For years now, psychologists, talk-show hosts, and cultural custodians have been debating the connection between violent media and real-life violence. But such discourse invariably focuses on civilian (and usually teenage) violence. Marilyn Manson caused the Columbine massacre. The Sopranos proved that HBO really isn't just TV—it's distance-learning for novice psychopaths. The same goes for Grand Theft Auto III.
But it's not just teenage droogs who get their fix of ultra-violence from electronic media. And no TV series has ever been built around the amoral exploits of a 15-year-old killer. In the cathode universe, week in and week out, season after season, it's cops who are an undertaker's best friend.
Of course, it wasn't always this way. Even in the face of the surliest, late-'60s bacon-baiting, Dragnet's stalwart Joe Friday maintained the demeanor of a robot teaching high school civics. A few years later, he passed the baton to Adam 12's Pete Malloy. Like Carson Daly following Dick Clark, Malloy was The Guy to Friday's Man, hipper, fully motile, but still a genuinely civil servant sworn to uphold the law with fairness, restraint, and faultless manners. Then there was Columbo, sloppier than a sociology professor (no crisp martial duds for him) and packing less heat than a wet match. A hard-boiled gumshoe in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, he got his collars without even flashing a gun, much less firing one. And how about Greenwich Village's finest, the multi-ethnic men and woman of the 12th Precinct? Under Barney Miller's watch, toilet plungers were simply props for jokes about Fish's gastrointestinal distress; if someone had wandered into their squad room brandishing a semi-automatic beeper, Miller and his officers would have responded with nothing more lethal than 41 rim-shots.
If violent entertainment makes violent teenagers, does that mean Dirty Harry is to blame for rogue cops? Greg Beato, in the first essay that's made me laugh in a long time, investigates.