tv after 2020

Can a Police Procedural Change?

The latest, and final, season of NCIS: New Orleans offers a glimpse of what it looks like when a show tries to.

Scott Bakula as Dwayne Pride. Photo: CBS
Scott Bakula as Dwayne Pride. Photo: CBS
Scott Bakula as Dwayne Pride. Photo: CBS

Police procedurals are stasis machines. They are designed to run in place. Oh, sure, they look like they’re moving. Crime after crime is introduced and solved; cast members come and go. At the core, though, each episode is a closed loop, designed to end roughly in the same place it began. It’s a genre built to resist change.

So the summer of 2020 posed a problem for some creators of TV cop shows. After decades of coasting along as a reliable, profitable source of network-TV narrative grist, there came a wave of calls for cop shows to be pulled from the air — or, at the very least, to become less racist, less militaristic, less rooted in police perspectives. But how, without dismantling the basic idea of what a cop show is?

One year later, it’s clear that most shows barely tried to answer that question. The original NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles paid service to COVID-19 and largely ignored Black Lives Matter; Law & Order: SVU included small, toothless police-accountability plots. Which is what made this season of NCIS: New Orleans so surprising. In small but meaningful ways, the series, which aired its final episode on Sunday (after being canceled unexpectedly in February), offered a model of how to retrofit an old-school police procedural into something more reform-minded. It did not reinvent the wheel, but it tweaked it.

For most of its run, NOLA’s protagonist, with the fantastic TV name Dwayne Pride (Scott Bakula), has been a familiar, plays-outside-the-rules kind of cop, often making unilateral decisions about when to ignore the law in favor of what he sees as justice. In its seventh season, NOLA began to incorporate stories more explicitly skeptical of Pride’s tactics and wove them together with broader observations about the challenge of life in New Orleans for anyone without his cultural advantages. One NCIS investigator is frustrated when he realizes how few social services are available to a young mother experiencing homelessness. Loretta Wade, the show’s medical examiner played by CCH Pounder, finds herself burned-out, caught between the exhaustion of COVID and that of worrying about the safety of her Black son. Pride himself goes from self-certain white knight to a man questioning his privilege. The show’s new direction has been obvious enough that a vocal portion of its viewership grew frustrated. Fox and Newsbusters ran glibly furious coverage of the season, explaining that NOLA had “doubled down on false liberal propaganda.” Facebook and Twitter commenters registered complaints about the show’s “woke”-ness. But the ratings — 5 million viewers an episode — were decent, and for every tweet complaining about the show’s new “anti-police and anti-white” agenda, there were others praising the show. (Why the show was canceled is unclear — the network said simply that it had “hit the end of [its] cycle.”)

This could only have happened after the dramatic departure of NOLA’s previous showrunner, Brad Kern, who left in 2018 after reports uncovered a racist and misogynistic culture under his leadership. For the last two years, the series has been gradually finding its footing again with new showrunners and new thinking about what stories it should tell. CBS brought in Jan Nash, a veteran of TV procedurals including Rizzoli & Isles and Without a Trace, to help previous NOLA writer Christopher Silber run the show. Nash steered Silber toward a deeper exploration of its protagonists. It wasn’t that they were brand-new stories, Nash told me. It was that she wanted to spend time making the characters into more self-reflective people. Kern had been obsessed with making Dwayne Pride go rogue on the job. When Nash came onto the show, one of her first questions was, Why is he like this? 

NOLA’s last season is a case study of how to reinvent a TV show without abandoning the basic foundations of the genre — cops and criminals, mysteries and resolutions. It’s also an illustration of a crushing TV truth: You can pivot a massive-franchise cop show to be newly culturally aware, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get canceled.

Early in its final season, NCIS: New Orleans aired a scene that signaled its protagonist had changed. In it, Pride challenges one of his colleagues — a retired police superintendent named Holland (Gareth Williams). Earlier in the episode, Holland blew up at a young Black Lives Matter activist in a meeting after she insisted the New Orleans police department is full of discrimination, corruption, and brutality. Holland is furious about the confrontation, but Pride pushes back. He doesn’t try to appeal to his ego or deliver any platitudes about how everyone should try to get along. He tells Holland he’s “being an ass.” He scolds him for being disrespectful. He reminds him that the young woman he’s so upset about is passionate because things are really bad, and Holland’s generation is in part responsible for that. “We had our time,” Pride tells Holland. “It’s her time now.”

The confrontation scene between Pride (center) and Holland (second from right). Photo: CBS

It’s not a flashy setpiece. It’s a quiet conversation that doesn’t connect with the episode’s big crime or reveal something shocking about a beloved character. But some epiphanies are quiet. In the world of police procedurals, an older man in a position of authority, sincerely and enthusiastically telling a colleague to shut up and make space for a young Black woman, counts as a small but palpable revelation.

Bakula was integral to the show’s rethink. Last summer, he was getting messages from his kids in the family group chat about the protests and calls for police reform. “They were talking about things I never dreamed they would be talking about in terms of politics and activism,” he says. Bakula suggested that the show engage with not only BLM, but the pandemic and its unique strain on a city like New Orleans, where so much of the economy comes from tourism, musical performances, and gathering in groups. The show’s main characters would be as altered by the events of 2020 as he imagined its audience would be. The showrunners were initially hesitant, particularly Nash. “You’re like, okay, how am I going to do all of that on this procedural television show and still tell a mystery?” Nash tells me.

It’s a fair point. Structure is a key reason why change is so hard in this genre. A good procedural episode has to introduce a new crime, a new victim, a new set of suspects, and a new perpetrator in every episode. A character introduction alone can eat up multiple minutes of an episode’s run time: about 42 minutes without commercials. From there, the episode needs to work through at least two or three twists on how the crime could’ve been committed, create a couple red herrings about potential criminals, and give the heroes a chance to catch the baddie in some dramatic way. Even if the NOLA showrunners wanted to include a scene like the one between Pride and Holland, there would simply be no time.

It was ultimately COVID that provided Silber and Nash with a solution. In planning out the season, they decided to write two-parters — story lines that would stretch across paired episodes rather than the procedural’s typical one. The decision was made purely for safety reasons. Two-part episodes would mean fewer new sets to scout and disinfect and fewer shooting setups to work into complicated COVID protocols. Guest stars and directors would get reused across multiple episodes, so there were less people to quarantine and test and organize into pods. Once they decided on this plan, Nash says, “it changed our idea of what we could do from a storytelling perspective.” Suddenly there was space for more — more side plots like the one that sets up the Pride and Holland scene, or a running plot about a new city task force to address social-justice reform.

Intimate, two-person stories could also be shot more easily during COVID, so Silber and Nash decided to bring in more character beats for Rita Devereaux, Pride’s recurring love interest (played by Bakula’s real-life wife, Chelsea Field). Pride has had romantic relationships before on the show, but they’ve never been close enough to lead to emotional conversations. Field’s newly large role meant the writers needed to give her and Pride something to do. In one episode, Rita starts railing against the cruelty of cash bail while setting the dinner table; in another, Pride has to investigate police misconduct. He stares at himself in the mirror while Rita looks on, concerned. He’s done things, he tells Rita. He’s not perfect.

On one hand, this is an obvious opportunity for Pride to do some politically de rigueur soul-searching. But Bakula plays it well, leaning into Pride’s self-recrimination and -doubt; he’s more vibrant here than in the endless procession of door-busting gun battles. It’s also markedly different from the way Pride was depicted during Kern’s era running the show. In a late season-four episode, “The Assassination of Dwayne Pride,” the titular assassination was a story about a mean-spirited blogger who dredged up questionable moments from Pride’s history in order to get him fired. The events from Pride’s past are repeated instances of him ignoring the law in order to mete out his own idea of justice (all of which are plots from other episodes of the show). The NCIS team — and, the show assumes, its viewers — is horrified anyone could hold this mountain of illegal behavior against Pride. How could someone call him bad? He’s the hero! Seeing Pride feel deeply troubled about the things he’s done a few seasons later may not be a substantial rethinking of how cop shows work. But it’s not nothing, either.

NOLA is not the lone cop show that attempted to meet the moment this past year. ABC’s The Rookie put its heroic lead character, played by Nathan Fillion, in newly uncomfortable situations. In one episode, he takes an ethics in criminal law class at a local college, and his much younger classmates tear him to shreds when they find out he’s an active-duty police officer. The Rookie’s redirection is more explicit than NOLA’s. Its stories about privilege and ethical policing are loud, so much so that they dip into PSA territory at times. There’s something almost gleeful in how thoroughly and constantly The Rookie has used this season as an opportunity to dress down its clueless, well-meaning lead white dude. It was easier for The Rookie to pivot than NCIS. It’s a patrol-policing show, which frees it from the strict regime of one mystery per hour. Its protagonists are not detectives, solving a new murder every week. They’re newbies, chasing down shoplifters and learning how to be undercover. It’s also a younger, nimbler show without the burden of being part of a huge, profitable, multi-arm franchise.

NOLA’s changes this season may have felt radical for the show, but it is still NCIS, one in a long lineage of cop series. Somehow, network television’s unending appetite for police procedurals has only grown in the last year. Silber and Nash will move on to helm a new spinoff, NCIS: Hawaii, which will join a 2021 TV schedule with two other NCIS’s, three FBI series, three Chicago first-responder shows, and three Law & Order series. Silber and Nash, who are both white, seem to struggle with what constitutes a surface-level change versus something more meaningful. In recent years of NOLA under their leadership, there have been some cringeworthy plots — in season six, a white naval officer pummels a Black witness he suspects of withholding information — which they only call “missteps” after some prodding.

Even at the time, that scene created a lot of discussion. LeVar Burton, who directed the episode, wanted it to be a warts-and-all portrayal of bad cop behavior, but felt it was glossed over too quickly. “I felt pretty strongly that we weren’t giving this moment enough screen time,” Burton says. In response to Burton’s critique, Silber and Nash introduced a season-six episode called “Biased” (which Burton also directed), about a cop who kills an out-of-uniform Black naval officer after mistaking him for a suspect.

Burton anticipates that the current appetite for stories about social justice will be a passing fad. He was at the center of Roots, after all, and he remembers all the hope and excitement around “a new wave of stories about the experience of African Americans in the United States.” He sounds frustrated and sad. “That was a conversation this nation had never had before,” he said. “The expectation that it was the beginning of a sweeping change did not bear out.” Burton sees this as one more iteration in the American history of “showing signs of awakening, and then retrenchment.”

Can a Police Procedural Change?