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The terrible timing of Let’s Be Cops highlights how little fictional cops resemble Ferguson’s cops

Damon Wayans, Jr., (left) and Jake Johnson star in Let's Be Cops.
Damon Wayans, Jr., (left) and Jake Johnson star in Let's Be Cops.
20th Century Fox
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Any other week, Let's Be Cops would have been just another movie being released. The umpteenth take on the buddy cop formula, greeted by poor reviews. But this week, the timing of Let's Be Cops's release yesterday seemed terrible.

It's not just that Let's Be Cops has that title on a week when events in Ferguson, Missouri, bring to mind not low-level police officers trying to bring down petty criminals but, instead, officers armed with military-grade weaponry confronting protesters (or, worse, the unknown officer who sparked the incident by killing the unarmed Michael Brown). It's that the whole release strategy behind the modern movie machine involves blanketing the world with marketing, which results in the following bit of awful incongruity on Twitter last night, as pointed out by my friend and former A.V. Club colleague Erik Adams.

There probably wasn't much 20th Century Fox could do about the film's release. The protests (and overcompensating response to said protests) didn't begin in earnest until Monday night, only a little over 24 hours before Let's Be Cops began midnight screenings. And early box office returns suggest the movie will do fine, if not be a massive hit. It's a comedy, smartly released at a time when there aren't a lot of comedies, and Fox could probably scale back its marketing efforts (which it will almost certainly have to after last night's events in Ferguson) and not lose too many ticket sales because of that counterprogramming.

But the terrible timing of Let's Be Cops points to a larger problem in the ways Hollywood tells stories about the police: though the film and television industries continue to tell stories about cops by the boatload, those stories have done a horrible job of evolving to reflect the ways the militarization of police forces can create rifts between officers and the people they're ostensibly protecting.

How we think about crime

To be sure, art usually reflects life, and it can take time for these sorts of things to filter their way into the public consciousness. The horrifying night-vision images of Wednesday's confrontation in Ferguson will eventually be reflected somewhere in something Hollywood produces, because they have been so widely spread and commented upon.

But movies and TV shows about police officers have long been one of the foremost ways Americans process and reflect upon their feelings about both crime and efforts to stop that crime. We might have more stories about cops than ever, but they seem largely unable or unwilling to think about the issues that have reached a crisis point in Ferguson.

It seems silly today, but at the time of its debut in 1968, The Mod Squad was widely acclaimed for helping make sense out of things like the era's youth culture and the struggles of both women and people of color to find equality in the workplace. Growing anxiety about violent crime in the ‘70s found its expression in films like The French Connection and Dirty Harry, while the 1980s' Hill Street Blues is one of the smartest, most compassionate TV shows ever made and an earnest plea for understanding and empathy about the plight of American inner cities that also managed to become a top 30 Nielsen hit.

Consider, also, the wave of buddy cop movies that arrived in the ‘80s, many of which had surprisingly thoughtful attempts to deal with issues like racial relations (48 Hours) or mental health (Lethal Weapon) at or near their cores. Those attempts can seem cloying now, but at the time, they were revolutionary. Even ersatz ‘90s cop show The X-Files reflected that era's growing suspicion of government action, to say nothing of how Law & Order directly confronted the issues of the day.

If there's a demarcating line here, it's likely the debut of CSI in 2000. The CBS series was too big to ignore, meaning that essentially every cop show on TV had to grapple with it in some way. Most shows chose to just copy it. Oddly enough, CSI is, at least metaphorically, about the growing reliance of police departments on advanced technology that cuts said departments off from the people they're meant to protect. Hill Street and its descendants built out whole universes around their central police precincts. In contrast, CSI's Las Vegas was divided between the police officers and their cool toys and a city full of cardboard cutouts who existed mostly to kill or be killed.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this approach. Early CSI was a lot of fun, and even in its dotage, the show is capable of a handful of solid episodes per season. There have always been straightforward "cops vs. robbers" stories, and they can be good fun. But what happens when this is the only story viewers get told?

Shiny new toys

The CSI approach rapidly became essentially the only approach TV had for telling stories about police officers, while movies about cops were increasingly relegated to the sidelines in favor of big budget extravaganzas. And when the primary story being told about police officers is that all of their new toys are fantastic and they're living in a crime wave straight out of viewers' worst nightmares, it sends subconscious assumptions that are easy to filter out into reality.

There are a couple of major exceptions to the CSI rule, but neither has proved as fruitful as that show in terms of shifting the TV landscape. The Wire is one of the greatest television shows ever made, a beautiful, bruising, realistic look at all sides of the war on drugs and the death of the American city that has immense empathy for every character within its universe. But it's also sui generis, and therefore much too hard for other shows to copy (to say nothing of how it was never a massive hit and teetered on the brink of cancellation for its entire run).

More successful in this regard was The Shield, which looked at the uneasy relationship Americans often have with cops who break the law but, nonetheless, get results — in both fiction and reality. In some ways, that show was a very delayed response to the Rodney King beating and the culture of corruption within the Los Angeles Police Department that was made glaringly public after that incident. But in other ways, it was also (inadvertently) the perfect post-September 11 show, about how easy it is to cross moral lines when working to fight crime. If Hollywood is ever going to deal with the militarization of police forces, The Shield's creator, Shawn Ryan, who has also done several solid military series (The Unit, Last Resort), would be a good choice to consider those questions.

But if you're looking for the TV show or movie that directly deals with these issues, it doesn't exist yet. Hollywood can occasionally be a little slow at dealing with social issues, but this creeping militarization has been going on for a while, with little on TV to reflect either the simple fact of its existence or the moral and ethical issues that go along with it. Indeed, the upcoming CBS show Battle Creek is a series that feels unstuck in time, dealing as it does with an underfunded police department that can't get its hands on good equipment. Real world police departments are getting more and more advanced technology; fictional ones are devolving.

Obliterating the stakes

To some degree, that has something to do with the fact that stories about police officers usually have police officers as protagonists. It's much easier to level the playing field between protagonist and antagonist when the hero is a beat cop up against a serial killer than it is when the hero can ride a tank into battle with civilians. Good storytelling demands dramatic stakes, and tanks tend to skew that equation.

Consider, for instance, the Fox summer series Gang Related, which did deal with a militarized police department, but set it up against a gang that also possessed such technology, creating a show where open war essentially raged on the streets of Los Angeles. That might be fun for an action show, but it doesn't reflect the images from Ferguson, where the conflict was decidedly imbalanced.

We need more TV shows and movies that reflect the world we're seeing in news reports from Ferguson, and we need ones that do so directly. Fiction helps us process and make sense of the world, and there's room in the images out of Ferguson (and so many other cities) for an earnest and nuanced consideration of what happens when police officers are given military-grade weaponry. That story could be told from the point-of-view of cops or ordinary citizens or even criminals. But it's there to be told, and it too rarely is — certainly not in projects like Let's Be Cops.

And if nothing else, it's time for the CSI template to gain that nuance. There are times when technology is helpful in solving crime (especially in a lab setting), but it's not a de facto good for police departments around the country. To suggest otherwise does a disservice to viewers and storytelling.