When Cop Shows Feel Painfully Out of Step

One of the great flaws with network television is that, because shows film in advance, sometimes an episode can be very off the mark and socially awkward. There’s no way to get around this problem – obviously, networks need time to write and develop scripts, actors need to rehearse, filming takes time, editing and remastering and dealing with other issues requires time, and other matters can eat into production as well. It’s not like the cast rolls into the office every Monday and says ‘okay, let’s film a new episode this week!’ On programming like soaps, where the frequency of programming necessitates an accelerated schedule, it’s different, but on regular programmes, it’s pretty simple: You can’t make a good TV episode in a week, and you can’t ensure that it’s finished and distributed inside that week either.

Thus, shows that use current events have to be careful so they don’t feel out of step; you can’t reference something that happened six months ago. Such productions tend to try to focus on things they think will continue trending – for example, Castle had an episode featuring a disillusioned Occupy protestor at one point, with the writers clearly noting that the movement was ongoing and that people within the movement were starting to shift over time, that those who had been involved at the start might be starting to feel frustrated and angry.

But other storylines can reference current events accidentally, and almost predictively, and the results can be extremely insensitive. Officer-involved shootings, for example, tend to play a role at least once a season, often as a midseason finale or other crucial, turning-point event – like an episode right before a brief hiatus to tease viewers and get them to come back. (Many do.) Such events are framed as cathartic experiences for the officers, particularly if it’s the first time they’ve shot a suspect and/or killed someone (some shows stick with the injured suspect rather than dead suspect storyline). In other cases, it’s not uncommon to see officer-involved shootings on a pretty regular basis.

Cops versus bad guys. The cop takes down the guy threatening another cop (a common theme) or a civilian, and everyone goes home shaken, but happy. The situation was resolved. It might have been tense, but the story has been taken to its conclusion. Depending on the show, the officer may or may not be subjected to an internal affairs investigation, may be put on administrative leave, may be offered counseling and other support. In almost all cases, though, the officer’s actions are presented as justified and reasonable.

For the viewer, it seems natural. We see the situation clearly, and also through the lens of the police department; in a sense, we have shifted to the other side of the thin blue line. We are no longer passive civilians, but active advocates for the police officers involved, because they are our friends. They are our people. They are the protagonists of the story, even if they are sometimes flawed.

We saw what the bad guy did. He did terrible things to someone. He threatened one of the officers we love, or he held people at gunpoint in a bank. The officer obviously had no other choice – no, the officer was actually a hero to take a shot, to resolve the situation quickly and with no further risk to anyone else. Cop shows provide a kind of catharsis for the viewer in this sense too; because as we watch police shoot people and think it’s justified in pop culture, we extend that to real life.

How angry and impatient we become when our beloved officers are taken off active duty. When they are investigated by Internal Affairs (a routine event in most precincts after an officer-involved shooting). When there is even a hint of the possibility that a shooting might have been ‘bad.’ How could that be? How could our friendly neighbourhood officer possibly be accused of wrongdoing? It’s unfair, an injustice, something that must be corrected.

We are primed, through cop shows, to perceive the police in very specific ways. They are friends, not enemies. Their invasions of privacy, their surveillance, their abuse of civil rights, their inappropriate behaviour with suspects, these things are all justified. Claiming that they are not is patently absurd; how can a character be a hero if she does terrible things that are not okay. Sure, she might occasionally cross the line, and she may be flawed, with some issues going on, but all in all, she is a good person, and she is a good cop. When we do see dirty cops at all, it’s usually someone taking bribes or another corrupt officer higher in the chain; beat cops and detectives don’t do anything wrong.

So and thus, we learn that officer-involved shootings aren’t a problem. Which means that when such an episode airs after an extremely controversial or traumatic shooting, it looks really, really insensitive. This traps networks in an awkward hole; do they admit that officer-involved-shootings are problematic and take the step of canceling or delaying the episode, even though it might interfere with the hero mythology built up around police? Do they run it and hope that they won’t get swept up in outcry over their lack of insensitivity? Do they run it and hope that they can make adjustments in future episodes to cover up their mess?

I don’t have much sympathy for networks when it comes to these kinds of decisions, because, bluntly, networks could avoid them by not featuring officer-involved shootings in the first place. It would be almost crushingly easy to avoid bad PR (yes, as though this is a matter of PR, as though an angry and upset nation should be patronised and fobbed off by a network) by simply not including such incidents – or by making them end with real consequences. Wouldn’t it be a remarkable indictment of society if a cop show had an officer-involved shooting where a grand jury voted to indict, where a case went to trial, where the officer was convicted of murder?

Image: surveillance cameras, Gavin Stewart, Flickr