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Cops Are Always the Main Characters

Not just on Law & Order. Photo: Universal Tv/Kobal/Shutterstock/Universal Tv/Kobal/Shutterstock

At 8 p.m. on Saturday, at the same time CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News were airing live coverage of the nationwide protests against police violence, cable audiences also had other options for what to watch. On PopTV, there was a marathon of NCIS: New Orleans. On WE, Criminal Minds. On WGN, Blue Bloods. On Ion, Law & Order: SVU. And on USA, a marathon of Chicago PD that began 11 hours earlier and continued until Sunday morning, followed by an episode of CSI.

These aren’t identical shows, exactly. Criminal Minds is about FBI profilers who try to anticipate crime before it happens. The NCIS franchise is about a team who investigate crimes involving Navy and Marine personnel. Blue Bloods and SVU are about New York cops; Chicago PD is about Chicago police. But they and dozens of other popular, profitable TV shows share a fundamental ideology: The cops are the protagonists.

TV has long had a police’s-eye perspective that helps shape the way viewers see the world, prioritizing the victories and struggles of police over communities being policed. Order, a police imposed status quo, is good; disruption is bad. There are many, many reasons why a cop’s point of view has become the default way to frame national unrest, including institutional and systemic racism, the capitalist urge to prioritize property over human life, and a political system that benefits those already in power. But TV plays a role, too. The overwhelming mountain of cop shows amounts to a decades-long cultural education in who deserves attention, and whose perspective counts most. In stories of American crime, TV teaches us that cops are the characters we should care about.

Cops have been main characters in fiction for more than a century. Dickens’s Inspector Bucket, the only figure with the cultural mobility to tie together all the plots in Bleak House, led to Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff, who led to Dick Tracy, Perry Mason, and the boom in police procedural novels and radio shows in the 1930s and ’40s. The police story as a narrative status quo didn’t start on TV, but TV has perfected it, metastasized it, and franchised it into ubiquity. As Alyssa Rosenberg detailed in a massive Washington Post project published in 2016, police have been a wildly popular TV subject going back to Dragnet and The Untouchables, but the last two decades have been the first time TV police procedurals were so lucrative and ever-present that you can, at any moment, take your pick from the several cop franchises airing simultaneously.

To chart just one arm of the boom: Dick Wolf, perhaps the most successful single force behind the current state of the TV police procedural, began as a writer on cop shows Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice. Wolf has gone on to create Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, Law & Order: Los Angeles, New York Undercover, Chicago PD, Chicago Justice, FBI, and FBI: Most Wanted. Law & Order: SVU is currently the longest running live-action primetime series in American history. That’s just one man’s contribution to police procedurals, all made within the last 30 years. It doesn’t even touch the vast worlds of NCIS, CSI, or the immense number of other cop procedurals that’ve come and gone since Law & Order debuted.

These shows are everywhere, including prestige TV and streaming platforms. One of the stories of the prestige era has been the way shows like The Shield, The Wire, Bosch, Justified, Fargo, and True Detective have mirrored and complicated the police-as-protagonist story repeated thousands of times on the major network shows. The cops on prestige dramas are often really bad dudes, not to put too fine a point on it. They’re corrupt, sometimes even monstrous. They skirt the law to create self-determined justice. On the best, most artful TV cop shows, going back to Hill Street Blues and Homicide: Life on the Streets, the cops are allowed to be humans rather than heroes. But even on series that depict police as fallible or corrupt, the underlying assumption of the police show remains. The cops are still at the center, still the point of view we use to interpret the world, still the characters we follow week after week. As TV viewers we are locked inside a police perspective, harnessed to their needs, desires, and daily rhythms.

Very few cop shows have actively worked against that pull to put police at the center, although there are a few examples. A show like Orange Is the New Black is radical in how it takes that viewpoint and flips it, turning prisoners into the focus characters rather than their prison guards. The Wire puts its police inside a huge community network, and it spends as much time with citizens as it does the cops who police them. The instinct to align viewers with a police character is so compelling, though, that TV creators often begin with established tropes, even if the eventual goal is to undermine them. It’s not a mistake that The Wire’s creator David Simon used Jimmy McNulty, a white detective, as the show’s entry point, and it’s also not a mistake that HBO featured him prominently on promotional art for the show. Even though he intended to dismantle the trope, Simon knew that viewers needed McNulty to play a big role early in the show. That is the perspective TV audiences understand how to watch.

The ramifications of putting cops at the center of the story is starkest on procedurals. Every week, these series churn through crimes to solve; new victims and suspects arrive, and every week they leave again when their problem has been solved and order restored. The characters who stay are cops. In the almost unimaginable deluge of American crime TV, the characters whose names we know and whose lives we value are cops. The communities they police are disposable, and at the end of each episode, they’re promptly disposed of.

Cop shows, regardless of whether they’re procedurals, also diminish the threat and shock of actual police violence. Their ubiquity makes it too easy for some audiences to ignore how TV’s police-centric worldview has calcified. In 2018, after the much-loved cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine was canceled by FOX and revived by NBC, I wrote a paean to the show and I remember academic and writer Steven Thrasher pushing back on Twitter. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine is an even more effective form of social control than Dragnet,” Thrasher wrote about its cuddly, harmless group of silly cops, “But I seen so many of y’all on here—many of you Black Lives Matter support[er]s & social critics!—unreflectively singing Brooklyn’s renewal.” At the time I bristled, but he was right. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is fun, but its silliness doesn’t change the way it prioritizes police perspectives over anyone else’s. If anything, the show’s lightness makes it an even more effective way to generate empathy for the police, who come across as sweet, thoughtful people just trying their best. It sanitizes the police.

Police procedurals have become so much a part of American culture that when Donald Trump tweets “LAW & ORDER” as a call for even more police control, his followers will recognize what he means, and they will also, of course, recognize the name of a TV show about cops. It’s not surprising that as New York City mayor de Blasio defended the actions of police officers who drove cruisers into a crowd of protestors on Saturday night, cable TV was in the middle of a 21-hour marathon of Chicago PD. No matter when de Blasio spoke, on Saturday or any other day of the week, there would almost certainly have been a police procedural playing somewhere else on TV. “If those protestors had just gotten out of the way,” de Blasio said, “we would not be talking about this situation.” It was a callous, heartless thing to say, but the underlying message of de Blasio’s words was uncannily supported and echoed by every fictional cop narrative on TV that night, and every night. It’s a shame if protestors got hurt, but they really should have known better.