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Cop shows won’t just disappear. How can we reinvent them?

Hollywood should consider film noir as a way to make cop shows about failed institutions letting people down.

Mariska Hargitay and Ice T star in Law & Order: SVU.
Law & Order: SVU is the longest-running cop show on television. But should cop dramas like it change course dramatically in an era of increased awareness of police violence?
Virginia Sherwood/NBC
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.

In recent weeks, as protests against police violence have spread nationwide in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, TV critics and others who cover the medium have raised a frequent refrain: Cancel all the cop shows.

Kelly Lawler, TV critic for USA Today, wrote an excellent piece that summarized the problem as one of overrepresentation. There are so many cop shows, and most of them depict police officers as brave, stalwart heroes. It’s inevitable that the idea of the police as effective guardians of the public, constantly and selflessly putting themselves in harm’s way, would leak out into the national subconscious.

Lawler argues that we must consider this portrait of police in any complete discussion of representation on TV:

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.

Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, the showrunner of CBS’s S.W.A.T. and one of the few black people to ever showrun a broadcast network TV series about the police, proposed a slightly different course of action in a piece he wrote for Vanity Fair: Find ways to change the perspectives TV brings to the police by varying the sorts of people who write about them.

When I hear Hollywood colleagues playfully pondering whether or not we’re doing enough to address the image of the hero cop that has been entrenched as a procedural staple, the answer is clear: hell fucking no. There’s a ton of work we still have to do. The question is, how sincere will we be about putting in that work? Right now, individuals and corporations are offering lip service to preserve business, using statements to indicate support for black people. The real test, as always, is: what actions will we see?

One thing seems likely to me: Hollywood is not going to give up on the cop show. Stories about police are an instant, ready-made drama generator. Crimes are often committed, investigated, and solved in the space of a single hour, in ways that distort our views of how police departments actually work and how effective they are, but otherwise offer a reliable, time-tested narrative structure. Hollywood loathes giving up something that works, and lots of people love watching police procedurals and other cop shows.

But already, change is evident. Two (heavily edited) reality shows about the lives of police officers — Live PD and Cops — have been canceled, and the TV industry at large is at least asking big, important questions: How do we make cop shows without needlessly valorizing the police? Can we? Should we? The answers will drive the next several decades of TV storytelling and maybe even change how we think about the police in the US.

Cop shows are visceral and exciting. But maybe there’s a way to tell stories about police while still presenting them as they really are.

The logo for Live PD
A&E’s Live PD was one of the most popular shows in America. But this week, it was canceled.

One of the problems with the cop show is central to the way television works. TV cannot help but normalize what it portrays because we spend so much time watching any given TV show that its circumstances become more and more mundane to us. This is why so many TV shows tend to drastically raise their stakes the longer a series runs — to jar us out of complacency, the show has to find ways to shock us all over again.

Consider the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. When the show began in 2005, it certainly had moments of extreme crisis (a train accident! a bomb in the hospital!), but they were few and far between because the real drama came from the way the characters interacted and the soapy complications therein. But as the seasons wore on, Grey’s, like so many medical dramas before it, had to find new ways to make the world of medicine seem fresh and exciting again. There were shooters in the hospital and plane crashes and other huge disasters. The escalation wasn’t entirely the show’s fault; it’s just how long-running TV works. In order to not become complacent, to not so normalize their every facet that the audience becomes inured to them, TV shows turn to bigger and bigger tricks.

But the creep of normalization can still create problems for an entire genre of TV. I think that’s what’s happened to the cop show, where an organization with substantial problems in our reality is mostly treated as a bastion of noble heroics in TV reality because TV has so thoroughly internalized an idea of unchecked police power.

For instance, the series NYPD Blue, which ran from 1994 to 2006 and broke new ground for adult subject matter on broadcast TV, featured a racist, anger-prone detective named Andy Sipowicz at its center. The show didn’t celebrate Andy, but because he was portrayed by the mesmerizing Dennis Franz, viewers couldn’t help but be drawn to him all the same. Within a few seasons, people were so used to Andy that the show had to resort to more and more brazen ways to karmically punish him — seemingly everyone he had ever known died horrible deaths — as if trying to remind viewers that, actually, Andy did some terrible things.

The classic way to subtweet the cop drama, at least structurally, has typically been the private eye show. Private investigators operate outside of the justice system, which means they’re often as much at odds with law enforcement as they are with people breaking the law. The classic example of the form is the 1970s drama The Rockford Files (where James Garner played the ultimate cool dad of a PI); more recently, the ABC series Stumptown, which just finished its first season, has also told involving mysteries outside the trappings of the traditional cop show format.

There have been other attempts to break open the cop show mold in recent years. By far the most famous of these is The Wire, David Simon’s sprawling depiction of the many organizations and systems rotting away in the city of Baltimore. The show featured a new mystery each season, to be solved by a team of detectives and other officers, but its message was that it’s impossible to be wholly good in a broken system. The morals of The Wire’s many police officer characters ranged from basically decent to hopelessly corrupt, but the show always drove home that even the best of them couldn’t help but be eaten alive by the self-interested, reflexively defensive institution they all worked for.

The issue with The Wire is that it’s brilliant television, but it’s also the kind of show that is dense and multifaceted, with lots and lots of subtleties that are best revealed during close watches. It’s not exactly high-octane entertainment, and that’s okay — it’s not trying to be. But that necessarily limits the show’s audience. You have to really, really want to watch The Wire to watch it. You’re not just going to stumble upon reruns on TNT some night.

To find a modern drama that doesn’t needlessly valorize the police while still being wildly entertaining, we’ll have to go overseas.

Have the Germans figured out how to make a great modern cop show?

A woman dressed as a 1920s flapper sits at a bar holding a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
Babylon Berlin is a fantastic look at a world in chaos.

If there’s a common throughline to shows like The Wire and The Rockford Files, it’s a distrust of institutions, which have a tendency to decay from within. Thus, the two shows have something in common with a very different — but still deeply American — form of detective drama: the film noir.

As something of a catchall term, “film noir” has been applied to several movies and TV shows over the years. Film noir stories are usually about characters who investigate crimes, characters who are sometimes but not always police officers. The genre is defined by a sense of systemic fatalism: the realization that the crime being investigated is far more complicated, with much deeper roots, than most people could have imagined. The good guys might capture a patsy or two, but when the time comes to round up the real bad guys, said bad guys are protected by a hideously corrupt system. For examples of the form, think of The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown, True Detective, or even Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Film noir’s inherent structure exists to expose institutional rot. In almost every film noir, the hero is a good cop or a good detective, but the story makes clear that every other law enforcement officer is either hopelessly corrupt, hopelessly evil, or completely inept (sometimes, they’re all three). Most film noir argues, in essence, that most cops are bad, and the handful of good ones are completely unprepared to take down the true villains, who sit at the top of a system built primarily to benefit them. You can see where this might be the best way to combine the visceral thrills of a cop show with the weightier consideration of the police’s position in society, as our modern era demands.

What’s remarkable is that there’s already one show that’s doing this, albeit a show from Germany. The series Babylon Berlin, which debuted in 2018 and now has three seasons available to stream on Netflix, sometimes feels like an attempt to blend The Wire, Mad Men, and Lost into one series, then play it at 1.5 speed. Set in 1929 Berlin, with the rise of the Nazis just over the horizon, it follows the hopelessly noble Gereon Rath and the agreeably stubborn Charlotte Ritter, two of those good-but-ineffective cops so familiar to the film noir genre, as they attempt to solve murders, robberies, and acts of high treason all while missing the horrible monster just waiting to emerge. (The way this series teases out Nazi iconography across its first three seasons is one of its best elements.)

Throughout Babylon Berlin’s three seasons to date, Gereon and Charlotte have their wins here and there, but their victories tend to be quixotic. They might solve a crime, then be unable to bring the perpetrators to justice because the perpetrators are protected by their power within the systems that govern German society. They consistently find the truth but are powerless to do anything about it. And all the while, the Nazis are coming to power, with everyone in the police force missing what’s happening under their very noses.

In the show’s season three finale, Charlotte, lamenting yet another miscarriage of justice among so many, says to Gereon, “We did this.” By “we,” she means Gereon and her specifically, but also more generally the police. If the police are only going to arrest those with less power and never work to dismantle oppressive systems, they will be corrupted and manipulated by those very systems. And right down the hall, one of the pair’s colleagues is talking about reining in Berlin’s criminal underground — even as we in the audience know the real threat is about to set the country aflame with hatred.

Babylon Berlin is a dense and beautifully layered show, but it’s also just a lot of fun. Every season is crammed full of big twists, bigger reveals, musical numbers, romantic rendezvous, and action sequences. Yet at every turn, the series underlines the idea that even its heroes operate from a single-minded self-interest that prevents them from adequately recognizing and fighting against the rise of fascism.

This theme has resonance in our times, but also in every time. While some of the strange cocktail that makes Babylon Berlin work is its period setting — it’s easier to realize how badly the “good cops” are screwing up when you know that their failures will spur the rise of the Nazis — the show has many lessons for American television about telling stories about failed institutions and the people struggling to work within those institutions.

We’re living in a moment where, paradoxically, there are more horrible crimes to investigate than ever before, but the organizations we’ve built to ensure that justice is served are ill-equipped to actually do so. And in a world that feels as if it’s falling apart in new ways with each passing day, we need investigators like those in film noir, investigators who solve crimes but are still powerless to stop them.

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