Is this evolution, or devolution? Is it a natural progression as the world’s gotten smaller and more connected and geez don’t kids just grow up so fast these days? Or is it that our standards of decency and niceness are slipping, inexorably, into an abyss of profanity and moral decay (something about which the ancient Greeks worried about as much as we do)? Have we become more cynical, more world-weary? Is there more boobage and swearing on TV simply because it’s so hard to get our attention at all, let alone hang on to it for more than half an hour?
Has TV changed to keep up with us or to direct us? Nudity and Strong Language are more prevalent, but does this prevalence represent the entirety of the change, or just the surface layers of a deep abyss?
There are undoubtedly good things about the progress (or regress, if you’re of that mind) of television and cultural standards in general. Look at Star Trek (which I absolutely adore, please don’t flame me): its racial indifference was revolutionary for the mainstream at that time, but other than Comms Officer Uhura, women were rarely more than stewardesses. It’s several quantum leaps from James T Kirk’s short-skirted harem to Kara Thrace or even Arya Stark.
In the first of what I plan to make a series on the changes we’ve seen in sixty years of TV, I’m going to look at just a few examples of one of its constants, the Cop Show.
Crime itself has changed somewhat and we’re all better-informed about police and court procedures, but are the last decade’s cop shows really all that different from those of forty and more years ago?
When The Shield hit our screens in 2002, I was hooked and deeply so. Sergeant Vic Mackey, with his shaved head and pitbull body, teetered constantly on the edge of insane violence. Despite the fact that he dealt drugs, took bribes, cheated on his wife and murdered anyone (including other cops) who got in his way, Vic had a moral code of a sort.
He went into business with selected drug dealers as an earn, but he picked those less likely to turn Farmington into a war zone; he constantly played the black gangs against each other and did the same with the Mexicans, trying to maintain himself and his crew as the balance of power, the Crooked Blue Line between controlled chaos and outright mayhem.
His team of young guns grew up with him and followed him into the depths; Shane became immeasurably worse, a manically corrupt, resentful wreck, who wound up killing the Strike Team’s moral compass, Lem, out of fear of getting caught that he painted as loyalty.
Vic’s Strike Team weren’t the only players in The Farm; there was the relentless dirty politics played by his bosses, and of course the detective savant, Dutch. When Dutch got home after days in the interview room with a serial killer, alternately interrogating and being mentally tortured, and strangled his own cat to death on the doorstep, I knew things had changed in television cop-world.
The Wire, also beginning in 2002, has since found a permanent spot on the world’s hard drives and it changed not just the cop show, but drama itself. Telling the stories of predominantly black characters on both sides of the law as the War On Drugs lost funds and prestige to the War On Terror, it made the decaying city of Baltimore a central player, in a way Hill Street Blues’ un-named metropolis had come close to decades before.
The Wire broke a lot of rules, not just for cop shows, but for all drama:
Very few of the players developed into anything better than they were at the start, if indeed they survived. Principles were cast aside for career, addictions barely-controlled came back to ruin lives, a chance to be better was glimpsed and let slip.
One of the scariest yet most likeable characters ever written, Omar Little, was openly gay but carried none of the trademark “gay” markers that just about every homosexual TV character has ever worn; he was a bad, BAD motherfucker who just happened to be gay.
Central characters were killed; several of them carried the plot over more than one season, yet the story was all and their trajectory could lead them nowhere but death, be it to close the season or not; the story carried on without them.
The heart of The Wire and The Shield though, what made them work (as much as their sheer quality) was their truth: decay, misery and pointlessness. Every time a drug king-pin was captured or killed, another popped up in his place; indeed at the end of a couple of series of The Wire, you could see, as murder and jail created job vacancies, new dealers moving in and junior players gaining promotion.
Police work was an endless grind of tail-chasing, barely making a difference, watching innocents die, playing the game, waiting for the next bad guy to roll off the conveyor belt and always trying to keep the bosses happy with good stats.
Cops are supposed to solve the crime, catch the crook, make everything better; this is what we’re told by the Cluedo-like simplicities of the Law & Order and CSI franchises. But the quality cop shows, the ones that extend us beyond Crime-Suspects-Red Herring-Important Lead-Bingo, Crime Solved?
They show us the reality, the dirt, the hopelessness; you get the bad guy but not for even a hundredth of the bad things he’s done. To catch him takes more than time and effort, it takes a big part of your being and you’re constantly at risk of becoming what you behold. And once you put him in a cell or in the ground, there’s a hundred more waiting to take his place and the game starts again.
To return to my opening: surely it wasn’t always like this? I remember cop shows from my childhood such as Kojak and Hawaii Five-0 and even, way back, old episodes of Dragnet. They seemed simpler, less confronting, less dark. They had answers, solutions, a feeling that good guys could win.
So I went sniffing around the internet and found a few old cop shows that people had left lying around and you know what I found?
It’s not that different. Sure, now everyone swears and gunshot wounds are more realistic and fight scenes are better-choreographed and rape is called rape and crimes are portrayed and described in sickening detail.
Police procedures have come a long way from “Jerry, look up all the Chinese restaurants in the phone book and interview the waitresses”. But the dirt, the grime, the nasty? It was always there, just not as graphic.
Dragnet we all know, even if we’ve never seen an episode; the short back and sides gruffness of Sergeant Joe Friday and his clipped voice-overs, the sweaty crooks, the “just the facts, ma’am” (which, just as “Play it again, Sam” was never said in Casablanca, Friday never said).
I watched bits and pieces expecting CSI without the body fluids, a straight-laced no-nonsense police force confronting evil doers and grinding them down with the sheer weight of their rectitude, letting the rest of us sleep easy in a Norman Rockwell painting.
And I was mostly wrong.
Dragnet was created by Jack Webb, a radio actor who spent a lot of time with the LAPD getting stories and learning procedures. The LAPD loved him because his show was good for their deservedly bad image.
(In case you didn’t already know, the character of Sgt Jack Vincennes in James Ellroy’s LA Confidential was loosely based on Webb. Of course, being Ellroy, the character was then filled with booze and pills, coated with a few layers of corruption and self-hatred then put on Fast-Forward until Vincennes was a corrupt, barely likeable lounge lizard whose only shot at redemption was, you guessed it, death).
Webb’s radio and later TV shows used actual LAPD cases, from commission to conviction. Many were your basic stick-ups or bar-room murders, but many more were “domestic” violence and murder, or chilling sex crimes.
Watching bits and pieces of rape and/or murder investigations on Dragnet I felt like sending a few links to those who think society has broken down since the internet and video games and reality TV and everything was nice and peaceful a generation or two ago.
I watched one episode about three kids from ten years old to eighteen months left alone by their mother and her current boyfriend and Friday’s efforts to find her. Sure it was a bit sanitised by today’s standards, but it showed that people from all walks of life (“the street was mansion after mansion, worth fifty thousand and more”) can be neglectful, selfish, addicted, or just plain bad.
Humanity has always vomited up more than its fair share of violent predators. Child-killers, be they parents or roving monsters, have always been around. There have always been men who hate and prey on women and there have always been thieves, violent drunks, thrill-killers and plain old psychopaths.
Dragnet couldn’t get swear words or explicit sexual references through the censors, but pushed as far as it could to show the reality of The City to people who’d never been near its underbelly. Just like The Shield and The Wire, Dragnet trawled the mean streets and shone a torch down the alleys, letting us glimpse for a while the creatures that feed off each other in the dark.
The crucial difference between the cops of fifty years ago and the past couple of decades is huge though.
Joe Friday never showed any weakness, never showed emotion, not even anger. He was straight down the line, solve the case, fix what you can and move on.
You never saw Friday get drunk and fight with his partner or cheat on his wife or break the rules the way Mackey and McNulty did. You never saw more than a glimpse of The Night.
Joe Friday knew it was there and he knew there was little he could do about it. Like those who came after him, he just got on with the job and cleaned up where he could.
But the difference between Friday and Mackey and Wagenbach and McNulty is as stark as it is simple: no matter how much time Joe spent in the night, he was only ever visiting, whereas Vic and Dutch and Jimmy knew of nowhere else to live.
Today’s cops go all the way into the night because it’s their home. The further down the river they go in search of monsters, though, the closer they get to their own Heart Of Darkness.