When it premiered in 2018, ABC’s The Rookie became one of those shows that my family watched each week. The concept of a middle-aged man trying to reinvent himself by moving across the country to join a police academy where his classmates were two decades younger, seemed to offer an opportunity for some interesting personal stories. The show had a nicely diverse set of characters, most of whom seemed to have backstories and lives that didn’t just extend to propping up the white male lead. And there was an undertone of humor both in the basic setup and in the interactions between a highly likable cast.
But from the first episode, there was an issue. The police were not only presented as tough-but-fair rule followers who spent their off hours drilling into each other the need for absolute perfection at their tasks, but their average day on the job was shown to include facing down a series of machine-gun wielding evil-doers who sprayed buckets of bullets at the officers, their cars, and the surroundings. Every episode featured the main character facing far more gunfire than the average officer could expect in a thirty-year career. It seemed that, even given a good setup, good actors, and the opportunity to do something new, the writers and producers of the show couldn’t think of anything but showing violent thugs and hero cops.
Every episode of The Rookie seemed to feature the main character unslinging—and firing—his weapon multiple times. And when he wasn’t shooting, he was taking shots that were handled by his body armor. By the eighth episode of that first season, the main character had shot and killed a suspect. In the next episode, he hurled another out a window. All of this was highly traumatic to our main character, but within a week, he was his chipper self again. Another episode featured the police defending an apartment building being stalked by a small army of criminals, all of them carrying automatic weapons, who blasted the building with roughly the same amount of ammunition expended in Saving Private Ryan.
And when Black actor Afton Williamson left the show after the first season, she had no qualms about explaining why in an Instagram post in which she stated that she was subject to racial discrimination, racially charged comments, and sexual harassment. Williamson also stated that the showrunner failed to pass along multiple complaints, that HR failed to take action, and that complaints about harassment by a co-star were never followed up.
In short, despite a promising set up and cast, the writers and producers of the show seemed to have nothing to say about the police that didn’t involve violence. Mostly delivered by guns. Lots, and lots, and lots of guns. The show did a nice job of setting up most of the characters as basically decent, though flawed, human beings who were generally trying to do good as they saw it. Then it let them do good—by shooting one helluva lot of people.
It’s hard to imagine that show returning next fall, and not just because the pandemic has interfered with the filming schedule. It’s hard to understand how any show based around the idea of “hero cops” who face an unending rain of gun fire to rescue the innocent from peril can ever be seriously put forward again. Whether that show is Chicago P.D, or Blue Bloods, or anything starting with a collection of initials, it seems the height of disdain to return that show to the air next year.
Police dramas have always been fiction, and we’ve always known that. But fiction is important. I would not have written over three dozen novels if I didn’t think that fiction could leave a lasting emotional impact and that fictional characters and fictional situations can inform the mind and sway the soul. Fiction, like music, can touch us more deeply than reality, and carve a more lasting impact.
For at least sixty years, television has been bathing the nation in broth of hero cops. There have been some spectacular dramas over the years—Homocide redefined how the crime genre works, and Hill Streets Blues is more responsible for the kind of drama we get today, across all genres, than any other show—but that doesn’t mean they didn’t still play along to the story line that has broken policing in America.
In Vanity Fair, Black showrunner Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, pulls no punches in saying that police dramas were never realistic. As both the creator of the show S.W.A.T. and a writer for multiple series, he has direct experience both in the pressures placed on these shows, and in the way that white writers and producers rarely think about the world beyond their characters. He points out that shows like Dragnet actually had to have script approval from the LAPD, and the formula laid out there—cops stolidly righting wrongs despite all threats and temptations—established the backbone of police drama that still runs through the current crop. And Thomas shows how the often-touted counterpoint to the hero cop—the “vigilante cop” who breaks the rules because they just know what is right, despite regulations and the law, dammit— is even more likely to be breaking those rules to intimidate or eliminate suspects who are people of color.
While I was pleased to note that the show I was watching seemed to have taken at least one character from every box on the racial diversity list, Thomas is not impressed by how recent shows have been cast, saying “…if the voice behind the characters remains consistently and almost exclusively white, diversity is literally only skin deep.”
Thomas sees little indication that change is coming because, for the moment at least, the white producers and white writers behind the nation’s cop dramas see concern about police violence and racial justice as a “fad of the moment.” They’re just waiting for things to settle down so they can go back to writing their heroes and vigilantes. “A few months ago,” writes Thomas, “I wrote a scene between LAPD officers, observing how there were 27 years between the Watts and the Rodney King Riots and how 2020 marked 28 years since the King riots. Were we a year overdue for another uprising? When I wrote that scene, I got a sense from white colleagues that it was the equivalent of science fiction, that surely this couldn’t happen again.”
COPS, the show that (in addition to game-show Survivor) illustrated how editing could turn any collection of shots into a narrative and create heroes and villains where none existed, has been cancelled. So has a similar low-budget act called Live PD. But so far, the big scripted police dramas and the associated networks seem to be doing just what Thomas suggested—waiting for this surely temporary concern over police violence and racial justice to blow over … as it has in the past.
Over at Vox, Emily VanDerWerff believes its unrealistic to believe that networks are going to defund the cop shows, specifically because they are an “instant, ready-made drama generator.” You got your bad guys, your people in distress, and your heroes who ride in to solve the issues in the space of 42 minutes screen time. It doesn’t matter that these have no resemblance to how actual police departments work, it’s how Hollywood police work, and they’re not about to give up on something they don’t see as broken. She points out that police dramas suffer from the same effort to raise the stakes to keep a show “fresh” and “exciting.” That’s how hospital dramas end up with mad bombers loose on the wards, and shows supposedly about a rookie officer end up involving helicopter-assisted assaults on the stronghold of rogue paramilitary arms smugglers secretly funded by the CIA (yeah, really). So can cop shows be, for lack of a better word, reformed? VanDerWerff sees hope more in the way that private eye shows allow characters to play against both crime and the police.
But maybe the question shouldn’t be can we have cop shows in an era when people are finally, finally beginning to wake up to the level of violence that the police have leveled at the Black community for decades? Maybe the question is really can we have justice in a society where the idea of “police” is defined by a genre that distorts our view of what that word means.
In USA Today, television critic Kelly Lawler takes on the question directly: “What role do police dramas and comedies play in perpetuating institutional racism and unpunished police brutality?” She points out that the way films and television glorify police and policing isn’t an accident. That’s the intent of these shows. These shows exist to “valorize” the police. Direct involvement by police didn’t end with Dragnet. It’s still there in the form of “technical consultants” and “script consultants” and “technical advisers” whose role is theoretically to make the scripts more realistic, but who give a very unrealistic view of police work. This is particularly true in “procedurals” that are supposed to show how police walk through a case from crime, to evidence, to arrest, but are by necessity shows in which victims are disposable walk on roles, criminals are dispatched in minutes, and all the screen time goes to those hero cops, or forensic techs, or federal investigators … depending on the initials attached to the show.
As Lawler writes, the truth of those shows is simply this: “There are few instances of police brutality or misconduct. The innocent are rarely convicted. Anyone who gets in the way of policing—an uncooperative citizen, an internal affairs investigator or even other law enforcement agencies—is the enemy. If a cop does anything wrong, it’s always for the greater good.”
That paragraph doesn’t just define the essential elements of a police drama, it’s how much of America thinks of policing in the real world. It’s the exact model that Donald Trump is working with when he stomps out demands for “Law and order!” It’s a salve to those who want to believe that protesters are the problem, that police are defending public safety, and that Black people would never have a problem if they weren’t all just criminals in the first place.
Police drama as it exists today, and as it has existed for decades, is invariably “copaganda” that teaches Americans to see the police as elevated above everyone they meet, whether that someone is a suspect or a victim. Watching the fictional police work through a complex mystery (or a mystery as complex as an hour drama allows) can be highly satisfying. And at Mother Jones, P. E. Moskowitz notes that so-called “true crime” can be similarly satisfying, and addictive whether delivered by television or podcast. But these true crime tales are no more “real” in most cases than fictional dramas. Like COPS, they’re produces of the editing booth, using narration, music, and above all sharp cuts of the image and sound, to lay out a tale in a way that creates tension and provides a satisfying conclusion.
No matter what the color of the actors, the police drama as it exists today is enforcing a racist narrative. It is a weapon that excuses violence and justifies immunity. Even more so than other forms of the mystery genre, the police drama has a single purpose: Put you on the side of the cops, who are the only fully-realized characters, and root for them as they have to deal with all those lesser beings in their way. Everyone else is cardboard. It doesn’t matter who is cast in the role of the cops, because the purpose of these shows—the purpose—is to set apart the police in a way that excuses violence and diminishes the importance of everyone else.
Every existing cop drama is unlikely to be cancelled. But they should be.