In the wake of nationwide protests against the killing of George Floyd and the kind of institutional racism in the police force that enables that to happen, Hollywood is forced to do some serious soul-searching, especially the producers of cop shows. Because of public anger at the police, shows like S.W.A.T. suddenly don't have the best optics. Even today, Craig Gore, a former writer on the show, was fired from the new Law & Order spinoff for posting a picture of himself with an assault rifle on social media and threatening to shoot protesters. The producers of S.W.A.T. have been the first to release a statement on Twitter:
"When S.W.A.T. began three years ago on CBS, as writers we examined the intersection of black communities and law enforcement through the eyes of Daniel 'Hondo' Harrelson (played by Shemar Moore), an African-American cop who has one foot firmly planted in each world. Now, as real-life events continue to horrifically unfold — and additional instances of police violence have a spotlight cast on them — "We are watching… in horror and sadness along with everyone else, and we will continue to mine the truth about these issues in the writing of our upcoming season as we all work towards a fairer, better system. In the meantime, we encourage protestors to express their frustrations peacefully and implore law enforcement to deescalate conflicts, not exacerbate them, as people work through their understandable anger and grief."
A Cop Show With Internal Contradictions
One question being asked is whether a show like S.W.A.T. is right for the current mood. It is, after all, a pro-cop show that celebrates the militarization of the police force. S.W.A.T. is an acronym for Special Weapons and Tactics. They're like the elite special forces of the police. Technically, S.W.A.T. is one of the best directed shows on network TV. It has some of the best-staged action sequences and car chases. It takes many of its stylistic cues from Michael Mann. The show is set in Los Angeles, where the police have a very chequered history with the African-American and Latinx communities. It also, unfortunately, has a reputation within the industry for treating actors badly.
That said, the show prides itself on having African-Americans and people of color on its writing staff. The showrunners are Shane Ryan, best known for having created The Shield, and Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, a respected professor at USC as well as a screenwriter. On top of the usual cops-versus-crooks, it has embraced issues pushed by Black Lives Matter, directly addressed racist cops, tensions in community policing between the police and the African-American and Latinx communities, and also progressive LGBTQ issues, on top of sociopolitical commentary about the cultural and political history of Los Angeles. Its hero is an African-American cop who grew up in Los Angeles who has to navigate the tensions and paradoxes of his position who has to be more principled and more incorruptible than his white colleagues. It features an Asian squad member who is also principled and incorruptible. It also has an LGBTQ squad member dealing with her gender status and polyamory. In the end, the show is still about maintaining law and order. But is that enough now?
All Cop Shows are Pro-Cop
Every cop show is inherently conservative. There is no such thing as an anti-cop show anywhere on the planet. Network television has to be seen to be responsible businesses, and so their shows have to be at least implicitly pro-establishment. US network TV cop shows offer the reassuring fantasy that the police are good and competent and are here to protect us. CBS is the most pro-cop network out of the Big Three. It has more cop shows than any other network. Their audiences skew older, so it's no wonder that a show like Blue Bloods is their highest-rated show. S.W.A.T. has decent ratings, enough to last more than three seasons, but skews younger.
Cop shows are comfort food supporting the status quo. What happens when the status quo is exposed as unfair and untenable? That is the question that every cop show, including S.W.A.T., has to grapple with.