How cop shows serve to reinforce the racism at the heart of our culture
TV police shows are a complicated strand of entertainment. Unsurprisingly, they have come under the cultural microscope in response to police brutality and the death of George Floyd. Many critiques have drawn upon a report by US civil-rights group Color of Change, entitled Normalizing Injustice, to demonstrate how crime shows have supported the way we sanction police violence.
A main strand of the report explores what it terms “misbehaviour” by law enforcement on TV. Misbehaviour can mean a number of things, from bending a rule to outright criminal behaviour. However, the issue in these shows is much more complex. The wider problem is that systemic racism is rampant in the TV industry, behind and in front of the camera, and these shows are a classic example of what this produces.
As far as misbehaviour is concerned, The Shield is one example at the extreme end of the spectrum. The show follows a group of “corrupt but effective cops” and their captain, who is torn between stopping them and a fear that this will undermine his political aspirations of becoming mayor of Los Angeles.
The show exposes police corruption and brutality at every level of law enforcement. It is shot with handheld cameras and features little music, making the sounds of beatings more visceral and the violence more realistic. Over seven seasons, it captures the various institutional and political incentives to cover up crimes committed by the police.
Elsewhere, the sub-genre of shows about “consultant detectives” depicts less violent but no less harmful forms of misbehaviour. This genre includes shows like The Mentalist, Elementary and Psych.
All feature white, male consultants who enjoy police freedoms such as access to information in large databases and autopsy reports, without any of the accountability. They break into suspects’ houses, interview minors without a guardian or kidnap suspects, all without legal or social consequences. Furthermore, this behaviour is usually sanctioned by the shows’ insistence that these characters are “good guys”.
While misbehaviour is a big problem, it is not the only one. Following the massive success of CSI: Crime Scene Investigations in the early 2000s, there has been a wave of “forensic detective” shows which assert that “following the evidence” is the guiding principle of detection. Aside from their predominantly white casts, these series ignore the way the use of science incorporates conservative biases while also bolstering racial stereotypes as it ignores social contexts.
Individual episodes of series like CSI rely on a three-act structure that ends with seemingly irrefutable evidence and a confession of guilt. This serves to close off any discussion of how social context contributes to crime, depicting criminals as disruptions in an otherwise well-functioning world. As such, these supposedly objective methods of detection reproduce institutional and systemic racism under the guide of “following the evidence”.
More open-ended and complex narrative structures make it possible for social context to be explored. Such structure benefited The Wire, which followed a team investigating drug-related crimes. The show offered insights into the systemic failure of the “war on drugs”. It also gave dimension to characters who would normally be stigmatised as “gangsters” by offering access to their inner lives and exploring the social conditions that produce crime.
Mainstream awards like the Golden Globes and Emmys have traditionally failed to recognise series like The Wire, ignoring shows with racially balanced or majority Black casts. Despite being critically acclaimed, The Wire failed to win a single Primetime Emmy Award nor receive any major nominations, except for two writing nominations in 2005 and 2008.
Such instances highlight what kinds of shows are valued by the industry. This feeds into commissioning as it sends a clear signal of how to get industry recognition. The system is, thus, doomed to replicate itself, resulting in shows that all look the same and suffer from the same problems.
It is unsurprising with such an entrenched “recipe for success” that most lead actors in these shows are male and white. As well as being sidelined in supporting roles, actors of colour face a myriad of institutional barriers.
This includes pay disparity, an issue that was highlighted in 2017 when the two Asian-American leads in Hawaii Five-0, Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park, asked for pay equality to their white colleagues Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan.
Both were unsuccessful and subsequently quit the series after seven seasons. This left Hawaii Five-0, which featured no indigenous Hawaiian lead actors in the first place, without Asian-American actors with significant star power in the midst of a debate on whitewashing in Hollywood. Though this instance is discouraging, it did serve to bring wider issues surrounding systemic racism in the television industry to the fore.
Recognising that there are many problems, overt and covert, involved in cop shows is important and avoids simplistic narrative solutions being used to plaster over deeper problems. Such solutions as having a Black Lives Matter episode or rewriting seasons. There are specific solutions that can help change these shows and benefit the wider industry. These include pay equality, colourblind casting and diversity quotas for crews, writers’ rooms, directors and producers.