The TV critic for the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg, recently made a radical suggestion:
“Shut down all police movies and TV shows. Now.”
Much to her own surprise, the producers of “Cops” did exactly that. After 31 years, they pulled their show off the air.
“Cops” billed itself as “reality television,” a contradiction which should go into the Pantheon of Oxymoron alongside George Carlin’s “jumbo shrimp” and “military intelligence.”
“Cops” is gone and I say, “Good riddance.” The only thing catchier than the show’s reggae title track (“Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?”) was its dominant activity — namely, police officers chasing down and catching people of color. It exaggerated the rates both of violent crime done by minorities, and the effectiveness of the police, and there’s no knowing how much unconscious racism it has fostered.
But what about all the other police shows? The scripted and produced ones? I sat down the other night and made a list of everything that has made this pandemic bearable for me, and if they were all taken away, I’d be reduced to watching spiders weaving a web over my dormant TV screen.
The list is long, starting with my current favorite “Monk” and continuing through all the flavors of “NCIS” (New Orleans; Los Angeles; and plain vanilla) to “Law & Order,” “Law & Order SVU,” “Criminal Minds,” “Bones,” “Blue Bloods” and “Chicago P.D.” Then there’s the British and Australian variants, from “Doctor Blake,” set in Australia in the 1950s, to “Father Brown,” in the very English countryside at about the same time.
Half of the shows I started watching were primarily for the scenery (so many gorgeous gardens in “Father Brown”!), but it’s still true that all of them have taught me about the police and how they operate. Or, to be more accurate, how I think they do because in reality, I am not a police officer or related to one and not a suspect either. My only knowledge of that world comes from television, and if that is biased, then so of course am I.
One night I was watching a very old American show (so old it was in black and white) and, after the officer chased someone and caught him, the man he arrested turned out to be white. I will admit it: I was surprised.
That tells me that Rosenberg has a point. I have absorbed racist assumptions, in the decades since that show was produced without even knowing it.
But here’s where she and I part company: We don’t need to abolish all the police shows.
What we really need is more — more and better characters and stories for the shows that already exist. Because TV is the most powerful teacher there is.
People around the world are familiar with our Miranda warnings about the right to remain silent and have legal representation. Do they know this because it’s taught in their schools? Hardly. They know it from seeing it so often on our television shows.
Even law enforcement folks might learn a thing or two. I remember somebody saying in the time after 9/11 that when government interrogators felt themselves at a loss about how to question suspects in custody, they turned to things they had seen on shows like “24.” I don’t know if this is true but if so, it’s no one’s idea of best practices. This person wanted to contact some scriptwriters and tell them a few better methods, so that the next time interrogators copied what they saw on television, they’d have better techniques.
I want to see a show where one police officer is tempted to be violent — until somebody more senior puts a hand on their shoulder and says, “Enough. You can let go now.”
I want to see an officer who says, “Are we sure about this name and address?” before bursting in on a no-knock warrant and killing somebody like Breonna Taylor.
I want to see more shows like “The Wire,” which critics praised for its nuanced depiction of the entire Baltimore community or “In The Heat of the Night,” the TV series based on the novel and film of the same name. In the series we watch Carroll O’Connor, famous for his role as Queens-born racist Archie Bunker, demonstrate how to be a non-racist chief of police in a Southern town.
There are examples out there. We just need a lot more of them.
In short, I want our television writers and producers to do as Gandhi advised and “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Because the world needs it.