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Dirty Coppers

Will the TV- and movie-viewing public ever tire of police dramas? Or are cops and robbers the gift that keeps on giving to the entertainment industry?

Sid Smith of the Tribune took up the case recently in "Murder, They Wrote: Police TV Shows Are All The Rage, And Here's Why," noting that during a week of watching crime dramas he tallied "four murders, three abductions, one serial hate-crime streak and a poisoning by LSD," noting as well that, "Thanks to a 'Cold Case,' a 1994 suicide got reclassified as a homicide."

Smith seems disturbed by this--and perhaps he should be--but he is unconvincing in seeing change in the air. "Despite . . . this season's ratings bonanza for crime shows, there are signs the inevitable shift in the wind is stirring," Smith writes. "After resting at the top of the heap all fall, CSI actually lost the No. 1 ratings spot in recent weeks to the return of American Idol."

The ascension of the runaway train that is American Idol to the top of the ratings is hardly a cultural signpost that the police show is falling out of favor, though.

Smith's piece recalls an argument put forth by the Tribune's Julia Keller in the wake of 9/11. Keller, like so many other commentators suddenly developing insight into how our world would change forever, foresaw a dramatic shift in the very nature of police shows that simply hasn't come to be.

"As we continue to contemplate how culture may change in the wake of Sept. 11, I'd like to offer this prediction: Cop dramas will never be the same. It won't happen overnight--cultural products take a good long time to make their way through the various pipelines that empty out on TV and movie screens, in bookstores and on stages--but it's on its way," Keller wrote in October 2001.

"For roughly the past two decades, cop dramas have been dominated by a single idea: moral ambiguity. Cops do a dirty job, see, and the only way to do a dirty job--or so this theory goes--is to get a little dirty yourself."

That dominant storyline (a change in itself from the Dragnet days of righteous policing, I might add) would come to an end, Keller wrote.

But even as she was typing, the Denzel Washington vehicle, Training Day, had just been released, delayed only slightly due to the studio's sensitivity to 9/11. The movie's plot, as described by IMDB.com, revolves around Washington's character, L.A.P.D. detective Alonzo Harris, "a veteran narcotics officer whose methods of enforcing the law are questionable, if not corrupt."

In fact, Training Day was the No. 1 movie in America at the time Keller wrote, something she found easy to brush off.

"A new police paradigm doesn't mean that all cops have to be shown as choir boys," she wrote. "But it does mean that the opposite impulse--portraying most as soulless dealmakers--won't wash. Despite the success of Training Day, it may be a long time before audiences are clamoring to see dirty cops as de facto heroes."

Keller declared the movie "an instant anachronism."

But Training Day went on to gross more than $76 million in U.S. box office sales (the movie's budget was an estimated $45 million), and was released in 39 other countries, including Egypt, Israel, and Kuwait.

In March 2002--six months after 9/11, a good testing period for shifting cultural tastes--Training Day shot to the top of Amazon.com's DVD best-seller list.

The movie won a slew of awards, including a Best Actor Oscar for Washington.

Roger Ebert was a bit more prescient in his 2001 review of the film. "Will audiences accept this movie in the current climate, when cops and firemen are hailed as heroes? I think maybe so; I think by delaying the movie's opening two weeks, Warner Bros. sidestepped a potential backlash. And Denzel's performance is sure to generate strong word-of-mouth. Second question: It's been asked if violent movies will become rare in these sad days after the terrorism. The box-office performance of Training Day may provide the answer."

But that's the movies. What about TV?

Well, The Shield debuted on March 12, 2002. Again, just six months after 9/11. And isn't The Shield, now in its fifth season, the epitome of a show at the cross section of moral ambiguity and dirty cops?

And what of 24?

I confess, I've never seen it. But isn't it an integral part of the premise that Jack Bauer must cut whatever corners he can in a post-9/11 world in order to do his job? In fact, doesn't "24" argue the opposite of Keller--that moral ambiguity (and that inherently means dirty cops) is exactly what the public (and not uninterestingly, the Administration) is interested in right now?

[Editor's Note: I've seen 24. Jack Bauer tortures terrorism suspects on 24, which has aroused the ire of liberal bloggers & lefties. So in that respect, the show is mirroring pro-Administration sentiment nowadays.]

The form of the police show has changed over the years--from Hill Street Blues to NYPD Blue to The Shield--but in a way that only serves to probe the humanity of its characters more and more deeply. That is the good news. And quite possibly, why we like to watch shows with so much bad news.




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Posted on March 2, 2006


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