Television: Copping Out


During a January conference sponsored by National Review, Media Research Center Chairman L. Brent Bozell III said, "Surveys have shown that one in every three cops on television today is the villain. It is devastating that one out of every three policemen is perceived and promoted as an evil person."

For a medium that supposedly hates the police, television continues to produce an awful lot of cop shows. You can turn on network television almost any night of the week and watch detectives relentlessly and painstakingly put together clues on shows such as Law & Order or Homicide. Or you can flip over to an independent station and watch syndicated action shows such as Renegade or the new version of The Untouchables. By my count, there are at least a dozen police shows currently in production. And ABC has added a new series by Stephen Bochco to its fall lineup—NYPD Blue. If they're portraying cops as bad guys, either Hollywood is on a suicide mission or the American people are deeply disillusioned with the police.

In fact, neither is the case. Bozell's statistic may be devastating, but it isn't true. When I asked the Media Research Center where Bozell got that figure, they said that it came from the book Watching America by Robert and Linda Lichter and Stanley Rothman, a survey of television programming from the 1950s to 1986.

But on page 222 of the book, the Lichters and Rothman report, "Only one law enforcer out of seven was portrayed negatively," compared to an average of 23 percent among all the professions whose portrayals they tracked. Two-thirds of the cops were positive, and the rest indeterminate.

And the negative characters included not only "evil" cops but police officers who were vain, or dumb, or supercilious, but not evil. In fact, the Lichters and Rothman tell us, "Most of these [negative portrayals of police] were well-intentioned bumblers whose ineptitude or naivete provided comic results." The example they cite to illustrate this point is a bumbling policeman on The Flying Nun. They continue, "Only 5 percent of the law enforcers in our sample were real evildoers."

The Lichters' organization, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, is updating its survey, which is, after all, seven years old. Research Director Daniel Amundson says, "My gut reaction is that the percentage of negative portrayals is down. In the 1980s, you had shows like Miami Vice that dealt with police intrigue and corruption. Today, the typical show is Law & Order: it's more cops-on-the-beat type of shows. They are less likely to present policemen as villains."

In many ways these current shows seem much like all of the other cop shows that TV has produced. (Many of which themselves live on in syndication or on cable.) But over the years, cop shows have changed. The form they take, the issues they grapple with, and the way they present their subjects have been in constant evolution. How the police drama has changed over the last 40 years tells us much about how we as Americans see ourselves, our society, and our protectors.

Two basic approaches to the police drama were established in the early days of television, and every police drama that has aired has followed—with some modifications—one of these two paths. The first important police show was Dragnet. "This is the city, Los Angeles, California. I work here. I'm a cop." With these words, in 1952, Jack Webb began a seven-year run as Sgt. Joe Friday in the highest-rated police show in TV history.

Webb presented the policeman as a blue-collar working stiff. Eschewing action, he showed crime solving to be a plodding, frustrating occupation. Friday was more likely to be seen filling out paperwork than drawing his gun, and he rarely faced personal danger.

But police work differs in some important ways from construction or working on an assembly line. Wedded to Friday's work ethic is a strong sense of moral purpose. What he is doing is right and important. Friday always treats his suspects professionally, but he always lets them know that he thinks they are scum.

This same attitude toward criminals informs the other paradigm show of the '50s: The Untouchables. And what scum Eliot Ness and his cohorts faced. Quinn Martin, the producer of The Untouchables, chose the most physically unattractive actors he could find to play his villains. Then he photographed them using powerful cross lighting that highlighted every wrinkle, blemish, pock mark, and scar on an actor's face. The Untouchables featured some of the ugliest villains in TV history.

It also featured more violent deaths than any show aired to that time. Martin's gangsters didn't just shoot their enemies; they machine-gunned them to death—filling them with hundreds of bullets—or blew them up. The Untouchables presented policemen as superheroes; it was an action-adventure show fitted in police drama trappings.

But audiences in the peaceful Eisenhower era weren't quite ready for it and all of its bloodshed. The show was successful enough to remain on the air for four seasons, but it finished in the year's top 25 shows only once.

Beginning in the early '60s, crime, particularly violent crime, began to spiral upward. In 1963, President Kennedy was killed. In the mid-'60s, race riots engulfed several major cities. There was political violence by opponents of the Vietnam War. The Manson family murdered several people for no rational reason. You get the picture. Throughout the '60s and into the '70s, the world began to look more and more dangerous.

At the same time, people were beginning to question the honesty and efficacy of government, including the police. In the '60s, television showed us Southern policemen beating civil-rights protesters and Chicago policemen beating anti-war protesters. Life magazine gave us photographic proof that American troops had massacred women, children, and old men at a place called My Lai. In the '70s, President Nixon resigned in a cloud of scandal because of Watergate, and the Knapp hearings showed a New York City Police Department shot through with corruption.

America needed heroes, but it no longer trusted traditional authority figures. Television responded to this dilemma by giving cop shows a novel twist: maverick detectives. These men and women maintained the moral certitude and diligent police work of their forbears, but they mixed it with a pronounced compassion for crime's victims and a disdain of the system.

They were private detectives such as Barnaby Jones, Frank Cannon, and Jim Rockford (former policemen all) who operated completely outside the official channels. Or they were young idealists, such as Linc, Pete, and Julie of The Mod Squad, who were determined to reform the police department from within. Or they were just simple mavericks like Baretta or Starsky and Hutch who were forever being dressed down by their superiors for breaking the rules in their pursuit of justice.

All of these shows eschewed the realism of Dragnet for a fast-paced fantasy world of crime stopping. And as part of this fantasy world all of them (with the notable exception of The Rockford Files) increased the gun play and deaths common to the police show. Quinn Martin came into his own in this period. The violence that he had pioneered with The Untouchables proved enormously successful; he had seven shows on the air at one point.

It may seem paradoxical that people respond to fear of increased violence in the real world by retreating into an even more violent fantasy world. But the violence in these series is palpably unreal and serves to distance viewers from the violence that they perceive to be part of their everyday life. A few years ago, for example, many people thought that it was amusing when Rambo became the top grossing movie in Beirut, but that city has long had an appetite for American action films. In a bizarre way it is comforting to escape for an hour or two into a world in which all of the violence is fake and in which the good guys always win.

Paradoxically, these populist shows are more apt to present policemen as real villains than the more cerebral cop shows. A staple of the action-adventure style of police drama is the rogue cop who must be taken down by the heroes of the series. Indeed, some shows (The Rockford Files and Renegade) even begin with the premise that the hero has been removed from the force after being framed for a crime he didn't commit by crooked brethren.

On the other hand, the Dragnet-style shows that now dominate the network lineups rarely use this dramatic device. Instead, they focus on the more mundane aspects of police work. Law & Order and Homicide present their protagonists as low-key working stiffs with a strong sense of morals who ploddingly put together the clues that will solve a crime. In one episode of Law & Order, for example, we followed the detectives as they went to 22 different police-supply stores to see if one of them had sold a set of handcuffs used in a crime.

These shows seem rather like Dragnet. But there are differences. Dragnet had a blue-collar feel to it; the working men and women on today's cop shows are undoubtedly white-collar workers. Friday and his partners used to banter about their families or sports. Today's TV cops have weightier concerns. For example, in one episode of Homicide, while investigating a drug-related murder, policeman John Munch (played by Richard Belzer) keeps up a running debate with his partner over the merits of the war on drugs. The other cop contends that drugs are doing real damage to people. But Munch argues that the damage is done by poverty and alienation and that drug abuse is only a symptom of these bigger problems.

Part of this difference undoubtedly arises from changes in the people behind the camera. Jack Webb was a blue-collar guy who stumbled into radio after a stint in the Army. The people writing and producing today's police shows, and every other television program, are college educated middle-class folk. But this change also reflects the change in those seeking careers in big-city police departments. They are more likely to have some post-high school education than their counterparts in the '50s.

Another difference is in cases the shows address. Webb searched through the files of the Los Angeles Police Department for his stories. He came up with quirky bits about feuding husbands and wives, riveting hunts for armed robbers and killers, and, perhaps best of all, a touching story of a child who stole a statue of the baby Jesus from a church because his family was too poor to buy Christmas presents.

Today's police shows also draw their stories from real-life crimes, but the people who write these stories seem to do their research by watching Inside Edition, A Current Affair, and Donahue. Now, we have stories about underage prostitutes who shoot their pimps, mercy killing of the sick and elderly, and the bombing of abortion clinics.

Moreover, the working environment for TV cops has changed. The neat, clean precinct office of Joe Friday is gone. It has been replaced by decaying buildings with malfunctioning air-conditioning systems. The eager-to-help citizens of Dragnet are no more. Today's cops are much more likely to face witnesses who are suspicious of or even downright hostile toward the police.

In turn, TV cops now are not necessarily the paragons of virtue that Joe Friday was. They have tempers; Law & Order's Christopher Noth loses his temper and pushes suspects around. (Though he never strikes them.) Homicide's John Munch is an embittered cynic. In both cases, though, the portrayals are still sympathetic. Both are basically decent men who feel that their work matters and who are frustrated by the amount of evil in the world.

But the biggest difference between these shows and Dragnet is that now the good guys don't always catch the bad guys. In that respect, America seems to have lost the innocence of the Eisenhower era.

Does the presence of these workaday-cop shows on network schedules mean that Americans have grown tired of action shows? Does it mean that our concerns about violent crime have abated?

I think not. The network shows have garnered the praise of critics and intellectual types—a subject for anti-media conservatives to ponder—but none of these shows is doing particularly well in the ratings. Homicide isn't even on NBC's fall schedule, but it will be back as a mid-season replacement. For successful new cop shows, you have to turn to the first-run syndication market. There, action-adventure shows featuring maverick cops such as Renegade and a new version of The Untouchables have been coming on like, well, gangbusters. These shows aren't as good as their network rivals (or as good as the original Untouchables), but they have struck a chord with audiences that the more sedate cop shows haven't.

Violent crimes have begun to level off over the last couple years, but violent crime still remains common throughout America. Until and unless violent crime abates, America's need for escapist violence—and for a world in which the bad guys always get caught—will continue.

Charles Oliver writes for Investor's Business Daily.