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.”
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?