Like many other industries, entertainment companies have issued statements of support for the protests against racism and police brutality now filling America’s streets. But there’s something Hollywood can do to put its money where its social media posts are: immediately halt production on cop shows and movies and rethink the stories it tells about policing in America.
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.
There’s no question that it would be costly for networks and studios to walk away from the police genre entirely. Canceling Dick Wolf’s “Chicago” franchise of shows would wipe out an entire night of NBC’s prime-time programming; dropping “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and a planned spinoff would cut even further into the lineup.
But the gap between what some companies and executives have promised this week and what they have done in the past cannot be ignored. As reality television critic Andy Dehnart points out, at ViacomCBS, cable networks chief Chris McCarthy pledged “to leverage all of our platforms to show our ally-ship.” One of those platforms also airs “Cops,” a decades-old reality show with a troubled history of participating in police censorship and peddling fear of black and brown criminals. If McCarthy means what he says, canceling “Cops” would be a start.
But simply canceling cop shows and movies would be easier than uprooting the assumptions at the heart of the problem.
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.
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.
The closest thing to a reformist police show right now is “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” a sitcom that alternates explorations of the policies and identity politics of the New York Police Department with fantastic gags and one-liners.
Series co-creator Dan Goor told me in 2016 that he hoped that the show was “Modeling what a good police-community interaction would be like.” I’ve never doubted his care in pursuing that ideal. This week, Goor and the cast donated $100,000 to the National Bail Fund Network and announced that they “condemn the murder of George Floyd and support the many people who are protesting police brutality nationally.”
Still, as Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk put it this week, the show can’t escape what it is: Neither the show’s good intentions and genuine good work nor “its silliness ... change the way it prioritizes police perspectives over anyone else’s,” VanArendonk wrote.
One way forward might be to emphasize the dialogues, and sometimes fierce struggles, that take place within police departments. “The Shield,” which aired on FX from 2002 to 2008, follows the reign and eventual downfall of corrupt Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and his Strike Team, based on the division at the center of the real-life Rampart scandal in Los Angeles. In the finale, Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder), Mackey’s longtime colleague and a truly decent officer, wins a small victory. Mackey, in exchange for his cooperation in an investigation against the surviving members of his team, is not prosecuted for his crimes, but he is required to spend three years in a deadening desk job at Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
It takes seven seasons to even achieve that much on “The Shield.” It’s been almost six years since Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., and no one can be blamed for feeling like national reform has moved at a similarly petty pace. If the entertainment industry truly believes change can no longer wait, it should start with its own storytelling.