As I watch less and less network television because it's getting more generic and repetitive, I find myself asking, why so much cop shows?
Cop shows and stories are pretty much the genre default for movies, TV and a lot of comics. Studios, TV networks must feel they are drama's comfort food by now, a formula that's never failed them for more then 50 years. Policemen represent order, control the status quo, and the fictional cop hero represents the authority figure who's going to sort things out and make sense of the chaos to restore safety and a sense of security to life, despite more than enough news reports in real life about cops to the contrary. I suppose that with the world feeling scary and uncertain, people want reassurance in their pop culture, though I'm given the impression it's mostly older people who don't hang out much on the internet, judging by how popular cop shows have been keeping CBS the top-rated network in America for years now. It's starting to feel like a show can't get greenlit unless it's a cop show. AWAKE, the new high concept show starring Jason Isaacs as a cop living in two parallel realities, one where his wife is alive and one where his son is alive, feels like the cop bits were imposed on the concept when the hook should have been enough. The cop bits are boring, by-the-numbers and the least interesting part of the show, overshadowing the real theme of a man's grief interfering with his sense of reality with trite murder mysteries, pointless conspiracy arc and the obligatory plot where the hero's loved one is kidnapped. I don't think it's an accident that Robert Kirkman chose a cop to be the hero of THE WALKING DEAD instead of an civilian guy in order to explore the idea of how long a man who represents law and order can continue his role in a lawless world.
I don't have a problem with cop shows. I grew up watching them like just about everyone else. But the more I read scripts and watch shows, the more I see the joins and seams and the repetition. The other thing that gets me is not so much the clichés but the clichés that have always been wildly inaccurate and ridiculous became the norm for cop dramas.
I'm talking about the "cop on the edge", the "I'm going in", the "plays by his own rules" clichés. Any cop that tries that will either get killed or, if he's lucky, get thrown out of the force. Most of the time, even TV shows are getting wise to needing to be more accurate with rules and procedures cops have to stick to in order to reflect reality to some extent. Police departments in production-heavy cities like New York and Los Angeles now have film divisions that allow filmmakers and writers to ride along with cops for research in order to authentically portray how cops think and work. However, after forty years of clichés in movies and TV, now European and foreign storytellers have that fantasy of American Cops on the Edge without the irony or parody. It also still holds in countless non-superhero comics featuring cop heroes both in the US, Japan and Europe. And games. I tried to play MAX PAYNE 2: THE FALL OF MAX PAYNE yesterday – I say 'tried' because the camera system was horrible and made it almost impossible to aim and shoot – and noted that every single "cop on the edge" cliché was in the plot played straight. As a result, the hero's insistence on breaking the rules and going it alone without backup – and not wearing a bulletproof vest which is standard procedure for cops everywhere these days – make him the biggest fucking idiot to be caught with a badge and a gun ever. Just as well he kept getting killed in my game, because that reflected the reality of how someone who did what he did would end up.
I guess the Cop on the Edge archetype is a power fantasy that fans have on top of the standard cop fantasy. The odd thing here is that the Cop on the Edge is a essentially a vigilante who breaks enough laws to be branded a criminal or rogue rather than a proper cop. The trick is how a writer might find a way to write that character in a way that makes sense rather than a totally unbelievable fantasy. The last interesting attempt at this – and the last cop show I liked – was LIFE, whose hero was a cop framed for murder but since cleared and who has legally blackmailed the city into reinstating him as a cop so he can pursue his own vigilante agenda of finding the people who framed him. Judging from the majority of comics now coming out featuring cops, many writers aren't really bothered about authenticity and still indulging in the fantasy without any authenticity. The question is whether an audience is willing to settle for any old fantasy or if they want something that had some extra thought and effort put in. However, every writer should still make the effort rather than fall back on the lazy clichés. After all, any idiot can write lazy clichés.
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