TV depictions of cops can't, and shouldn't, go back to the way they were

Since Memorial Day, protests and police violence have gripped the nation in a way not seen in decades, spreading images of civic upheaval across our screens.

These are the same screens we watch our TV shows on in 2020. How can these two things coexist?

They can’t, at least not without some cognitive dissonance. Much of the escapism and drama we depend on in the entertainment world seems trivial at the moment. Not simply because of the events happening since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, but because coronavirus was already setting the stage for a new, unfamiliar landscape.

We can’t go back to the way things were, even when the “new normal” finally arrives. And we shouldn’t.

First, the snap-back from coronavirus, which has become a rallying point for politicians and business owners over the last few weeks, is not going to happen anytime soon. (And by “anytime soon,” I mean until there’s a free, widely available vaccine.) It’s the same with live, public performances. Concerts still scheduled for Red Rocks Amphitheatre this summer look delusional on the venue’s calendar. How do you socially distance a sold-out concert? Who gets to attend, and who’s left out?

And even with people eating on patios and protesting in the streets after a long period of public silence, no one’s hosting new plays, comedy shows, gallery exhibitions or dance programs anywhere but online.

Figuring out how to return to live, public performances is clearly a big problem in the realm of arts and entertainment. But so is figuring out how to responsibly portray the civic crisis in this country on screen, specifically on TV shows about cops.

The backlog of new television series and other media (movies, albums, etc.) now releasing online feels necessarily disconnected. It’s not most creators’ fault, as I said in a negative review of “Space Force,” the Netflix show set in Colorado that treads comically on government ineptitude. While some people claim to have seen this coming, the past few months have been a slow, painful process of disillusionment for many of us, regardless of politics or taste. Of course, art and entertainment can’t keep pace.

Or can it? Westword last week rounded up a dozen-plus examples of Denver musicians creating music for the moment — new works in the longstanding tradition of grassroots activism. Singers and actors such as Halsey, John Cusack and Kendrick Sampson have shared videos of themselves being roughed up by cops or facing tear gas. And black artists are raising money, organizing legal responses and otherwise leading the way toward what our new creative reality could look like.

Some of their messages will sound like broken records to critics of the protests, who may already see Hollywood as a liberal swamp and social-justice activism as a performative whine. But those people are not setting the tone right now, at least not for anyone actually driving change, and the promise of more shows like HBO’s still hyper-relevant “Watchmen” — which dealt directly and brilliantly with white supremacy and police brutality — is enticing.

Actors who play cops, such as “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” co-star Stephanie Beatriz, are donating tens of thousands of dollars to bail funds for protesters while begging their peers to do the same. Powerful TV producers such as Dick Wolf, the creator of the “Law & Order” franchise, are taking action. Wolf last week fired Craig Gore, a writer on one of his shows, for threatening on social media to shoot looters. That sends a message to any of his employees harboring similar sentiments.

Remaining neutral on racism and police violence is increasingly not an option. Regressive attitudes are not welcome.

Cop shows have long been a popular genre because they’re innately compelling, with an endless number of real-world examples to fictionalize. But the majority of them have acted for too long as a kind of PR department for police forces. Even shows that explore racism within departments or heavy-handed approaches on the street tend to reinforce that police are always “the good guys,” heroes above reproach.

There’s a reason police procedurals like “CSI” and its spin-offs reach more people than “The Wire,” despite the latter’s widespread acclaim. The former reinforces the status quo and is therefore a more widely palatable (and bankable) project. The latter humanizes those who oppose the legal system, showing the complicated, uncomfortable relationship between privilege, politics, economic inequality and long-ingrained bigotry. Unassailably good and bad guys don’t exist on that show, as is usually the case in real life.

Great writing, acting and production can be its own virtue, regardless of politics. But the way that shows such as “Hill Street Blues” (1981-1987), “Homicide: Life on the Street” (1993-1998) and “NYPD Blue” (1993-2005) have aged should serve as an example to current and future cop-show writers. Their characters are rich and full of doubt, their story lines less than tidy. Instead of having their buttons pushed, viewers were asked to ponder the moral and ethical conundrums present in each episode.

It’s not exactly light viewing for someone who doesn’t want to be challenged. But it matches up better with what we’ve seen on the streets than most TV shows about police. While some elected officials and police chiefs have been marching, hugging or kneeling with protesters, others sit in undisclosed locations while their employees tear-gas dozens of protesters and members of the media, violently drag college kids from their cars, or flash white power symbols at each other. The videos of cops attacking peaceful protesters and members of the media seem to mount by the hour.

Can we truthfully portray cops as “mostly good” when there’s incontrovertible evidence to the contrary? No, and it’s something that black communities have seen clearly since the founding of this nation.

Of course, this brings up an old argument about whether art and entertainment need to be activist to be meaningful. It doesn’t. It can be anything it wants. A documentary about climate change or teachers in poor communities is as valid as a painting of a hummingbird or an absurdist comedy sketch — if it compels you to think and feel. Right-leaning creatives have the same freedom to make shows glorifying cops as liberals do to tear them down.

But with minor exceptions, they all glorify cops. Racist, violent behavior is an aberration to be addressed in a single episode instead of a systemic issue. After I submitted a draft of this piece to my editor last week, I found numerous parallel articles with titles such as “Cops Are Always the Main Character” (Vulture), “How TV Cops Taught Us to Valorize the Police” (Vox), and “Cop Shows Are Undergoing a Reckoning — With One Big Exception” (Slate; that exception is the CBS network, home to “CSI,” “Blue Bloods,” “SWAT,” etc.).

Not all TV shows need to generate empathy for their main characters, to twist a phrase from the late, great Roger Ebert. Storytelling can also be a warning against danger, an imagining of worst-case scenarios so we can prepare ourselves for potential trouble. That’s why films get compared to dreams so much — flights of fancy, yes, but also nightmares that hand us previously unimaginable scenarios and speak directly to our squishy lizard brains. Good or bad, they allow us to escape reality and imagine something that doesn’t exist.

And so it is with TV, from utopian pioneers such as the original “Star Trek” series to surreal, progressive, animated shows like “Tuca & Bertie,” which was just picked up for a second season by Adult Swim after being dropped by Netflix.

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If we want anything to change, we need to not only witness but also marinate in the loss, pain and complexity in our country right now, whatever that looks like for each of us. We need to watch and listen as peaceful young protesters are beaten in broad daylight by police, while mobs of white men with bats, for example, are allowed by police to roam the streets of Philadelphia. And we need to see that reflected in the shows we use to escape from or sharpen our reality — not all of them, but any that have the pretense of dealing with such issues — for them to remain relevant.

Whatever the future brings, there is no way to meaningfully recover from what’s happening without a fundamental shift, both in real life and on the TV shows that portray it. Until that happens, we’re just spinning our wheels in the same outdated vehicle that got us here.

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