Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Why I Don't Watch Cop Shows

I haven’t watched a TV cop show since The Wire went off the air, except for a random viewing of Numb3rs when The Sole Heir is visiting. This excerpt from James Lee Burke’s In the Moon of Red Ponies explains why better than I could.

Most television cop shows make use of the following story line: A likeable individual is raped or assaulted, or a hardworking family loses one of its members to a serial killer, or a blue-collar stiff with a juvenile felony on his record gets jammed on a bad beef and is about to be sent to the pen. What happens? A half-dozen uniforms and five detectives with shields hanging from their necks show up at the crime scene and invest the entirety of their lives in seeing justice done. Every law officer in the script, male and female, seems to have an IQ of 180 and the altruism of St. Francis of Assisi. They verbally joust with the rich and powerful, walk into corporate board meetings where they hook up CEOs, and are immune to the invective flung at them by an unappreciative citizenry.

The federal agents who wander into the script are even more impressive. They have tanned skin, little-boy haircuts, and the anatomies of California surfers. Their psychoanalytical knowledge of the criminal mind is stunning. Without hesitation, they conclude for the viewer that serial rapists possess violent tendencies toward women and people who plant bombs on planes are antisocial.

But my thoughts on the subject are cheap in design and substance. It’s easy to be facile about law enforcement. The truth is the good guys are understaffed, overworked, underfunded, and outgunned. Most of the time the bad guys win, or if they do take a fall, it’s because a wrecking ball swings into their lives for reasons that have nothing to do with jurisprudence. If you have ever been the victim of a violent crime, or if you have been threatened by deviates or sadists—and by the latter I mean wakened by anonymous calls in the middle of the night, surveilled by people you’ve never seen before, forced to take public transportation because you’re afraid to start your car in the morning—then you know what I’m about to say is an absolute fact: You’re on your own.

Law enforcement agencies don’t prevent crimes. With good luck, they solve a few of them. In the meantime, if violent and dangerous people intend to do you injury, your own thoughts become your worst enemies. The morning might start with sunshine and birdsong, but by noon it’s usually filled with gargoyles.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I don't watch many because they are too formulaic. My son, a prosecutor, says they get very little right. And no the typical crime lab bears little resemblance to the ones on CSI.

Dana King said...

I'm no prosecutor, but I've done enough research for my own writing to know they get a lot wrong.

I make it a bit of an inside joke in the WIP. One of the cops never misses CSI, and everyone kids him because he only watches because he's hot for Marg Helgenberger.

Charlieopera said...

Bill Clarke (NYPD Blues) had myself and a dear friend to his place a few years ago (to discuss a possible pilot) and it was interesting to hear his take on it; he was brought into NYPD by David Milch as a consultant and the two become best friends. They went for as real as it gets. I’m not a big network tv viewer at all so I can’t say which is accurate or not. I did like the older Law & Order shows but haven’t watched the new ones or the CSI, etc. You want real cops and robbers, rent The Friends of Eddie Coyle movie by Peter Yates. Some find it bland; I’d say accurate.

Dana King said...

I've been a fan of Milch's work ever since he started writing for HILL STREET BLUES. I thought DEADWOOD was a masterpiece, every episode. I've never really forgiven him for letting it die the way it did, but I can't deny the talent.

The older LAW AND ORDER shows were great. Tight writing, and good characterizations in an almost flash fiction format. Formulaic, yes, but they were so good within that formula I didn't mind. The show seems to have deteriorated as the cops get better dressed.

EDDIE COYLE is on my NetFlix list; around #5 right now, I think. I like understated crime stories, and I loved the book, so I'm looking forward to it.

Charlieopera said...

Don't get me started on Deadwood. I'm right there with you. An absolute masterpiece. I was so pissed off when he let that one go (with promises of doing 2 movies that never happened--who knows, maybe they will).

I didn't even mind John from Cincinatti (once I had to accept Deadwood was finished) but those characters in Deadwood were superb. The difference, of course, is I don't care the John from Cincinatti died after 1 season. Deadwood I still miss.

Yates shot Eddie Coyle very understated and I thought that was brilliant. Check out the commentary by Yates if you get the new release.

Dana King said...

I confess, I never watched an episode of JOHN FROM CINCINNATI, and actively rooted for it to fail.

I can be small like that, when properly motivated.