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A History of Violence: Why I Loved Cop Shows, and Why They Must Change

TV critic Alan Sepinwall breaks down the medium’s longtime love affair with police work, and grapples with how the industry can move forward

Photo Illustration by Joe Rodriguez. Photos in Illustration by: Erica Parise/NBCU; Prashant Gupta/FX; Virginia Sherwood/NBC; FX Networks;CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images; Bettmann Archive/Getty Images; Silver Screen Collection; Getty Images

I broke into television criticism because of my love for a show about a racist, sexist, alcoholic cop who used the N-word and beat confessions out of suspects. I’ve been thinking about that a lot over the past few months.

Related: 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time

In the fall of 1993, the hottest show on TV was ABC’s NYPD Blue. It had been promoted as the first truly adult drama in the history of the medium, with words that had never been said and body parts that had never been shown on network television before. The most shocking part of the series, at least as first, was Detective Andy Sipowicz (played by the great Dennis Franz), a fat, drunk, violent, foulmouthed bigot. In any earlier era, Sipowicz would have been a cautionary tale at best, but more likely a pure villain. Instead, he quickly became the show’s hero, and one of America’s. Viewers loved him. George Costanza and Homer Simpson wished they could be him. The Washington Post called him a “six-pack sex symbol.” I revered him so much that I began recapping every episode of the show, recording every Sipowitticism, and celebrating every time he got rough with a skell in the pokey room. (Each recap had a Line of the Week at the end; one was Andy telling a suspect, “I’m gonna get a migraine tonight because I didn’t beat you.” An inspiring moment, no?)

I’ve been thinking nearly as much about an afternoon spent reporting on a much less famous cop drama, albeit one from Sipowicz’s creators. In the fall of 1997, CBS premiered Brooklyn South, from the NYPD Blue team of Stephen Bochco and David Milch. Designed as a uniformed counterpart to the plainclothes-detective work of NYPD, it lacked the earlier show’s vivid characters, and lasted only a season. What it had, though, was the bad timing to debut with a storyline about a black man dying in police custody, only a few weeks after a quartet of real-life Brooklyn patrol cops brutally beat and sodomized security guard Abner Louima. The Brooklyn story had been written long before the attack on Louima, and the details were different — the show’s suspect had just murdered multiple cops and civilians in cold blood, and bled out from wounds suffered in the ensuing shootout — but the overlap was too big to ignore.

Dennis Franz (left) as Andy Sipowicz on ‘NYPD Blue.’ (Photo: Screengrab/ABC)

So when I shadowed a day of location filming in New York City, I of course asked the cast and crew for comment on Louima, alongside boilerplate questions about being a first-year series, their commitment to verisimilitude, etc. They were prepared for this, and their answers tended to cover three talking points: 1) the violence committed against Louima was horrific; 2) the officers involved had betrayed not only their oaths, but their upstanding fellow officers whose reputations would be stained by association; and 3) they worried that the show would suffer its own stain as a result. Bill Clark, the series’ technical advisor and a real-life NYPD legend who helped catch Son of Sam, summed it up by first acknowledging, “My initial thought was disbelief — what a horrible crime it was. To me, policemen are something special, and that shook me up.” Then he shifted into concern for the reputation of his new TV project, adding, “After it hit me, and I realized it was Brooklyn, I thought, ‘Why not the Bronx?’”

Clark and the Brooklyn South cast members weren’t the only ones framing the crimes committed by these cops as the actions of a few bad elements in an otherwise noble system. Most of my questions on the subject that day began with some version of, “Isn’t it terrible that this attack might make people think less of all the good guys who wear a badge?”

That is how a lifetime of watching cop shows had trained me to think. And I obviously wasn’t alone.

Since video footage of George Floyd’s killing by members of the Minneapolis PD went viral, there’s been a very public reckoning not only with American policing, but with fictionalized depictions of American policing. The deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, and the many clips that followed of police officers assaulting peaceful protesters, have gone a long way toward undoing the conditioning of decades of televised stories of heroic cops. That it took a string of horrifying and ubiquitously filmed incidents to turn public sentiment is a testament to how thoroughly television had burnished the image of law enforcement officers as unassailable do-gooders.

Cowboys dominated TV in the Fifties and early Sixties. Many of them just happened to have tin stars affixed to their chests, the better to provide some legal framework for when they slapped leather and gunned down that week’s bad guy. Westerns were eventually put out to pasture, but the idea of lawmen cleaning up their communities by any means necessary remained pervasive. Other professions have fallen in and out of fictional fashion — spies were big for a while, then private detectives, then doctors — but cops are so enduring that characters from other genres often get squeezed into police procedurals when no one can think of a better idea for livening things up. (Not long ago, the Fox network simultaneously had Ichabod Crane, Frankenstein’s monster, and Lucifer helping out local law enforcement in different series.)

Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens in ‘Justified.’ (Photo: Screengrab/FX Networks)

From Marshal Matt Dillon (Gunsmoke) to Marshal Raylan Givens (Justified), Sgt. Joe Friday (Dragnet) to Detective Vic Mackey (The Shield), television’s endless flood of cops has accomplished two things. Early on, it presented police officers as infallible heroes who are professionally and temperamentally equipped to handle any delicate situation. Then eventually, it began depicting less admirable cop behavior, but in ways that tended to explain it — and, after a while, to normalize it. These fictional stories have rewired many of us to assume cops are always acting in good faith, and to ignore or wave away those moments when they’re clearly not.

For the most part, cops on TV are depicted as unerring. Some of this is just the nature of the storytelling beast: Each episode (especially in the early days, when serialization was a dirty word for network executives) is meant to introduce a problem and solve it before the closing credits roll. But the most influential cop show of them all, Dragnet — featuring Jack Webb as the stentorian, no-nonsense Friday — was essentially made in a creative partnership with the LAPD, and was considered a valuable propaganda tool by officials of that department. Cops were to be valorized, their judgment unquestioned. This could be taken to such extremes in later series — say, Lt. Columbo immediately honing in on the murderer within moments of meeting him or her — that eventually, the messaging may have worked a little too well, even for law enforcement’s purposes. Prosecutors began complaining of a “CSI effect,” where jurors allegedly refused to convict with anything less than the mountain of evidence Gil Grissom and friends assembled thrice-weekly on CBS’ wildly popular crime franchise.

If Dragnet was designed in part to whitewash the actions of the real LAPD, its spiritual opposite from that era accomplished something similar, albeit for different reasons. Arguably the most admirable main character TV has ever seen is Andy Taylor from The Andy Griffith Show: a gentle, wise, friendly, superhumanly relaxed man who also happened to be sheriff of a small North Carolina town in the days of Jim Crow. Realizing that segregation would be too complicated and unpleasant a topic for a lighthearted fable of a series, Griffith and the show’s producers chose to sidestep the problem altogether. You might occasionally see a person of color as a background extra in the Mayberry town square, but they were almost never granted speaking parts, given all the questions that might be raised at a moment when other Southern sheriffs were turning dogs and firehoses on black citizens. The evening news provided one harsh image, and then primetime soothed us into thinking that all was well between everyday Americans and the armed men charged with protecting everyone equally, at least in theory, under the law. (Andy’s chief deputy, Barney Fife, is a bumbler who can’t be trusted to keep a bullet in his service weapon and doesn’t know what the Emancipation Proclamation was, but he is presented as a harmless and ultimately well-meaning goof. Brilliant as Don Knotts was in the role, it’s not hard to envision the real Barney Fifes of the day being far more malevolent.)

It wasn’t just that Dragnet and its imitators were training viewers to accept the judgment of police and prosecutors(*) in almost any situation, but that, as the narrator of Law & Order intoned at the start of each episode, “These are their stories.” We see the vast majority of these cases through the eyes of the men and women trying to provide justice. Victims and the falsely accused are usually afterthoughts, if dramatized at all, whereas we get unlimited time to spend with the cops, whom we grow to understand, like, and respect. Their goals, their personal problems, their families are the ones we are asked to care about, while everyone else is an abstraction(**).

(*) One of the most iconic characters of TV’s black-and-white era was defense attorney Perry Mason, who was forever proving that the LAPD was arresting the wrong people. Mason’s adventures could be seen as a dramatic counterbalance to Dragnet and company, but that perspective fell out of favor over time. The few relatively recent long-running series about lawyers who primarily handle criminal defense, like The Practice or How to Get Away with Murder, often revealed that seemingly innocent clients were in fact criminal masterminds who were subverting the justice system for their own ends. But Perry Mason is back — kind of (and in a series whose first episode featured a dirty cop stepping on a man’s neck in the process of murdering him) — so maybe the tide is set to turn on this kind of law show.  

(**) Ironically, there’s evidence that audiences want more stories about victims and/or the wrongly imprisoned. Beyond Perry Mason, Sixties television was also home to The Fugitive, about a doctor who goes on the run after being framed for his wife’s murder. The series finale, where Dr. Richard Kimble finally clears his name and catches the real killer, was for years the most watched episode of television ever made. Law & Order: SVU, meanwhile, has become the longest-running drama in TV history while putting a bit more effort into showing what sexual assault victims go through than most cop series — even if one of its primary means of doing that was to make heroine Olivia Benson herself a victim. (It also paints a wildly unrealistic portrait of how many victims actually gain closure via the justice system.)   

The inescapable police POV became an issue even as TV shows in the Eighties and Nineties began reexamining the hero mythology of their predecessors. Bochco and Milch’s Hill Street Blues depicted institutional rot at the core of its fictional city’s police department, and had a charismatic public defender, Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel), whose main function was to point out everything the cops were screwing up. (We were meant to like her, too, because she was the love interest of the sensitive, noble captain, Frank Furillo, played by Daniel J. Travanti.) François Truffaut once claimed that it’s impossible to make an antiwar film — that every cinematic treatment of the subject is inherently glorifying, and therefore winds up being pro-war. Hill Street Blues presented that argument in televised form: There were so many police characters, played by such a deep bench of terrific character actors, that viewers couldn’t help taking their sides, even when the cops messed up.

Tony Perez as Mike Perez in ‘Hill Street Blues.’

There’s a story arc from Hill Street‘s middle seasons involving Officer Mike Perez (played by Tony Perez), a glorified extra but someone familiar to any longtime viewer. Responding to a prowler call that turns out to be bogus(*), Perez sees a figure hiding behind a bed holding what looks like a gun, and opens fire, killing his would-be attacker. Then he finds out it’s just a young African American boy who was holding a toy pistol to feel safe while his impoverished mother (a young Alfre Woodard) was out at a job interview. The show acknowledges the saintly mother’s grief, as well as the absolute mess that department brass makes of the situation in a clumsy attempt to divert public outrage. Mostly, though, the story is a tragedy about poor Mike Perez, a nice guy tormented by an innocent mistake that any cop could have made. He has a breakdown, spends time in a mental hospital, and, after returning to work, stages a tenement fire so he can redeem himself by rescuing the family of squatters inside. Even that crime, while indefensible and bringing Perez’s police career to an ugly end, is presented lamentably — as a way to demonstrate the toll the job can take on good men if they’re not lucky or careful enough.

(*) There’s reference to a woman who calls 911 to exaggerate minor nuisances, which, like everything else about the story, feels terribly relevant to so much of what’s happening today.

Seventies and Eighties cop shows like Starsky & Hutch, Miami Vice, and Hunter had become more comfortable with showing detectives being violent with suspects, and bending, if not outright breaking, civil rights laws, in a manner meant to be celebrated. With NYPD Blue‘s Sipowicz, Bochco and Milch would push the outer edge of the envelope not just in terms of language and nudity (yes, we saw his ass once in the shower), but in terms of what behavior the audience would first accept, then cheer. Andy, for all his abundant flaws, was allowed an inner life that viewers never got from the perps he tuned up, and even his retrograde attitudes about race were presented with very delicate context. The one time he was heard using the N-word, for instance, he was volleying it back at a black community activist who had just thrown it at him. He was a bigot and a thug, but he was our bigot and thug. (Or, at least, he was for the show’s presumed white audience. Minority viewers, who have been much less surprised by the viral footage of the past few months, were likely not as charmed by Sipowicz and his imitators.)

Michael Chiklis as Vic Mackey in ‘The Shield.’ (Photo: Screengrab/FX)

The (white) public’s embrace of Sipowicz’s antiheroic qualities paved the way for shows with outright villains as main characters, like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. But he also made possible series after series about cops who colored farther and farther outside the lines, and occasionally just melted crayons over the whole page. Two of this century’s best dramas were FX shows about renegade cops: The Shield and Justified. The former was the more extreme of the two: The Shield pilot ends with its corrupt lead detective, Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey, murdering an undercover officer who’d been assigned to investigate him. (A Shield fan wiki page, List of crimes by Vic Mackey, has a dozen additional entries under “Murder or accessory” before you get to the more mild categories like “Assault/torture,” “Theft,” and “Blackmail.”) Modern-day Justified cowboy Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), in comparison, is about as clear-cut a good guy as you’re likely to find in the world of prestige cable drama — which means he spent a lot of time maneuvering criminals into circumstances where he’d be legally allowed to kill them. They are all presented as bad hombres whom the world is better off without, but Raylan is nonetheless electing himself to play judge, jury, and executioner on a regular basis.

I got such a rush from both of those shows, and found any excuse possible to write about them. Both feel very different now than they did at the time, though. Only a couple of weeks after the Minneapolis cops killed George Floyd, I was set to moderate a virtual reunion of the Justified cast and crew for the ATX Television Festival. Then many people involved in the event appeared to recognize that celebrating a show with that title, with a hero who considers himself above the law and finds any excuse he can to use his badge to administer lethal force to those he feels deserves it, would be in poor taste. The reunion was canceled.

The Shield was more candid about who and what Vic Mackey was(*) from the start, but the show also frequently put him in a position to play hero of last resort — the guy the clean cops turned to when the more honest approach simply wouldn’t work. This was Shield creator Shawn Ryan’s way of examining the enormous trust we place in law enforcement, and how that trust can so easily create bogeymen like Vic. But the protagonist problem applies just as well to shows about villains as it does to ones about heroes and antiheroes: We form attachments to the characters with whom we spend the most time, and we come to understand them and even root for them in ways we might not like, and that the creators may not have intended. (See also the “Skyler White is the true villain of Breaking Bad” truthers.) Like Jack Bauer from 24, Vic periodically found himself in situations where innocent people would die if he didn’t take extralegal measures to avert violence. Do that enough times, and it doesn’t matter how clearly and repeatedly you lay out his abundant sins; he’s the guy people are going to support, regardless of how much moral weight should be on the side of his opponents.

(*) The series ended in 2008 with Vic escaping legal punishment for all his crimes, but forced to work a humiliating desk job with ICE for years on end. It’s not hard at all to imagine Vic Mackey in 2020 as an ICE superstar, given what that agency has turned out to be.

And if there’s one thing hero and antihero cop shows have in common, it’s an extraordinary degree of skepticism toward “the rat squad” — a.k.a. the Internal Affairs detectives who claim to be searching for crooked cops, but on TV mainly seem to be opportunists making it harder for the honest ones to do their jobs. If we’re not meant to trust those who watch the watchmen, then we’re not meant to cast too harsh an eye on the people making traffic stops, drug busts, and routine arrests.

Even when series look at police abuses as an institutional problem rather than a collection of bad apples spoiling the whole bunch, they can only go so far. The Wire was rightly hailed for taking a broad view of the many failures of the War on Drugs and how it has wreaked havoc in minority communities. (More than any other police-adjacent series, the show in time would give equal weight to the cops, the criminals they chased, the politicians and media members who failed to improve things, and the kids and other innocent civilians caught in the War’s remorseless wake.) Nor was it willfully oblivious to the notion that seemingly admirable cops casually violate the law when they feel like it, as in an early moment where the noble Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) joins in on a savage beatdown of a suspect, or when brilliant investigator Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) participates in a massive fraud to help fund one of his investigations.

Jim True-Frost as the bumbling Prez in ‘The Wire.’ (Photo: HBO)

But even The Wire had its limits when it came to telling everyone’s story. In the first season, inept, overconfident nepotism beneficiary Detective Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), while drunk, responds to the faintest hint of disrespect from teenager Kevin Johnston (Jimmie Jelani Manners) by pistol-whipping the kid so badly, he blinds him in one eye. The show pauses to acknowledge that Kevin’s life has been irrevocably altered, but then he exits stage left, while Prez is granted a long and bumpy redemption arc. (After finding his niche as Lester’s apprentice, Prez fatally shoots a black undercover cop whom he mistakes for a suspect; while we also don’t know much about this victim, we follow Prez as he tries to atone for past sins in his new career as a nurturing middle school math teacher.) Prez and Perez are separated by a single letter. The Wire story arc was more prominent and more nuanced than the Hill Street Blues one, but in the end, the medium’s sympathies inevitably tilt towards those groups whose stories are told most.

Police dramas have long been my favorite genre of TV storytelling. I was the weird adolescent who videotaped Hill Street Blues reruns when they aired overnight on WPIX in New York; who began recapping NYPD Blue in part because there weren’t a lot of people in my sophomore year of college I could talk with about it; who can recite from memory all the original partner pairings from Homicide: Life on the Street. And right now, revisiting any of them makes me feel complicit. I had a queasy feeling in my stomach as I watched those Hill Street episodes to refresh my memory on the Mike Perez story. I knew going in that some aspects of one of TV’s most groundbreaking and emulated dramas wouldn’t have aged well (the retrograde sexism of many of the characters, a snickering sense of gallows humor), but the show was also much more unabashedly pro-cop than the agnostic message I recalled from watching it in high school. I think of all the Sipowicz head-smacks, all the Raylan Givens quips and quick-draws that I once applauded, and now cringe at the clichéd notion of the cop who plays by his own rules.

I may be an extreme case in both my past devotion to the form and my current discomfort, but I doubt it. There’s a reason cop stories have been so prominent for so long on the small screen, just as there’s a reason so many people seemed so flummoxed by the vision of real-life American policing that has taken shape during all of the Black Lives Matter protests this year. Surely, we kept saying, these cops must be the exception to the norm, and then these cops also have to be the exception, and these cops and these cops, until the cops whom we thought of as the norm — your straight arrows like Andy Taylor, Joe Friday, and Frank Furillo — start to seem like they are the real exception.

Cop stories have been television’s most renewable resource practically since there was television. But does the bottomless appetite for those stories still exist in a world where the phrase “All cops are bastards” has entered the mainstream? Some current shows seem relatively well-equipped to tell stories in this uncertain new reality, like SVU or CBS’ SWAT remake, which, under the guidance of creators Aaron Rahsaan Thomas and The Shield‘s Shawn Ryan, has already touched on the increasingly fragile relationship between cops and the communities they are sworn to protect. Others seem woefully ill-suited to deal with what’s happening. The NBC sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been one of my entertainment oases for years, and I’m not sure that show — whose lead(*), Andy Samberg‘s Jake Peralta, is an arrested-development case who got into policing because he loved Die Hard, and gets off on the fun-and-games aspect of the job — can stay true to its progressive spirit, grapple with the situation on the ground for cops in New York and elsewhere, and still manage to be funny. If it can, it would be an extraordinary achievement, but it’s also entirely possible that the series’ silly escapism will now seem, like that scrapped Justified panel, a relic of another time that seems wholly inappropriate in this one.

BROOKLYN NINE-NINE -- "Ransom" Episode 712 -- Pictured: (l-r) Andy Samberg as Jake Peralta, Andre Braugher as Ray Holt -- (Photo by: Jordin Althaus/NBC)

Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher in ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine.’ (Photo: Jordin Althaus/NBC)

(*) It’s also worth noting that, with Andre Braugher’s Captain Holt, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one of countless police shows to cast its most prominent actor of color as an authority figure, rather than a cop out working the streets and interacting more directly with the public. In fairness, Brooklyn also has one of the more inclusive casts of any network police show ever, but Braugher’s time as Homicide master interrogator Frank Pembleton still feels like a relative anomaly: a cop show whose dominant face was a nonwhite one. TV has gotten a bit better at this in recent years — Shemar Moore is the star of SWAT, for instance — but it’s not a coincidence that the genre has been typified by white male stars for so long. Even adopting a police POV becomes different when the police officers in question are black, like a classic Homicide moment where Pembleton is pressured to cover up what seems to be a police-involved shooting and pin the blame on a black civilian, or when Holt and Terry Crews’ Sgt. Jeffords have different reactions to Jeffords being racially profiled by a white officer.

When people say, “Defund the police,” they’re not calling for an end to all policing in America, but for a rethinking of law enforcement and the criminal justice system, and for a significant reallocation of resources to other social programs that won’t look at every problem as a nail to be solved with a hammer. Similarly, nobody’s calling for an end to cop shows. (Of late, I’ve been rewatching Monk for the first time in years; each episode feels like falling into a warm, extremely well-sanitized bath.) Rather, we need television to cast a wider net. We need more dramas that aren’t about cops, and we need the shows that are set in and around law enforcement to take a broader and more skeptical view. A great example would be something like OWN’s wonderful David Makes Man (now streaming on HBO Max), about an impoverished but smart black teen torn between his gifted-school program and the drug dealers working in his housing project. Like the Wire season that made Prez a teacher, David is police-adjacent, but it’s primarily focused on the kids prone to end up on drug corners rather than on the officers looking to throw them in jail. Beyond that, we could definitely use more shows that demonstrate non-police solutions to problems that pop culture traditionally associates with cops. (Since remaking old TV shows is all the rage, maybe it’s time for a modern version of the Sixties George C. Scott drama East Side/West Side, about New York social workers.)

Related: What Defund the Police Actually Means

In the past, more nuanced, interrogative looks at cops and/or the courts haven’t done very well commercially. Every few years, someone tries to make a new show about the Innocence Project (a legal nonprofit devoted to exonerating people who have been wrongfully convicted), which either doesn’t get on the air or is quickly canceled due to low ratings. (Before The Good Wife and The Good Fight, Robert and Michelle King co-created one of these, 2006’s In Justice, starring Kyle MacLachlan.) But that was when so many viewers wanted the fantasy of cops always being right, even if some had to do wrong things along the way. Many of us had blinkers on. Now, we’re seeing the full picture, and the idea of going back to the unquestioning valorization of men with badges seems impossible.

Michael DeLuise and Franz on ‘NYPD Blue.’ (Photo: Screengrab/ABC)

In one of NYPD Blue‘s most emotional storylines, Sipowicz prepares his estranged son Andy Jr. (Michael DeLuise) to join the family business as a cop in Hackensack, NJ. Andy Jr. will die trying to stop an armed robbery, but only after his father offers him a series of unofficial lectures on the unique challenges of their chosen profession. In one, the elder Sipowicz shows his son a street corner where three young black men are harassing all the honest, hard-working people who pass by. (Andy, having become more enlightened with each passing season, notes that the would-be muggers’ potential victims are also black, insisting, “I’m not talking about color here.”)

He explains how a patrolman should clear this corner, first with a firm request for the guys to leave, then with a threat of jail time, and then with quick use of his nightstick if all else fails. As father and son walk away to call some uniformed officers to actually clear the corner, Andy concludes the lesson by telling Andy Jr., “This is a good job for people like us. We don’t have a lot of education, but we can read and write, and we’re honest. Don’t ever embarrass this job.”

It’s a lovely, simple sentiment, the kind that Andy would have been ill-equipped to deliver when we first met him as a hard-drinking, crotch-grabbing, foul-mouthed goon. Like a lot of how cops have been depicted on television since the Fifties, the entire scene is a wildly romanticized view of the work — a view that was so appealing for me and so many others to take in, because it made the world make sense. But the world doesn’t make sense, and for too long now, too many real-life Sipowiczes have been brazenly and unapologetically embarrassing what television has presented their job to be.

From Rolling Stone US