Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Myth of Depth and Caring

John McFetridge

Brian Lindenmuth tipped me to a blog called Et tu, Mr. Destructo and the post about the new cop show, The Chicago Code called, “The Myth of Depth and Caring.” It’s well-worth reading.

The argument is that The Chicago Code is a bad show because, “It boils over with caring, a constant churning sincerity that refuses to stop declaring itself. While it is nowhere close to the unintentionally hilarious earnestness of Law & Order: SVU, it easily dwarfs that show in its commitment to constant self-affirmation and re-affirmation.”

It’s true.

The blog also points out that, “Eighteen years ago, NBC aired the first episode of Homicide: Life on the Street and, by rights, should have created a sea change in the structure of police procedurals. It explored a conceit fundamental to police station houses, one amply demonstrated in David Simon's non-fiction book, on which it was based, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. The conceit was this: caring is mostly a myth. Yes, granted, there are cops out there who want to bust bad guys because they want to make a difference, clean up the city, bring solace to victims, etc. But by and large, cops are like people in any other job.”

Well, not exactly like any other job. The governor of Wisconsin knew that cops are more important for his plans than teachers or nurses and needed to be exempted. I don’t know about the US, but in Canada no cop has ever been laid off, they’ve never been downsized, the cops have never lost any benefits (medical, drug plans, etc.,) and their pensions are safe.

It’s actually a pretty good job. And lots of cops are very, very good at the job.

So how come on TV it’s always a crappy job and the only cops who are any good at it are damaged people with lousy personal lives and broken families and for whom it’s always personal?

Partly, I think it’s because we’re still stuck on the lone hero trope. Even though cops are the only group whose collective bargaining seems to be important, we still can’t see them as members of an effective team. We don’t see police work as being like football with a really good offensive line, good receivers, running backs and a decent QB all working together for the same goal – TV police work is... well, tennis or golf, I guess, but some weird tennis or golf where even your own coach doesn’t like you much.

The Chicago Code is by the same guy who made The Shield and it serves pretty much the same audience – the only audience TV networks seem to think exists for cop shows. People who don’t see any gray areas, have no faith in the system or in their fellow citizens, people who, for some reason, feel it’s okay for the hero to break all the rules as though that can somehow happen in isolation and have no real consequences.

I guess there isn’t much overlap between the people who like a really good football game - and can see how the team that plays best together always beats the team with the couple of superstars who don’t get along with the other players - and people who like cop shows.

I wonder if literature, storytelling and entertainment have something to do with this. I’m working on a cop show right now and the network notes are already all about making the heroes fight the system, stacking the odds against them and making the stories personal. The cops need to “care” about catching particular bad guys, not because they’re professionals who take pride in their work and want to do a good job, but because it’s personal. The opposite is never brought up, the idea that if that cop’s mother hadn’t been murdered in some awful way, she wouldn’t care about crime or be interested in police work or catching bad guys or anything like that.

Et tu, Mr. Destructo mentioned Homicide and then, inevitably, that leads to The Wire and he says, “And while there were and are thousands of bozos who love The Wire because "Omar rules—Omar comin', y'all!" the heart of the fanbase celebrates it for its Dickensian scope, its testament to the corrosion of the American dream, its humanizing of the underclass, its indictment of the drug war. Meanwhile, you could refresh chat threads on TV message boards and watch the post-rate explode as Shield fans squeed and ooohed like 'shipper fangirls whenever Vic Mackey used precious, precious guns or did something vicariously ‘badass.’”

(I had to look up “shipper,” but luckily there’s a Wikipedia entry that explains it as being, “derived from the word relationship, is the belief that two fictional characters, typically from the same series, are in a relationship, or have romantic feelings that could potentially lead to a relationship. It is considered a general term for fans' emotional and/or intellectual involvement with the ongoing development of romance in a work of fiction. Though technically applicable to any such involvement, it refers chiefly to various related social dynamics observable on the Internet, and is seldom used outside of that context.”)

Do we move too quickly to satisfy those people on the message boards looking for “badass” cops full of self-affirming “caring”? Do we leave out any, “testaments to the corrosion of the American dream,” any “humanizing of the underclass,” any “indictment of the drug war,” too easily? Do we look at complicated social situations and find the easiest, most immediately emotionally satisfying ways to tell the story, even when we know we’re being dishonest with the material?

Or is that just me?

I remember leaving the movie Pulp Fiction and going to the washroom and overhearing seventeen year old boys going on and on about how “cool” it was and trying to talk like Samuel L. Jackson and using words like, “bitch” (they had to contain themselves from using the word “nigger,” knowing just enough to not let that one slip out) and motherfucker. They were giddy with excitement but I was too old for Pulp Fiction. Raised on Dasiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard and even Robert B. Parker, I was the age these kids were when Taxi Driver came out and it never made me want to talk like Travis Bickle. Oh sure, some guys stood in front of the mirror and said, “You talking to me?” over and over but they always knew Travis Bickle was crazy – and doomed. And part of a bigger society that was going through some, as we said at the time, “real shit.” Taxi Driver didn’t play out of time sequence so that we could walk out of the theatre looking at an alive Travis Bickle. No, there was no walking out of that theatre giddy.

Does this refusal to look at context or any larger issues trap us in an endless cycle of “personal” stories with no greater meaning? Does that even matter?


Dana King said...

The Beloved Spouse and I watched one episode of THE CHICAGO CODE, turned to each other, and said, "Uh-uh." In addition to the faults John noted, we were put off by the show's insistence they we "get" everything, not trusting us to figure anything out. This is why we'd rather watch DVDs of THE WIRE than anything on network TV today, though JUSTIFIED is don't miss for us. I'm also ready to expose her to HOMICIDE.)

I think Canada probably treats its cops better than we do. I know several (have a couple in the extended family) and it is often a crappy job, with all the petty bullshit shown so well in THE WIRE. Cops have been laid off here, and they are often lumped in with other "government employees" when blaming someone for the country being broke. (Which it's not; we just don;t want to pay for anything.) They were only exempt in Wisconsin because the governor needed their votes.

Ben said...

I'm so tired of people referring to The Wire as "having a Dickensian scope" that's such a makeshift expression that means nothing. Dickens loved to represent life in big cities, but he's the only social writer. Plus, I find that The Wire's focus is about the remains of the American Dream, rather than the representation of life. Fiction was instrument to the point David Simon was trying to make

Mike Dennis said...

Check out a few installments of the original DRAGNET (1950s version, not 1960s). Joe Friday is clearly at the center of things, but he's working in concert with his partner and under the close supervision of his bureau head (he always said, "My partner's Frank Smith, the boss is Captain XXXX, my name's Friday).

Sometimes it got personal for him, but usually he was just doing his job. Never did he work "against the system" or cross the line to bring down the bad guys. No WIRE stuff here. Joe Friday clearly cared about protecting the citizens from the grips of crime, but it was still a job. He left it all in his office when he went home, and we the viewers felt pretty good about the whole thing.

Benjamin Sobieck said...

I think it's incumbent on the audience to place a work within a broader social context. Maybe I spend too much time reading the overly analytical AV Club, but I've never not thought about a broader meaning to a piece - even if the producer of the content only intended for an expose of isolated events.

But how many people walked away from the first episode of "The Shield" and thought, "The go-it-alone cowboy mentality will inevitably self-destruct?" Not many. They probably thought, "Did you see the boobs in the first scene?"

John McFetridge said...

Yes, Dana, it's likely different in Canada.

Mike, I hadn't thought if Joe Friday and Dragnet, but you're right. Also, I think for the most part the cops on NYPD Blue were mostly just doing their jobs.

Ben, I'm going to guess you meant, "... he's not the only social writer," and that's certainly true, but it does seem like there's little social writing in crime fiction.

Maybe Benjamin's right, maybe it's up to the audience to place it in the larger social context - and likely this is just me reacting to the network notes I'm getting about making sure every last detail is explained and nothing is left to the audience to decide ;).

Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanls for reminding me of the atomization attendant to the U.S.'s slide into Third World status.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Peter Rozovsky said...

OK, here's try #3 at posting this comment.

I've occasionally complimented crime writers who do interesting things with the damaged, angst-ridden lone-wolf protagonist, but I had never analyzed the phenomenon the way you do here or speculated about a way out of it. Thanks.

As for the sports analogy, the World Leaders has tried to do to team sports what you say is the property of golf and tennis, with its insane focus on individuals from Michael Jordan to LeBron James, and its almost equally narrow focus on a team or two at a time in each sport.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Dana King said...

The last point in your comment is key for me. I HATE it when shows force me to listen to an explanation. I used to put up with it, but shows like the WIRE taught me how much more engaging it is to figure things out myself. Now I won't tolerate it.

Interesting thing about th Dickensian aspects of THE WIRE. I always took Simon's use of it in Season 5 as sardonic, but it seems to have gained a momentum of its own.

John McFetridge said...

Dana, I think Benjamin's comment really speaks to the network notes. On one hand everyone agrees that, "it's incumbent on the audience to place a work within a broader social context," and they actually say things like that when telling you to take out any "humanizing of the underclass" aspects of your script, but at the same time they also really agree that not many, "people walked away from the first episode of "The Shield" and thought, "The go-it-alone cowboy mentality will inevitably self-destruct?" and knew that most, "Probably thought, 'Did you see the boobs in the first scene?'" Or at least that's how it seems when you get the notes making sure all the female characters are young and have big boobs.

I thnk cable really is different because it doesn't have to play to the lowest common denominator. What always gets me is how many people are so quick to want to play to the lowest common denominator.

Peter Rozovsky said...

My second comment has now been deleted, but it substance was "Good post!"

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Both shows he mentions, THE WIRE and THE SHIELD, I loved. Hell I just watched OZ, every episode at 11 PM every weeknight for the last couple months and loved it just as much. They are always trying to cut police/fire budgets around my way, and not to long ago went for the library, which took a big hit when all else failed. Most of rhe guys I knew growing up, who became cops, are not the same people they used to be, way more negative and sarcastic, but I attribute that to the job.

Sam said...

Excellent post.

seana graham said...

Great post and great discussion here.

John, I think in one way you are asking how am I going to do this when I don't fundamentally believe in the whole idea I'm supposed to peddle. But in some ways, I don't really see the problem. On the one hand, you have The Wire for a model, which, despite it's larger social context did engage people in the human drama--though not just of the cops but of everybody. On the other, you have the original Law and Order, where the personal lives of the police and the lawyers were almost surgically removed--and NO ONE MINDED. I think if you write a great story--yeah, no pressure at all there--some of the other aspects will fade away. Basically you've got to sell your own conception of it all. Good luck, but I think you can do it.

adrian mckinty said...


TV shows can never really convey the sheer boredom of police life. Its just not good TV is it? I like the cliche of the cop asking questions while the interviewee continues to do his job (gardening, scraping the bottom of his boat etc.) - in fact that NEVER happens. Everyone stops what they are doing and listens to the cop ask them questions because its very unusual to have a cop asking you questions, but its uninteresting TV isnt it? the two shot Q&A again and again.

There's also the fact that some 90 percent of crimes never go to trial but end in a simple confession or plea and thats not that interesting either.

And of course in the US the big cliche that white people are the victims of homicide in New York when overwhelmingly they are not.

pattinase (abbott) said...

There are so many problems with the typical network crime show, it's hard to know where to start. Interesting that no matter what their job is: medical examiner, DA, cop, EMS guy they all investigate the crime as if that was their real job. Throw off your greens and go into action.
But the thing that bugs me most is the formula in every show. See it once and you have virtually seen every show. You can just cut and paste the segments in. The only show I watch now is Justified because that deviates from any formula. And social issues, forget about it. The country is far too polarized to take a chance on offending anyone. I have actually seen Law and Order take a case I am very familiar with and drain every bit of life out of it by neglecting a critique of a cult group that was essential to the case. God forbid we examine Scientology. Whoops, I said it.

seana graham said...

There was one Law and Order episode which offended the Puerto Rican community to such an extent that it was never shown again, until apparently TNT aired it in 2009, which was almost ten years later. I saw the original broadcast, and was really kind of shocked that Law and Order caved on that one.