter of TV drama. They have a pre-sold audience that's hungry for a genre that's all about not just solving crimes, but about bringing order to a world of chaos. No new season of TV is ever without its share of cop shows, and on US TV, they often have a better chance of surviving the harsh ratings battles than any other genre.  Network cop shows are usually unchallenging in their inherent conservative message of Right and Wrong and "crime doesn't pay", and shows like Blue Bloods continue to be ratings successes. They're usually comfort food for viewers.  The three new shows here are aiming for something else.

True Detective is probably the best drama on TV drama right now. It takes what seems to be a run-of-the-mill plot about two Louisiana cops hunting for a serial killer and takes it to philosophical and literary territories not usually see on crime shows. There's a encroaching sense of Lovecraftian cosmic horror that creeps into the story as the cops investigate the metaphysical obsessions behind the serial killer's methods and the cops themselves are more than your usual cops. Matthew McConnaughey's Detective Cohle might be the most existentially nihilistic detective in the history of crime fiction, a fatalist and pessimist who sees humanity as a scourge on the world, much to the horror of his reluctant partner Martin Hart, played by Woody Harrelson, a down-home career cop who plays lip service to humane values but may not be as good a guy he thinks he is. As a friend of mine pointed out, the two cops make up two sides of an equation, with Cohle holding onto his pessimism and Hart inadvertently proving Cohle right through his reckless, destructive actions.

true-detective1

The chilly existential landscapes of Scandinavian crime shows like The Killing and The Bridge meet their match here in the barren, sun-blasted plains of rural Louisiana.  The show uses the cop show structure to explore epic cosmic ideas as its characters find themselves staring into the abyss.  It's not every crime show that references Schopenhauer, Robert W. Chamber's The King in Yellow, a book of stories that were a huge influence on H.P. Lovecraft and many other writers of Horror and Dark Fiction, and even the horror stories of cult author Thomas Ligotti.  The show belongs in the same school of Macho Noir that Cormac McCarthy specializes in. There's such an air of cosmic horror that you almost expect the climax of the series to have Cthulhu and the Elder Gods erupting into the world and devouring humanity. Probably won't happen, but still…

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Bosch is an hour-long pilot adapting the LA detective novels of Michael Connelly.  If True Detective hadn't come along, it would probably be considered the best mainstream cop drama out there.  Connelly's hero Harry Bosch has featured in 17 books and is the gold standard in gimmick-free, no-frills cop detective fiction. Connelly, a former crime reporter for the LA Times, always gave his stories an air of authenticity.  Adapted by Connelly and former staff writer of The Wire, Eric Overmeyer, the pilot captures the tone and world of the books perfectly, updating the noir landscape of Los Angeles to the modern day. At first glance, it looks rather like a CBS cop show, but its pacing is more deliberate, slowing down to concentrate on the landscape of Los Angeles and how it matches its brooding hero.

Considering that the pilot has the biggest number of reviews, nearly all positive, on Amazon and the books have a large fan following, it's very likely this will be picked up for series.

Babylon, Channel 4

Babylon takes a different tact from the other two shows and pushes the cop drama into the realm of farce and dark comedy.  Written by veterans from Peep Show and the underrated Four Lions and directed by Danny Boyle, the show reverses the comforting authority of London cops and instead portrays them as barely-competent numpties hobbled by bureaucratic bullshit while the commissioner has to contend with a devious second-in-command while they hire an American PR guru to make the force look good amidst their crises.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVzjlQCtDyQ[/youtube]

If anything, Babylon might be the most despairing of the three new cop shows since there's nothing reassuring about the idea that the cops that are supposed to protect us and keep order are idiots.  The show has a bigger social and political agenda than True Detective or Bosch and all three shows demonstrate how flexibility the cop and crime genre can be to suit whatever type of story you want to tell.  Bosch is the most conventional in its naturalism. True Detective is the most heightened in its use of genre to tap at greater existential and philosophical ideas as well as tap into the horror genre to add additional layers. Babylon follows the British tradition of social fiction laced with satire. They may not be perfect, but they reaffirm the cultural value of popular fiction.

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Look! It Moves! © Adisakdi Tantimedh

About Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.

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