Real-life cops may be the objects of increasing, righteous public skepticism, but I’ll say it: Cops is one of the greatest shows on TV right now. Yes, the show that most people last found watchable at the same age at which they were beginning to wonder about the authenticity of professional wrestling. The show that has had the same theme song since its premiere 27 (27!) years ago. The show that has transferred like bacteria from FOX to Spike, undergoing a weird mitosis to produce Cops: Reloaded on Country Music Television, of all channels.
The show was seemingly created with a simple appeal in mind: Here are the brave men and women who keep us safe. There are the bad guys. Now watch your tax dollars at work as Group A chases after and tackles Group B. This base appeal is apparently so self-evident so as to warrant what seems to be the most minimal editing of any show on TV. Officer drives along, cameraman sits shotgun. Look at that, someone’s taillight is out—let’s see what happens. I realize that capital-E Editing happens in a big way by the mere decision of what makes it into an episode—and I can only assume the police departments themselves have some pull in those decisions—but according to producers, one of the reasons a sequence might not make it to air is because someone didn’t sign a waiver and face-blurring takes too long, which gives a whiff of their priorities.
There is no narrator, there is no mood music. There are not enough cameras to provide dramatic cuts, and it’s often hard to even tell what is going on (subtitles are an absolute must). It’s easy for these details (or their lack, I suppose) to go unnoticed, but watch something thematically comparable like National Geographic’s Alaska State Troopers (or Southern Justice, or Rocky Mountain Law, or whichever new region-themed law enforcement program the network has on the air by the time you read this) and witness how hyper-edited their supposed reality seems: drums kick in as the camera zooms dramatically in on an officer’s face, signaling an imminent ad break, only for us to come back and see the same zoom sequence with the same drum accent. The narrator catches us up on all the details that may have slipped our feeble minds during the bombardment of ads for Coors Light and various pharmaceuticals. The suspect is mic’d with suspicious perfection. And then the most immersion-breaking detail, wherein a trooper—because this is Alaska—looks out across a harsh and ostensibly untraversable landscape, wondering if he’ll be able to find the suspect who has fled, only for us to then get like four different camera perspectives on said landscape. Maybe the cameramen just have better boots.
Cops’ lack of dressing is the classic show-don’t-tell dictum in action. Even the title editorializes as little as possible, and makes the name of the Canadian equivalent—To Serve and Protect—seem wearily verbose. But what makes this approach especially magical is that our social climate—one in which we’re deploying cameras now to watch the officers just as much as the suspects—is different than it was at the show’s inception, creating a sort of post-modern blurring of the lines that divide good guys and bad guys.
An at-home exercise: Turn on Spike and wait for an episode of Cops to come on. As you watch, consider the possibility that the suspect—or bystander or victim—might be the protagonist of this story, and not our blue-clad hero. Perhaps the officer is just a catalyst. Perhaps he is the antagonist. Most likely, the roles are not so easily assigned. At the very least, it doesn’t take much to shake the narrative that the cops are the heroes and the civilians are the ne’er-do-wells. Maybe when the show first aired in 1989 a viewer could join the cop in his glee for arresting a nineteen year-old with half a joint in his car, but in 2016 that’s not so easy. It’s hard not to sympathize with the criminal when the officer starts his canned anti-drug lecture, clearly trying to make his best performance for the camera, while the criminal is sitting awkwardly so as not to crush his cuffed wrists, often some part of his face bloodied. After one sting where a man in a ratty tropical shirt sold crack to a pair of undercover cops, the conversation went like this:
“You got a drug problem?” the arresting officer asks. The man is in the back of the van, his floral shirt hanging limp off his small frame.
“Yeah,” he says, and he looks like he might cry.
The scene seems poised for poignancy, for sympathy on the part of the arresting officer for this man who is so genuinely sick that he has ended up in police custody. But that’s not what happens. The narrative here turns again: “Well you’re going to jail today,” the officer says. “You’re an enabler. You’re hurting people.” Then he slams the door. Outside the van, he turns to the undercover officer and says, “That’s what you get when you mix drug use and stupidity.”
This is one of the more coherent debriefings from the officers. On the same episode, the drug sting yields another arrest, and while the arresting officer walks the suspect to the car, he says, “Put two and two together and what does that make?” “I don’t know,” the suspect says wearily. “Well for you it makes three today,” the officer finishes. I rewound that section to be sure I didn’t miss anything so I could make sense of what the hell the officer says. Is this supposed to be this guy’s third strike? Is it a way of calling the suspect stupid, for not putting two and two together? If so, doesn’t the officer spoil the insult by supplying the answer?
By far the most interesting sequences on Cops are the seemingly quotidian interactions, like officers preciously bumbling through pronouns when dealing with trans sex workers (this happens quite a bit). This is why the original is better than its offspring, Cops: Reloaded, which shows the producers’ hand a little bit by being an ostensible highlight reel of sorts, giving us what are supposed to be Cops’ most exciting moments, which basically means that the suspect flees custody every time. This stops being interesting pretty quickly.
I recall more vividly the almost droll moments that must’ve only barely made it into the show: In one sequence, a man flees from his car and jumps into a canal, only to immediately turn around and report to the officer on the shore that he’s drowning. The cop doesn’t want to get wet and shouts “SWIM TO ME” somewhere around four hundred times. Thus begins a slow motion chase, where the suspect, who can barely keep his own head above the water, is trying very hard not to swim to the officer, but instead to the other side of a chainlink fence, and the officer (with cameraman ever in tow) stumbles and falls while navigating the densely vegetated shoreline, trying to get to where the man will arrive on shore. The entire sequence is sluggish, ending with the officer dragging the man out of the water and the man unsure whether or not he is relieved to be on dry land. It’s clear on both their faces that they’ve just been through something together.
There are few happy endings on Cops. Most of the officers are in some state of convincing themselves that sending someone—usually poor, often black—to jail for drug possession is a good thing, whether they see it as “cleaning up the streets” of their beat or are entertaining a genuine belief that this arrest will somehow be the first step toward the path of recovery for the suspect (the fact that Spike intersperses its Cops marathons with sporadic episodes of Jail—the content of which I’m sure you can guess—severely undercuts this prospect). Cops is a sad show. And maybe my viewing of it is a form of complicity in the deeply flawed system on which the show relies. But I like to think that it’s easier now than ever to watch the show and cheer for the humanity of its characters, to understand them as real against a backdrop of millions of scripted reality shows, to feel more sympathy than bloodlust for the people on both sides.