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.

1 comment:

Olga Hebert said...

I think you nailed it with the "grass is always greener..."

now when will there be a tv show about retired teachers...oh, maybe Golden Girls counts for that!