Can We Save "The Great American Cop Show"? 5 Ways It's Still Possible

The police procedural or cop show has been a staple of the medium ever since the invention of television. In this new era where we are demanding we Defund the Police, what does that portend for literally dozens of cop shows in production? Or is this a genre that can't, or perhaps shouldn't, be saved? My colleague Erin Wilhelm makes the case here of why it may be time to Abolish the Police Procedural. She has many strong points. But for those not ready to Cancel All Cop Shows, there may be some ideas on how to save them.

The first question needs to be, does it matter? Yes. Absolutely. Our culture matters, and it has an effect. And African-American and Latinx actors have been asking for years, decades for more opportunity to play characters other than "drug dealer" or "rapist." Decades of shows that glamorize mostly white cops who are usually chasing down people of color, especially Black people, have an effect on the political consciousness of a nation. In many ways, the American cop show has contributed to a culture of white supremacy and the mass incarceration of Black and Latinx people.

Can We Save the Great American Cop Show?
Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) watch The FBI on ABC in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. They are apparently fans, as was Tarantino. The show ran for 9 seasons.

There is a political theory of social movements that all successful movements must work at four different levels of power: the culminating top level is a change in culture, which eliminates the needs for laws and bureaucracies (the lower levels) because people simply behave differently. And if we are going to eliminate structural racism, including police violence, in the United States, then changing our culture matters.

And when it comes to the issues of our politics, it matters as well. Andrew Breitbart said that "Politics is downstream of culture," meaning that he and other right-wingers know that what happens in the culture eventually filters into our politics– and it's why has always had film and TV reviews. It's why Black Panther and Captain Marvel and their success at the box office is so important. It's why cop shows are so important. It's why J. Edgar Hoover worked with, and sometimes coerced, television producers to make shows that put law enforcement in a positive light.

So what to do with our Law and Orders? Our SWATs? Our Hawaii-Five-O's? Our Criminal Minds? Our Numbers? Our NCIS's? Our CSI's? What about even more recent, and slightly more "woke" Brooklyn Nine-Nines and The Rookies? Can the American police procedural be saved? Is it worth saving? I believe the answer to both of those questions to be yes.

Because there's something we like about police procedurals the same way we like superhero movies– indeed these two genres are inherently linked. We like to see Good Archetypes punish Bad Archetypes. We like to feel safe that powerful people are using that power to protect the weak, protect the normal folks of the world. The police as a cultural institution, as a scion of state control, with their monopoly on the ability to use violence, should be reoriented to use that power in more responsible ways that help dismantle, rather than contribute to, structural racism. And we will see as our culture changes, and cop shows change to no longer reinforce white supremacy, then so will our actual police forces. So what do we do?

1. Put Creative Control in More Diverse Hands

This is the first and likely most important piece here. Because it isn't simply enough to hire more diverse actors and hire a single BIPOC writer to be in a writers' room. That's tokenism and puts pressure on a single person to be the only one who speaks on behalf of their community. But guess what? Black, Latinx, Asian communities are not a monolith. And so it's important that multiple people make up the creative teams behind our shows.

And perhaps most importantly, BIPOC creatives be given the chance to create their own shows, their own narratives, especially as showrunners. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of young, scrappy and hungry creatives with huge ideas. And it's important that they fill out not only a truly diverse and representative writers' room, directors' lineup, but also in roles across the show.

One show that seemed poised to maybe do things differently was ABC's The Rookie. Anchored by Nathan Fillion but featuring an otherwise incredibly diverse cast, this was the first major cop show to come about in the new landscape of body cameras and increased scrutiny over police brutality. How would they meet the challenge? The answer? Not well, at least off-camera.

Can We Save "The Great American Cop Show"? 5 Ways It's Still Possible
The cast of ABC's The Rookie, Season 1 (ABC/Ed Herrera)

After Season 1, star Afton Williamson quit the show because of sexual and racial harassment, specifically coming from one of the show's hairdressers. Reportedly, said hairdresser made multiple, repeated inappropriate statements about Williamson. And when it comes to something as racially charged and fraught with microaggressions and the need for understanding as hair, we simply must do better. (For white people unfamiliar with the idea, take six minutes and enjoy the wonder that is the Oscar-winning short "Hair Love" and prepare to cry.) How many white showrunners would think to make sure that the hair and makeup team for the show need to have experience doing hair and makeup for Black actors? And while Williamson's problems on the set of The Rookie did not completely revolve around mistreatment by hairdressers, it was a contribution.

So when showrunner Alexi Hawley and The Rookie's creative team announced that, in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breona Taylor, etc, the show will attempt to respond to these issues, color me skeptical. It's not that they aren't sincere: I truly believe they are. But it may be that they do not have the depth to really address this without actually changing the problematic elements of cop shows which contribute to a culture of violence against Black people specifically and BIPOC people in general. Maybe they have grown. I truly hope so.

We need to create the space for Black and Latinx creatives to write their own stories. I guarantee there are fresh takes on the classic police procedural formula that are specifically designed to eliminate the harm and violence towards BIPOC communities. But until we put them in charge, we won't see them.

2. Change Up the Formula

Police procedurals don't need to be the same old shows. A lot of our classic TV follows a lot of the formulas and tropes of a cop show but aren't exactly cop shows. The X-Files? FBI Procedural. We can make versions of these shows that help dismantle structural racism. And we can look to our precious genre shows as an example.

Just look at the CW: Barry Allen is a cop. Joe West is a cop. Dinah Drake is a cop. In a larger sense, the DEO on Supergirl are cops. The Legends of Tomorrow are (time) cops. And let's not get started with what's happening in Gotham on Batwoman. Even with some of these people and institutions going through, er, "transitions" in the mid-season (no spoilers!), at their heart a lot of the Arrowverse shows are procedurals.

Can We Save "The Great American Cop Show"? 5 Ways It's Still Possible
The Flash — "There Will Be Blood" — Image Number: FLA604b_0078b.jpg — Pictured: Jesse L. Martin as Captain Joe West — Photo: Robert Falconer/The CW — © 2019 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved

Regardless, The Flash is a good example of a show where the CCPD is front and center in many episodes but where they are a very different kind of show. The Flash isn't a particularly "woke" show in terms of needing to layer social justice messaging into every episode. And yet, it's also there in very subtle ways, with a racially-blended family that is totally normalized. This presents a good way forward. Does The Flash contribute to a culture of accepted police violence and brutality? Doubtful, although there are certain problematic elements (as there are with all shows).

Science fiction has always been an excellent template for social commentary. The police procedural Almost Human with Michael Ealy as an android police officer and Karl Urban his robot-hating partner was excellent and canceled far too early. The time seems ripe for a very specific kind of Robocop remake, but one which focuses less on Alex Murphy and more on the society which allowed their Detroit to become the crime-ridden hellscape it was– just the way Paul Verhoeven would want it.

Fantasy or historical settings might also help. The BBC's Robin Hood (at least in its first two series) really nailed this perfect balance of winking that "we're in Sherwood Forest but I'm really talking about things that are happening today." And what is the Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisborne but a perfect example of police brutality and abuse of authority writ large?

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is another great example of changing up the context, but this time to comedy. Again, the racial diversity of the cast is helpful, but perhaps not sufficient on its own. But also placing some of these issues in a comedic context helps the bitter medicine go down, as it did in their classic episode "Moo Moo," where Terry is racially profiled by another cop.

Unfortunately, even this doesn't quite get to the heart of where we need to go. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is still a story where the cops are, while sometimes goofy, basically all good guys. Meanwhile, the actual NYPD continues to abuse protesters, attack the media, and otherwise make the case for why they and other police departments like them should be defunded. It's hard to look at Jake Peralta, Amy Santiago, Rosa Diaz, Ray Holt, and Terry Jeffords and say those people should be defunded. (Meanwhile, Scully and Hitchcock most certainly could be.) And maybe that's the problem. As long as we think of NYPD cops as leading police lineups in Backstreet Boys singalongs, it's hard to think of them as villains. Therefore. . .

3. Bring Back Bad Cops. Really Bad Cops. And the Mediocre Cops Who Enable Them.

I more or less grew up on a steady diet of Law & Order original flavor, with Benjamin Bratt and Jesse L. Martin and Chris Noth and Jerry Orbach as paragons of what most good cops were. Then came The Shield and The Wire. Vic Mackey, played by Michael Chiklis, was a completely different cut of cop.

However, The Shield still somewhat glamorized and made a permission structure for Vic's terrible, lawless behavior. After all, he was beating up (and occasionally murdering) drug dealers, murderers, rapists, and the like, and surely they deserved it, right? This is the kind of behavior that leads to someone choking out a person selling loose cigarettes or kneeling on someone's neck for passing a counterfeit $20 bill.

We need a new breed of bad cop, and we need to understand why they are bad. We need to see the "warrior cop" training that tells them they are always under threat, usually from scary black and brown people, and that you have to put them in a body bag to make sure you go home to your family at the end of your shift. We need to see the police unions who cover for police brutality and their union leaders who attend white supremacist rallies.

Can We Save "The Great American Cop Show"? 5 Ways It's Still Possible
Michael Chiklis as Vic Mackey in The Shield. Image Courtesy FX Network.

We need to see the petty authority and the petty people who gain pleasure from exercising it over people, especially over people they view as less than themselves, less than human. We need to see the good people washed out and rejected from policing because they are too smart, because they refuse to "go along" with the casual racism and sexism of their fellow officers. And we need to stop giving racists and violent sociopaths either redemption arcs or cop-outs for their behavior. We shouldn't ever feel bad for the Vic Mackeys of the world.

We need to see the process where the idiomatic "bad apples" go about spoiling the whole bunch. And we need to see the good apples fail over and over to stop the corruption. We almost got this with Gotham.  But that show went too over the top, became too ridiculous for it to ever really make that commentary. But a more grounded Gotham City setting might be able to do that. Your move, Batwoman.

But it is only by elucidating exactly how the system has become corrupted can we ever hope to fix the system. Because if all we're ever doing is just playing whack-a-mole with eliminating bad cops, it's the equivalent of fighting a malaria plague by swatting mosquitoes. We need to eliminate the swamplands that breed the mosquitoes.

4. Model Non-violent Intervention in Non-violent Circumstances

Cop shows depend on drama, delivered in 44-minute increments with mini-climaxes every few minutes to keep us watching through the commercials. A lot of these are easily manufactured, as our uniformed heroes go charging into danger, guns drawn. But what if it didn't have to be that way? Most cops will never discharge their gun in the line of duty. Why does TV make it seem like this is a daily occurrence?

One of the larger problems in police departments across the country is the aforementioned "Warrior Cop" mentality.  Too many police shootings and instances of brutality happen with people experiencing mental health crises or because cops mistake harmless behavior as some sort of "failure to comply." Their training tells them to boom down with authority, with disastrous results.

Public school teachers, among others, take mandatory de-escalation training as part of their normal professional development. Why don't cops? This kind of training helps decrease police brutality claims more than many other police reforms according to Campaign Zero, and seeing these sorts of high-stakes de-escalations can be surely just as fraught with drama as rolling up on bad guys in tactical gear and busting down the door with a no-knock warrant. So many of our favorite tv detectives, — Columbo, Shawn Spencer, Adrian Monk, Batman, David Addison, Richard Castle, Jessica Fletcher, Sherlock and Watson — never drew a gun on anyone to solve their crimes. This leads to our final suggestion:

5. Show the Helpers, or At Least Other Kinds of Cops

One of the calls to "Defund the Police" is really about re-allocating resources that currently go to cops, and especially the militarization of police, instead so social services who can actually better handle the situations cops are asked to deal with. Shows like 9-1-1 actually already show how fire and paramedics and others respond to crises, sometimes with police in tow. What about other shows where social workers and counselors respond to domestic violence, mental health crises, and sexual assault rather than/in addition to the police?

We can also show different kinds of police officers. One of the things which made Netflix show Unbelievable so effective was the contrast in the conduct of the various police officers involved. For those unfamiliar, the miniseries told the true story of the police who solved a series of rapes that occurred across Washington and Colorado. Part of the story follows a young woman played by Kaitlyn Dever who is brutally raped, but when interviewed by the police is eventually charged with making a false report because the cops who interviewed her basically use the same techniques they use when interrogating suspects: ask the same questions over and over, look for inconsistencies, poke holes in their story.

Merritt Wever and Toni Collette from Unbelievable (Image: Netflix)
Merritt Wever and Toni Collette from Unbelievable (Image: Netflix)

It's an entirely different story when another police detective, played by Merritt Wever, interviews a victim who is raped by the same man. She is calm, empathetic, talks through the trauma, and lets the victim know that it's ok to feel traumatized or know that memory is strange and we sometimes remember things differently later. She then links her case to a series of rapes investigated by another detective played by Toni Collette. And while Wever and Collette play very different people, it is night and day to see how they approach their work compared to the other (male) cops. The point is not as much about their gender, though the show demonstrates how gender bias made the cops sloppy and unable to link their cases with others'.

In the realm of the subgenre of "cozy murder mysteries," we can also see a better way forward. Many of our favorite detectives we mentioned above aren't technically part of the police forces to begin with. Most of them range from consultant to fake psychic to vigilante to writer to private investigator, as though we have always somehow instinctively understood that great intellect does usually not exist within the powers of the police and they have to outsource it.

The point isn't to call cops dumb, but it is to say that there are many ways to catch the bad guy and satisfy our id's insatiable appetite to see justice rained down on evildoers, and they don't all involve a badge and a gun. We can re-center our police procedurals on multiple types of people, not just uniformed police officers.

Whither the Cop Show?

I don't think cop shows are going anywhere. They're simply too ingrained in our collective unconsciousness and the desire to watch them comes from someplace primal. And, there's a lot of people out there who subscribe to a much more conservative philosophy who don't see any problem with all of the police violence on television. But it's my sincere hope that at this time when we're thinking about giant structural changes like defunding the police, we think not of canceling the cop show, but remaking it in an image more appropriate for a 21st century America. And that should be one where the overarching themes and depictions on the show don't contribute to a culture of police violence or racism, but one where diverse creative teams tell all new types of stories. Because, frankly, the old ones are played out.

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About Andy Wilson

A mild mannered digital strategist working for an environmental nonprofit in Austin, TX roaming the interwebs fighting his nemeses by day, and by night consuming all manner of media. You can find him either on his couch or at the nearest Alamo Drafthouse catching the latest. Don't follow him on Twitter @CitizenAndy.
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