Writing at the Washington Post, author Alyssa Rosenberg has a unique solution for the problems with our policing: Cancel all the cop shows on television. She argues we need to do that because there’s a “reactionary streak” behind the “surface liberalism” in these shows.
For a century, Hollywood has been collaborating with police departments, telling stories that whitewash police shootings and valorizing an action-hero style of policing over the harder, less dramatic work of building relationships with the communities cops are meant to serve and protect. There’s a reason for that beyond a reactionary streak hiding below the industry’s surface liberalism. Purely from a dramatic perspective, crime makes a story seem consequential, investigating crime generates action, and solving crime provides for a morally and emotionally satisfying conclusion.
The result is an addiction to stories that portray police departments as more effective than they actually are; crime as more prevalent than it actually is; and police use of force as consistently justified. There are always gaps between reality and fiction, but given what policing in America has too often become, Hollywood’s version of it looks less like fantasy and more like complicity…
Say writers made a commitment not to exaggerate the performance of police. Audiences would have to be retrained to watch, for example, a version of “Special Victims Unit” where the characters cleared only 33.4 percent of rape cases, or to accept that in almost 40 percent of murders and manslaughters, no suspect is arrested. If storytelling focused on less-dramatic but more-common crimes such as burglary and motor-vehicle theft, the stakes would shrink — along with the case-clearance rate.
I think there’s some truth to what she’s saying. Crime shows aren’t really representative of reality. There are a lot more serial killers in 15 seasons of Criminal Minds than there probably are in the entire country. And there’s no doubt that the dictates of drama mean these shows rarely end with the criminals not even being identified. So I think it’s fair enough to say there’s a clear element of fantasy in these shows.
And she may be right that while the individual episodes often touch on progressive ideas, the form itself is inherently conservative. For the most part, these shows are about people who restore and maintain law and order. So whatever this week’s episode is about, nearly every episode is ultimately about that idea of maintaining the status quo against those criminal elements who would seek to disrupt it.
What’s missing from this piece is the direct connection between cop shows which don’t necessarily present reality and actual problems with policing. Rosenberg doesn’t really make any effort to demonstrate the two are connected. All we really get is this paragraph: “In addition to revealing the world as it is, art has the power to show us the world as it can be. But when reform doesn’t seem like a real possibility, even modest optimism risks souring into mockery.”
No doubt art has power but what’s wrong with telling a satisfying, if slightly unrealistic, story on television for people who are tired and have been working all day? No one has to watch. And those who do watch are probably smart enough to know that television isn’t the real world. What harm is actually being done? Rosenberg doesn’t really explain that. It’s as if she wants to claim bad TV is a cover for bad policing but she can’t really make the case.
Her approach to crime shows would seem incredibly silly if used for almost any other genre of film. How about romantic comedies? A lot of relationships don’t actually work out. Let’s put an end to unrealistic romance. How about science fiction and horror? By definition, those things are fantastic and unrealistic, let’s put a stop to that immediately.
It’s not her diagnosis that I disagree with so much as her prescription. Yes, cop shows aren’t very realistic and they have a conservative concept at the root of them. But so what? No one said entertainment had to be realistic. Demanding that producers dump one of their most popular products en masse because people can’t tell TV from reality seems a bit extreme. I mean, we let kids listen to gangsta rap, but the problem is Chicago PD?