Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?
Cops, one of the longest continuously running series in TV history, had to answer the question posed in its theme song after getting canceled by Paramount Network yesterday. The cable channel didn’t go into detail about why it pulled the plug — “Cops is not on the Paramount Network, and we don’t have any current or future plans for it to return,” a spokesperson said — but the timing has a whiff of historical verdict anyway.
In the past two weeks, millions have marched all over the world to protest police brutality and the murder of George Floyd, often in the face of armed officers in riot gear whose attempts to pen them in or shut them down has escalated into mayhem. The nonstop stream of images of police beating, teargassing, pepper-spraying, and driving vehicles into unarmed protesters has elevated a widespread movement to defund the police, or at least rethink what they do and the amount of money they siphon from tapped-out city budgets. In tandem with all that, we’ve seen critics and culture writers (including Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk and Angelica Jade Bastién) revisit the role of film and TV in cheerleading police and validating their self-image as a blue wall standing between civilization and savagery.
From its debut on Fox in 1989, John Langley and Malcolm Barbour’s Cops was an essential part of that image, unveiling rough-and-tumble footage of officers confronting drug dealers, drunk drivers, domestic abusers, and other enemies of peace. Even if this cancellation is actually a case of TV executives seizing on a shift in public mood as a pretext to cut an aged, underperforming series — Cops was a schedule holdover, inherited from the days when Paramount Network was still called Spike TV — it still feels like a repudiation of what Cops stood for as well as a peg for America’s reassessment of its love affair with badges and billy clubs.
Each week, Cops offered a vicarious trip into the world of policing and street crime that allowed viewers who had never picked up a gun or nightstick to identify with the “good guys” of law enforcement: soft-spoken but kickass police who were good at talking sense into drunk or drugged and potentially violent citizens but were perfectly willing to chase and cuff them if they refused to listen to reason. Essentially a grimmer, grittier answer to America’s Funniest Home Videos, it was one of those shows that tended to find its way onto television screens at family gatherings when the assembled group couldn’t come to a consensus about what to watch. In 1991, the same year that Los Angeles police were filmed beating Rodney King, Fox moved Cops to primetime and it eventually became a hit in syndication, with repeats appearing on G4, TruTV, and on local stations, before jumping to Spike TV after Fox canceled it in 2013.
The series was funny, in a cringey way, whenever it pulled back a bit and observed officers having poker-faced conversations with people so soused or stoned that they could barely finish a sentence. But the humor flowed from the producers’ not-incorrect assumption that the folks at home tended to identify with the police rather than the civilians, even if their own personal experiences with cops were fraught with anxiety and paranoia. And although the show changed cities regularly and sometimes followed nonlocal law enforcement organizations as they worked cases, the continuity of format (a three-act structure, alternating bursts of wild action with conversations and administrative talk) meant that the collective of The Police was the show’s main character, the focal point for audience projection.
So wildly popular that it was sometimes “stripped” across schedules, with two episodes airing back-to-back, the cheaply produced series was one of the most profitable for Fox, delivering millions of eyeballs and untold numbers of ad dollars. Throughout the decades, Cops was also a key component of American law enforcement’s manicured self-image. The show presented itself as an apolitical documentary record of What It’s Like for Police, assembled in the spirit of Sgt. Joe Friday, the uber-cop hero of Dragnet. But this presentation was loaded with its own, unremarked-upon assumptions. Chief among them was the idea that police are innately decent, disinterested, caring people who are mostly great at what they do, and screw up only because of unrelenting pressure and threat of death or injury, as well as the public’s inability to understand and respect how tough the job is (downsides that Cops tried to refute by consistently presenting citizens as irresistible forces and police as immovable objects). The series rarely showed police as troubled by anything but lack of funding or public support. Corruption, cynicism, or incompetence were rarely acknowledged and never examined at length.
Nor did the show get into the disproportionate effect of police brutality on poor and/or minority citizens or the greater likelihood of police interrogating or arresting them in the first place. Following journalism’s “if it bleeds, it leads” dictum, Cops focused on street crime and minor disturbances, often involving working-class or poor people, never on corporate or white-collar criminals. A 1994 study found that the suspects tended to be black or brown, while the cops tended to be white. When the suspects were white, the show presented them as another variety of “other” — louts making trouble for decent folk who were just trying to sleep, dammit. A decade into the show’s run, a 2004 study found that Cops and the knockoff series World’s Wildest Police Videos “implicitly justify the practice of racial profiling” and possibly “encourage fear by overrepresenting violent crime.”
These studies and others also found that series like Cops divorced crime and policing from institutional and social factors, presenting criminality only as a bad choice made by individuals, rather than the culmination of a lifetime of unemployment, macho messaging, deprivation, underfunded schools, family dysfunction, discrimination, and other forces deemed too complex to address on a show whose main draw was cops talking to drunk, angry citizens and then slamming them down on car hoods. An opening disclaimer stated, “COPS is filmed on location as it happens. All suspects are considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.” But you didn’t really get that impression from watching the show. Many of the suspects on Cops were inebriated or out of control with anger, depression, or mental illness, or otherwise obviously a threat to themselves and others. The bleak humor stemmed from the editors’ contrasting the suspects’ pathetic attempts to deny or justify themselves against the officers’ granite stares, sarcasm, and exasperation.
America’s Most Wanted, Unsolved Mysteries, and other “true crime” series became popular around the same time as Cops in the 1990s. All reinforced the American public’s belief, stoked two decades earlier during Richard Nixon’s “law and order” era and fortified throughout the Reagan-Bush years, that violent crime was out of control, and that, in the words of another study, criminals were simply “dangerous people who are beyond social control,” and therefore the only effective solution is policing them and packing them in prisons. (That Cops’ theme song—later borrowed by Michael Bay’s cops-and-robbers film series Bad Boys—is reggae, a genre not known for its adoration of police, added to the sense that any resistance to cop worship was futile.) Given the central role that Cops played in reinforcing simplistic views of crime and punishment, and how incredibly profitable it was for decades, it seems unlikely that it will stay off television for long. In fact, old episodes are currently still airing on WGN America and streaming on Paramount’s ViacomCBS sibling Pluto TV. Even if new episodes aren’t produced, there are plenty of clones that serve basically the same function: The most popular flavor at the moment, A&E’s Live PD, was first pitched as “Live Cops” and airs three nights a week in three-hour blocks. (Editor’s note: Live PD was cancelled by A&E a few hours after this essay was published.)
Ironically, or maybe inevitably, the many parodies of Cops do a better job of illustrating the failures of the show and of society generally than Cops could ever manage. From Reno 911, to The Simpsons’ “Cops in Springfield,” to Mad TV’s deadpan claymation sendup “Clops,” to Mr. Show’s “Fuzz, the Musical,” to In Living Color’s “Thugs,” viewers get a stronger sense of the rich messiness of life than one of the medium’s most popular “reality” shows could be bothered to offer.