Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Cop Show Formula

I can't imagine a television show based on my workday. It would be very boring, no drama, just typing and an occasional shot of me yelling at my screen. Every episode would be the same. No Emmy's expected here. I am often envious of people whose jobs are out and about in the world driving around and interacting with the world. It seems stimulating. Yet when I say this to people who have these type of jobs, they are envious of my boring existence. Grass is always greener? Perhaps.

Being a cop must be filled with drama. Even a traffic cop must see more drama than me in any given day. I have no idea really. The best I can do is watch a cop show. Cop shows are so ridden with cliche is it hard to imagine that they are at all realistic. Cliches are usually a clue to poor writing. When a writer uses cliches, they are relying on preconceived notions of archetypes established already by society, literary or otherwise, through over usage or stereotypes. Yet sometimes they work. Perhaps it is because I grew up when television was quite bad, especially the cop show: McCloud, McMillan and Wife, Baretta and Kojak. I have low expectations. Some of the better shows rely heavily on cliches. Perhaps this is an example of form dictating content. The writers are under a lot of pressure, have a short amount of time to produce and have many obstacles. On commercial television they only have 42 minutes in an hour to produce content. They not only have to satisfy the public, in an increasingly competitive saturated market, but they have to satisfy network execs who are often clueless. It is impressive that anything good gets produced at all.

Like all genre drama, cop shows have a built in structure. A crime is committed, a cop or two are assigned, the crime solved either by the end of the show or with the newer shows, using a longer story arc, by the end of the season. Perhaps it is the formula that begs for formulaic characters. Regardless of why, the American cop show is better than it has ever been.

The most common cliche is the cop on the edge, lets call him/her Dirty Harry. Dirty Harries operate by their own rules. They can't follow the constraints their commander puts on them. On "True Detective" this is Detective Rusty Cohl,  this is Detective Tim Bayliss on "Homicide: Life On the Street",  Jimmy McNulty on "The Wire," Detective Catherine Jensen on "Those Who Kill," Vic Mackey on "The Shield" or US Marshall Raylan Givens on "Justified."   These are good centerpiece characters. They are often protagonists stirring up trouble. This trouble gets McNulty demoted, Givens and Cohl investigated, Bayliss arrested and Mackey eventually, presumably, killed. The Vic Mackey character was particular compelling because the show would have been nothing without him. He is a dirty cop that feels justified in his corruption. Every character is either trying to catch him, trying to be like him, trying to sleep with him and eventually, trying to get away from him. He is a fulcrum for all the action in the show.

At least one cop per show has difficulty with their relationships, usually caused by the job. They put their jobs over their children, wife and/or girl friends. This is Joey Quinn on "Dexter,"  Detective Marty Hart on "True Detective," Detective Kima Greggs on "The Wire," Detective Sarah Linden on "The Killing," Detective Lydia Adams or Officer Sammy Bryant on "Southland" along with Mackey and McNulty again. Cops have a very high divorce rate so I would imagine that this is more than a cliche. They work long odd hours and are exposed to much darkness. We often see these characters lose control over their personal lives sublimating their professional lives, the squad room replaces the family, the partner becomes the surrogate lover. Chaos at home is unmanageable while the chaos at work is understandable ... it has a rule book called the law. This is a typical plot device that works.   

The young naive and idealistic cops that start a series usually end up corrupted by the end of the series. This is Officer Ben Sherman on "Southland" and Julien Lowe on "The Shield." It is difficult to watch them fall. Women cops, more often than not, end up pregnant. Adams on "Southland" and Danny Sofer on "The Shield." Both of these are usually sub-plots.

The cliche that always sucks me in, the one that make me think, maybe I should have been a cop, is the smart cop. Let's call them Sherlocks. Our Sherlocks are Det. Frank Pembleton on "Homicide: Life on the Street," Det. Lester Freamon on "The Wire," Det. Sonya Cross on "The Bridge," Dutch Wagenbach on "The Shield" and again the existential Rusty Cohl from "True Detective." They are what are called "natural police" for they seemed to have been born to solve mysteries. The Dutch character on "The Shield" is a little different than these others because he is a buffoon studying the psychological makeup of killers and he is almost always wrong and goes by the book. This works well in contrasting him against the corrupt protagonist Mackey who is street-wise and much more effective. The American version of "The Bridge" uses this contrast as well. The two main detectives the American Sonya Cross and the Mexican Detective Marco Ruiz are foil characters. She is passionless and by-the-book completely lacking in social skills. While Marco is street-wise and cunning. He works his network of friends while Sonya hits the computer. He buys flowers for the receptionist while Sonya doesn't even know her name. "The Bridge" that separates El Paso, Texas and Chihuahua works as a good metaphor for the relationship between these two characters that are forced to work together.  I have a lot of pent up paranoia about cops.As a working class kid from Southern New England, I have been pulled over more than once as a young man for driving a car that looked like it couldn't afford the neighborhood I was in. Not DWB (driving while black) but DWP (driving while poor).  The exposure to the smart cop has done me some good.

Are these characters anything like real cops? Perhaps. Do I watch too much television? Definitely. I used to laugh at television as a medium, but since it has become good, it has become a new obsession. It is one of my new excuses for why I don't read as much as I used to. It is too easy to turn on the tube and see something good.  Not a bad problem to have.

Monday, July 7, 2014

What I Learned in Spain

The most important thing I learned from my recent trip to Spain is that I am probably too old for short trips to Europe. I left my home in Vermont in the late afternoon on a Friday for a 10:30pm flight in Montreal. I flew overnight to Paris. With a two hour layover we were in Malaga, Spain by 3pm on Saturday. Most of that part of our trip went smoothly. Landing in a foreign country, tired as hell, doesn't make for a good start of a vacation. Our car rental agreement charged us way too much money and we didn't notice it. Our luggage was put on the wrong belt so we thought it was lost. Then our 20 minute drive to our condo rental took 2.5 hours to find thanks to some very bad directions and negligent street signage. Driving in a foreign country is difficult enough but try it on no sleep. By the time I recovered from the jet lag and caught up on my sleep, I had two days left to my vacation. I need more than a week for this kind of trip. A younger man would have bounced back a lot easier. It is that quandary of not affording the trip when I was young; now that I can afford it, I don't have the energy.

To make things worse, Spain is in the wrong time zone. While I was there I was wondering why the sun was setting so late. We were in southern Spain, close to the equator, the days should be shorter. But they were shorter, they just didn't seem like it. The sun just rises later as well. If you look at the map, Spain is aligned geographically with England, Portugal and Morocco, but its time zone is the same as Germany. During World War II, Hitler visited Spain attempting to woo Franco into joining the Axis. Because they were still recovering from the Spanish Civil War, they didn't have much to offer and stayed neutral, but they turned their clocks ahead an hour to be aligned with Nazi Germany. They never changed back. So if you drive to Portugal or take a ferry to Morocco, you have to change your clock. Blaming Hitler is a good standby for any problem in Europe.

The Spanish get up later than most of us. If you want to buy a coffee early in the morning, you will have to wait until 9am or so for a coffee shop to open. Due to the mid-day siesta, you may have to wait for a supermarket to open in the late-afternoon. This is a tradition that dates back to before air conditioning. So that workers didn't have to work during the peak heat of the day, they could nap in the shade. Now it makes for a long workday. Modern professionals complain that they get home too late. This makes for a later rush hour and less time at home. For me, the late coffee was fine because I was sleeping late most of the days (it was  vacation).  The coffee is great in Spain, made stronger than ours in the US so the portions are much smaller.  The weather was so hot, I wasn't always into a hot coffee. Iced coffee doesn't seem to be a thing. I was grateful to find a Dunkin' Donuts (aka Dunkin' Coffee) in Malaga for an American iced coffee.

With all its quirks, Spain is a fantastic place for a vacation. The Spanish tiled barrios polka dotting the mountain desert fauna on the Mediterranean, you can't beat it. The food alone is worth the trip. We spent two days on the beach drinking sangria, reading and taking dips. The temperature hovered around 85F with some wind and no mosquitoes. When we took day trips inland to Seville and Granada, it was about 10 degrees warmer with little wind or humidity. The language barrier wasn't too bad. Spanish/English translation is fairly close and almost everyone we talked to had at least a little English and my wife knows some conversational Spanish. We got by fine. Everyone was very friendly. One guy offered me his dessert when I asked him what it was. Eating fresh fish from the Mediterranean is my kind of vacation. Grills with fresh sardines were setup right on the beach. Not sure if restaurants could get away with this in the US.

Often when I travel I ponder, "hmm, I could live here."  I had that feeling about Ireland and Prague. That feeling overwhelmed me in Hawaii. This did not occur in Spain. I liked it and I would visit again (if I were independently wealthy) but no, I couldn't see myself living there.  I had two problems with the place that would make living there unbearable. It is a feeling that when you ask yourself, "Why is this okay?" that makes me think that I'd find a lot other problems with the place if I lived there.

The first thing was the driving. I have driven in Europe before, it was culture shock, but I acclimated. My only time driving in Europe was Ireland. Some don't even consider Ireland to be European. I remember telling an Irish lady, "we didn't even come close to the speed limit," and her reply was classic, "oh gee, I hope not." Like their speed limit is actually a limit, not like here in the States where it is the speed at which we start and only slow down below the limit after we see a cop. They just drive slowly in Ireland because the roads are tiny, winding and surrounded by walls. Spain was the opposite problem. Unlike Ireland, they drive on the same side of the road as the US, yet I felt less comfortable driving in Spain. Not only are Spanish drivers speeders but they are incredibly impatient. If you are backing out of a parking space, cars on the road will not stop and wait for you. They driving around you. The only time anyone will wait for you to pull out is if someone wanted your space. If you accidentally drive down a dead end (which aren't labeled) and have to back out, which I did in Granada, if there is another car that wants to get around you, they will not wait for you back out. They will drive around you regardless of how little room there is. I don't think this is something that I could get used to. I had heard that Spanish drivers are the worst in Europe. I have seen nothing to disprove this. Motorcycles were everywhere and seem to do what they want. I saw a lot of cops when I was there, but no one was being pulled over. I am not sure what they are doing but they are not monitoring traffic.

The other thing that I didn't like was being bothered by street vendors. If you are laying on a towel on the beach, they will come over and try to sell you sunglasses. If you are eating outside in a restaurant, they will approach you to sell you a pocket book. If you are enjoying the World Cup along the boardwalk in Marbella, they will approach you trying to sell you a Spanish flag. They don't let up. I can't tell you how annoying this is. Most of the vendors seem be from Africa. They probably come over on the Ferries from Morocco. Here in the US, we are all about business, but I don't think this is something that we would tolerate. You have to wonder why any business would tolerate vendors coming up to their customers at restaurants. I don't know if this is something that happens further inland. I don't remember seeing them in Granada or Seville so perhaps, this is just a coastal issue.

As an American, whose definition of old are the sites I see in Boston which aren't even three centuries old, I am overwhelmed when I visit Europe. Some of the sites we visited in Spain were held by the Romans and then the Moors and then then Spanish spanning a couple of millennium. I felt quite small.  That is a good thing. We should always be humbled by our travel destinations. Dare I quote Twain (from Innocents Abroad) without seeming too pretentious:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
One cannot enter the halls of Alhambra without marveling at the wonders of humanity ... regardless of how badly you had to risk your life in traffic to find the place.