Let’s take a look at a provocative new claim.
A recent article by Alyssa Rosenberg makes the argument that all cop shows and movies should be shelved to improve (and make realistic) public perceptions of what police do. The article is nothing if not interesting, and for those who do choose to read it, I ask that you read it with an open mind.
Let’s go ahead and ignore the economic impossibility of such a task. Too many networks and companies rely too heavily on this sort of narrative to flip a switch.
My interest in this article is less the argument itself and more a question of why cop shows are so prevalent. A running list of my favorite television shows is almost entirely police driven (True Detective, The Shield, Deadwood, The Wire, The Sopranos, The Terror, Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad). Sure, a couple of those are more criminal driven, but only two don’t deal directly with crime and punishment. Running over my best films of the year, more often than not we have a crime angle. Looking over my watch lists I see the same thing. Right after this rant posts we will have a few crime dramas immediately after.
Why? I think part of it is that police narratives allow for exposition to flow a bit easier. A detective looking at notes can get more information out in a more natural way than someone else can. I think this is also why we have so many novels where the character is a journalist, officer, or investigator. The narrative structure leans into favoring certain career fields over others. Imagine a western where the protagonist isn’t someone who grew up on a ranch or as a hunter. Likewise, crime narratives (which we are obsessed with in this country) rely on representing those who are in the know of the world. Even Dan Brown’s novels detective-fy college professors. The problem-solving nature of narrative will always favor this structure.
Then, we have procedural narratives that lean into a structure of problem-investigation-resolution. Rosenberg notes the disconnect between how many cases are solved versus how many resolutions we see on television. I remember griping about Criminal Minds in this regard years ago. Serial killers usually aren’t brilliant, but they are random, and catching them takes more than a weekend of snappily dressed FBI agents. I imagine real agents are annoyed with how easy their job is made to look.
So, we have an easier to get into narrative and one that can be replicated for maximum audience satisfaction. Now, let’s add in the social dynamic of police mistreatment of minorities and we have a recipe for a major issue.
To step aside for a moment, from my perspective, African American films have been going through a bit of a renaissance lately. Representation is getting better (and yes, it is always complained about and fought, but I would like to focus on something positive for a moment) and many narratives seem more concerned with getting things accurate than making things easy. However, everything seems to be done in baby steps, so any frustration with how long the process takes I see as reasonable.
I suppose I should also fully disclose my own position here. I’m a white college instructor. It is a lot easier for me to point to the positives without considering how minimal they are. However, I do think it is important to recognize improvements. (I also believe we can recognize gains without denying more work to be done).
Back to the issue at hand, should we shelve all police narratives? I personally don’t think so, but we as consumers need to demand better quality and more nuance from our shows. I’d rather see more shows like The Wire that examine the racial tensions within police departments and the extreme difficulty in addressing police abuse. There’s a reason why The Wire is often hailed as the best television drama, ever, and that reason is the realism and multitextured nature of the story.
For me, it is too easy to let networks off the hook by telling them to not do these stories anymore. I would rather they are held to a standard of quality that forces them to work harder.
Perhaps the more important question is: will narrative structure improve? This is a tough question to answer because objectively it is improving, but at a snail’s pace. The fact that Black Panther was revolutionary in representation in 2018 shows how slow progress moves. Nothing should be a first for representation at this point. Instead of celebrating the diversity of Black Panther we should have all been embarrassed it took so damn long. There has not been another narrative that comes close to addressing corruption like The Shield did more than a decade ago. Go ahead and look at a comments section for Captain Marvel and you’ll wonder what century we are in.
I am not sure what the ultimate solution is to fixing narrative bias. Better representation in the writing room would help, a lot. Another thing that will help (and would ultimately be profitable) would be to recreate the narrative expectation in that we don’t have to rely on a police officer to be the protagonist in everything. However, I do think that this is the question we should be asking rather than getting rid of certain narratives. Without addressing the underlying issues we’ll just get back to where we are now (with an incremental but perhaps insignificant improvement).
Question your heroes. Don’t rely on narrative to feed you everything down an assembly line made to maximize moralizing and action. We as consumers need to take some responsibility. Let’s not abdicate our own agency to television shows. If we demand better and will only consume better, things might change. That’s what I think anyway.