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Cops on the small screen
written by Hillary Pasternak

The public loves a good anti-hero. But the thing about anti-heroes is that, in the end, they’re still heroes. They break a few rules, bust a few heads, but it’s all done to save the day. They buck the system in service of the system, and we’re okay with that. We, the aforementioned public, are served by the system, are we not? In return for these moral gymnastics, anti-heroic characters earn our respect and esteem. But let’s say that a fictional character that we idolize has a real-world counterpart. Would they deserve our praise as well?

One of the easiest places to find a good anti-hero these days is in the police procedurals that populate North American primetime. Police procedurals have been guaranteed hits since the early days of television, but today there are more than ever. Crime dramas have become cozy comfort food, syndicated and frequently marathoned in cable TV’s outlands. These officers on the small screen are reliable, even when they tend toward the unorthodox. They are the Praetorian Guard of the establishment, morally upright, armed only for our safety. Corruption within the rank and file, as well as the institution, can be an interesting plot point. But with the right officers on hand to blow a whistle, it’s never a problem for long. We can trust the police on television. And because television, much like the internet, never lies to us, we can trust that it is the real thing.

It’s routinely revealed to the public that police officers and the higher-ups who direct their activities are often somewhat less than well-intentioned out here in reality. Montreal, a city unafraid to send a riot squad to a university campus, is a fantastic place to be reminded of that fact.

This isn’t to say that all police officers are inherently evil and should not be trusted. That’s patently ridiculous. Cops are people. People are good and bad. But most of the images of law enforcement that enter our homes every night are not good and bad. Even the darkest, the grittiest of precinct-set morality plays often centre on a knight whose armour retains a hint of shine beneath the grime and tarnish. Recent years have given us cable series such as The Shield and The Wire, which depict their badge-wielding protagonists as fundamentally biased creatures, who don’t always have public interest at heart in their work. But beloved as these series are within certain circles, they’re the type of knotty, intellectual drama that can only rarely catch fire in the public imagination.

Even when they do, they have to deal with the same problem as any network potboiler. The police procedural can try to examine the deeper moral implications of its characters’ actions. But to stay on air, it has to deliver on a visceral level. It has to entertain: car chases, aviator sunglasses, shootouts, flashy interrogation techniques. Who cares if they’re technically not allowed to hold that person for questioning? Keep them there! We want to hear more creatively-worded threats! To get itself syndicated, a show needs to have an element of cool. And really, who can argue with cool?

The noble cop is a North American archetype with a stunning level of staying power; for example, the long-running, frighteningly durable CSI and Law & Order franchises have dominated the small screen for the past couple of decades. Not to mention the dozens of smaller dramas and procedurals that have come and gone in the surrounding slots. Even left-fielders like the reality show COPS (which existed before many of us did and will likely die long after we’re gone) place themselves firmly in the camp of the law enforcement officers they follow. They’re the ones keeping us ‘normal’ folks safe from the ‘wackos.’ And also the people who smoke weed.

Most meat-and-potatoes crime dramas, like a lot of popular entertainment, are bedtime stories. Narratives and bedtime stories have their place, but when these narratives are all we hear day in and day out, they teach us to live in a world that doesn’t exist.