But this is 2020, and such whiz-bang trickery isn’t enough, not even in the escapist realm of network television. So in an upcoming episode, the character will grapple with a different type of life-or-death consequence: He and a friend will hash out questions of racial justice, police defunding and the long-standing contradictions of being a Black police officer in America.
The reason for the pivot: Before the episode, MacGyver (or, the men and women who write him) had an extended conversation with Ron Davis, the former executive director of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing who runs the reform-minded criminal justice organization 21CP Solutions with former D.C. police chief Charles Ramsey.
“They were asking all the right questions, and I just tried to tell them my truth,” Davis recalled of the session.
“This will help our storytelling become more authentic,” said Monica Macer, who oversees “MacGyver” as showrunner, and met with Davis and his team.
The meeting is part of an ambitious effort by one of the most influential producers of popular entertainment, CBS Studios, to confront the potential influences of its shows in incidents like the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police. In what is believed to be a television first, the entertainment firm has hired 21CP to help shape its shows. Normally tasked with remaking police departments, the group has been recruited to change how law enforcement is portrayed on TV.
The deal represents a new kind of Hollywood, one willing to bring change into the most sacred of spaces: the writers room. 21CP’s staffers differ from the consultants producers usually hire to help writers nail down the technical details of police work. Davis and his team are answering questions from writers, offering ideas for scripts and even reviewing pilots for accuracy about what being a police officer in America really looks like — and should look like.
As a result, the resulting episodes also have the potential to do something else: repel prime-time viewers who prefer their police as full-on heroes or even elicit an All Lives Matter backlash from law enforcement leaders. “They will be stories engineered to further diminish public opinion of police officers so that the anti-police movement can achieve their ultimate goal: the complete abolition of policing and total impunity for criminals,” Patrick Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York, said in an email.
Macer said her writers had no agenda to abolish or diminish police departments. “We’re a fun show about stopping the threat of the day with some witty banter,” she said. But, she added, “as a society, we’re also at an inflection point, and I’m not afraid to lean into that.”
When Black Lives Matter protests swept the world in June, they provoked a strong response throughout the television industry. Shows such as A&E’s “Live PD” were shelved, and many news organizations questioned their own depictions of police and communities of color. At ViacomCBS, the reaction was swift on the Viacom side of the company: Paramount TV canceled the controversial reality show “Cops,” leading to its stranding overseas, while executives at MTV, with a long history of activism, led a charge across the firm’s cable networks to stop programming for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the time it was originally thought a police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck.
On the CBS side, the conversation over inclusion was different, and in a way more sensitive. The company had a new president and chief executive in George Cheeks, brought in not long after Leslie Moonves was ousted over allegations that he fostered a culture of misogyny.
The company also had a lot more invested in mainstream perceptions of law enforcement than its rivals — many of its hits centered on exactly that subject. The three most-watched scripted shows in the 2019-2020 network television season were all made by and aired on CBS, and all revolved around crime-fighting: “Blue Bloods,” “FBI” and “NCIS.” The last one is watched by an average of more than 15 million people each week, making it the most-viewed program on television not named “Sunday Night Football.”
The network suddenly had to grapple with how it came by that success. On these shows, after all, law enforcement characters often save the day, sometimes by breaking the rules — exactly the type of modeling that many activists say leads to police misconduct.
Aware of these shows’ potential effects, Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i, executive vice president of Entertainment, Diversity & Inclusion for West Coast ViacomCBS, scheduled a meeting with Cheeks. “We’ve seen it done one way for quite some time,” Smith-Anoa’i said in an interview, recalling her assessment to Cheeks. “It feels like time for another way.”
The executive, who can find herself in the position of criticizing the company that pays her salary, told Cheeks she thought these shows could be constructed in ways that don’t potentially lead to real-world violations. He agreed and authorized her to explore new ways to make them. A few weeks later, she heard the director Reggie Rock Bythewood talk about 21CP on a virtual panel the network had organized; the group, she thought, could be a key lever in that change. A deal was signed with CBS’s studio unit several weeks later.
Most police shows in 2020 do not openly glorify unconstitutional behavior. The problem, say critics, lies with subtle ways of focusing on police as the heroes, often with an excess of machismo. According to Travis Dixon, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has studied the topic, that template is common.
“Traditional entertainment media consistently portrays officers as highly successful at clearing cases, yet as also hypermasculine and overly aggressive,” he writes in an article that will be published in an upcoming anthology, “The Rowman & Littlefield Handbook of Policing, Communication and Society,” that he shared with The Washington Post. That can fuel a popular belief that such behavior is acceptable and even necessary, he said.
What the reformers say they’re trying to prevent is the kind of alleged police brutality that led to the deaths of Floyd and Taylor, as well as everyday interactions characterized by aggression, and systemic ills that lead to the disenfranchisement of people of color. Changing the perceptions of police by overhauling entertainment images, they believe, can help address these issues.
The project in a way flips a long-standing narrative dating back at least to Tipper Gore’s crusade against rap music in the 1990s: Where she focused on how entertainment can lead ordinary citizens to violence, the current effort scrutinizes how portrayals of police can prod law enforcement to bad action.
There are two staples of nearly all broadcast shows about law enforcement: The main characters rarely do harm, and they are almost always effective at solving crimes. This is a stark difference from law enforcement in the real world, where ineffectuality is common and can lead to harm. The shows also sometimes feature the rogue cop, the time-honored trope of a police officer who bends the rules to get what he or she needs.
Clearly, says Davis, law enforcement officers should be shown going rogue — that’s something that happens in real life. But he says there should be consequences for that bad behavior. The objection to the television portrayal of law enforcement officers, he and others say, is that it can glamorize on the one hand or neuter on the other — either making the officers’ tactics noble no matter what they do, or rendering them cute and inoffensive.
The very act of telling stories from the point of view of law enforcement can also subtly beg identification with them. When Detective Danny Reagan unloads verbally on a suspect in “Blue Bloods,” viewers aren’t necessarily supposed to think this is the right tactic. But he is almost always righteous given a suspect’s evildoing, so that even if he gets carried away, his underlying motivations are unassailable and possibly heroic.
Or when Hanna and Callen are bantering on “NCIS: Los Angeles” before stopping a terrorist plot, it might be entertaining for viewers — but, crucially, it distracts from the moral line-skirting that such work sometimes demands. National security is often a negotiation between the requirements of police work and the value of civil liberties, but the character softenings can make viewers forget that transaction.
“These roles we see on television influence how we think of them,” said Glenn Sparks, a professor at Purdue University who has spent decades studying the interplay between on-screen violence and real-life perceptions. “If police are aggressive, we’ll tend to think of them as aggressive. If what they’re doing is fun and games, we’ll think of them that way,” he said, citing what’s known in academia as media cultivation theory — the durable notion that frequent television viewers align their world to what they see on screen.
As part of the pact, the studio has hired not just Davis but a half-dozen high-ranking criminal justice experts who work with 21CP. They include a number of well-regarded legal professionals, as well as Roberto Villaseñor, the former Tucson police chief who served on the Obama Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and Annette Sikka, who oversaw police monitoring and training in Kosovo for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an international agency whose membership includes the United States and 56 other nations.
“It’s incumbent on us to look deeper at our shows and make sure we have all the tools in our tool belt to get it right,” said David Stapf, president of CBS Studios, of his decision to make the deal. “I think this is the next evolution for us.”
Participants say it is still early in the refashioning process, with many shows only now convening writers rooms for series that can’t be shot yet because of coronavirus restrictions. But Davis says he has been encouraged by how much writers are paying attention.
“What I’m seeing is an appreciation and hunger for the information, a desire to meet the challenge of factoring our ideas into their shows,” Davis said. He also was shown a pilot for an as-yet-unaired series and offered thoughts on the depiction of police.
“As a reformer, I see this as a great venue,” Davis said. “Not a panacea. But a great venue. It’s another step on this path to police reform.”
Showrunners say they have started to take a look at their actions, too.
“I think police shows have glamorized law enforcement, and I’m sure I’ve done it too,” said Scott Gemmill, the showrunner for “NCIS: Los Angeles.” “And the rogue cop — you have to remember this is a country that started with a rebellion and continued with the Wild West. I think that’s always been a part of our entertainment. But we have to do better. We have to not just look at the officer but at the community, at the victim. We have to view it not only through one lens.”
“MacGyver’s” Macer says she has drawn on her own experience as a woman of color. In an upcoming episode, MacGyver, who operates on behalf of the mysterious governmental Phoenix Foundation, will talk with the father of his friend Wilt Bozer, who also plays a paternal role for him, about the elder Bozer’s inner conflict as a Black police officer. The show may also explore the tensions between the elder Bozer and his wife, active in city politics, over the defund-the-police debate.
Much of these plotlines came from back-and-forth that Davis and his team had with Macer and her writers. “We just wanted to know what it was like to be in their skin, and that’s where Ron and his team were invaluable,” said Macer, who took over from veteran showrunner Peter Lenkov, fired earlier this year amid allegations that he created a toxic work environment.
But it remains unclear if the goal with 21CP is more gritty behavior by law enforcement to avoid lionization to the public, or more positive depictions to prevent modeling of bad behavior by real-world police officers.
And while experts on the connection between media image and police violence welcome the initiative, they say its effects could be limited.
Dixon, the Illinois professor, said it is not easy to wash away ideas that are soaked into the fabric of American pop culture; he says he’s doubtful that networks will change a very profitable paradigm significantly enough that viewers will come to see police differently.
“I think it’s helpful,” he said of the 21CP pact, estimating that according to his research more accurate portrayals of police and people of color across the board could lead to a reduction in aggressive policing by 5 to 10 percent. But he also said that, given the established conventions of these shows and the large profits associated with them, fundamental changes are less likely.
“The issue is how much of a factor, given the profit motive, it really is,” he said. “There’s a lot of money at stake in doing it a certain way.”
Meanwhile, the PBA’s Lynch, whose officers are depicted in “Blue Bloods,” said he didn’t believe that the revamped images would have an effect because that’s not how police officers make decisions about how to behave.
“Cops aren’t looking to police dramas for an accurate depiction of our work,” he said.
He said he believed that CBS’s focus was misplaced. “If TV producers are really interested in showing the complexities of 21st-century policing, they need to look at more than just the cop in the radio car or the detective in the squad room. Show us the cowardly politicians who send cops out to enforce their laws and implement their policies, then leave us holding the bag when the inevitable public backlash arrives,” he said, also noting careerist desk managers, “the anti-police mob” and other forces.
“Without that context, these shows will turn into Soviet-style ideological ‘realist’ propaganda,” he said.
CBS has to be careful not to alienate its core audience, which is not considered highly activist. The network skews older — at the start of last season, the age of its average viewer was 63, the oldest among the four broadcast networks. In a climate where so much of public life and pop culture has been politicized, inserting too much reform talk into escapist entertainment could be tricky.
All the CBS principals stressed authenticity, not social change, when asked about the partnership; they said they didn’t want to be preachy. Their careful choice of words suggests the fine line the experiment must walk, following the genre’s conventions but shaping them for a new age of consciousness, advocating social change without appearing to do so.
If such moves draw pro-police criticism, executives said that wouldn’t deter them.
“I wouldn’t care if there was a Blue Lives Matter backlash,” said Stapf, the CBS Studios president. “I just want us to expose ourselves to different points of view. And not just pat ourselves on the back for doing it right.”