Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Why are “police procedurals” dominating the TV schedules?

It is hard to turn on the TV without finding a cop show, especially those involving forensic science. Now at one level this can be explained just by the TV networks following successful formulas, but why are they so popular?

Popular entertainment does need to reflect the Zeitgeist, and one of the advantages of the Cop show is that it inevitably deals with social issues. They thus reflect changing social attitudes to crime, and to authority.

By far the best police procedural is “the Shield”, (series one rerunning currently on Hallmark channel). Technically it is far superior to its rivals, filmed using the American traditions of “Direct Cinema”, giving it an edgy and authentic feel. It has also attracted top stars, with both Glenn Close and Forest Whittaker playing central characters.

But the most interesting aspect of the Shield is that it inhabits the morally ambiguous post 9/11 world of American society. Detective Vic Mackey leads a group of corrupt detectives who take bribes, sell drugs, and even murder people. However, they are also effective police officers, and their corruption (and the efforts of the Police Department to control them) runs as a long story arc through the series, in front of which plays the day to day routine police work. In season 4, when Glenn Close was the captain, she tried to impose zero tolerance policing as part of a war on organised crime, and the series suggested that routine police work actually requires the lubrication of cooperation with organised crime.

Series 5 saw Forest Whittaker playing an Internal Affairs Captain trying to root out the corruption, but he was undermined by the lack of will of the political establishment. His character was also morally compromised, as he blackmailed, manipulated and bullied police officers and their families.

The most successful Police procedural franchise is CSI, both in its superior Las Vegas from, and the more formulaic and inferior NY and Miami versions. Where the Shield is uncomfortable and challenging, CSI provides reassurance. It is a scary world out there, but justice can be delivered without ambiguity. Just follow the evidence.

However, CSI (only in its Las Vegas incarnation) does exemplify another reason why police procedurals are popular, that they are work based soap operas. As most of us have more relationship with our work colleagues than our neighbours, workplaces do provide a genuine community within which to explore developing relationships. However, because the police procedural is dominated by the foreground story of the crime and its solution, the background story arcs of character development can be more slow and realistic than in conventional soap operas, with their implausible crises, and rediscovered twins separated at birth!

The extraordinary performance of Williams Peterson as Gil Grissom in CSI is worth commenting on. In a genre dominated by the cliché of the maverick investigator, Grissom simply seeks to do a good job, but is challenged by his inability to play office politics. Cleverly underplayed, we only catch sideways glimpses of Grissom’s past and personality: his developing deafness, his attraction towards being sexually submissive, etc. Again, one of the strengths of the police shows is that work colleagues don’t know that much about each other, which is much more true to life than much other TV drama.


Louisefeminista said...

To my shame I have never watched The Shield (well, half of one episode) mainly 'cos it is on late and I haven't got a video. But when what I gather The Shield is kinda gritty and interestingly it was created by an ex-producer of Angel, Shawn Ryan. I agree with much of what you say about CSI but I would argue that the Las Vegas one is well acted and there is much better characterisation than New York or Miami. You kinda care about about the characters in Las Vegas and not the other franchises. CSI is indeed non-threatening as there is the usual denoument. It is also slick and easily digestable that's probably due to it being a Jerry Bruckheimer creation/production.

But what gives it the extra kick is the wise Gil Grissom character and fortunately William Peterson is a producer on the show. He also did a very good job in the original Hannibal Lector film, Man Hunter as the FBI agent (there were Grissom signs there.)

Wish I had Grissom as my manager....

AN said...

BTW - I was wrong that the Shield is not on British TV at the moment, it is showing on cable on he Hallmark channel.

Mark P said...

The Shield is good as cop dramas go, but if you are really looking for a programme that can honestly be described as "by far the best police procedural", you need to watch The Wire.

There really is nothing else like it on TV. It might best be described as a trenchant critique of capitalism in a declining industrial city masquerading as a police drama. That though leaves out the brilliant acting and writing, its melancholy feel and its epic scope.

Anonymous said...

That's a very good post.

The Shield is superb. It's is also an anti-Police, par excellance.

I agree about William Peterson. He also had a bit part in that other excellent Michael Mann film - Thief.

I agree with Louise about CSI. Another grim aspect of CSI Miami is when they discuss Cuba, as they do a bit. It's always 'refugees fleeing communist oppression to the Land of the Free - only to get their brain substituted for a cadaver.s in a bizarre insurance fraud, etc.

Just something non political. Law and Order (rarely) and The Shield (never) hang a case on forensics but CSI solve nearly all cases through forensics - hmmm.

Louisefeminista said...

Blimey Southpaw, that's the first time you have agreed with me. :)

Yeah and I too agree with what you say about CSI: Miami is that they harp on about the "evils" of Cuba. Well, Bruckheimer is a reactionary fool....

I think Law and Order and The Shield "solve" their cases by good old fashion detective work. I really like The Criminal Intent one with the fantastic Detective Robbie Goran (who, I believe, gives Gil Grissom a run for his money on pedantry and obscurantism etc. Funny how I admire them both!).
Obviously, CSI wants people to "follow the evidence, follow the science" etc. Making science accessible I suppose....

Anonymous said...

Funny Louise, I like that one very much as well. No.2 behind The Shield - he really is playing Sherlock Holmes especially when he solves a case with his smattering of Mandarin, knowledge of Nambian crops and (this really was in the script) knowledge acquired punting on the Cam at Cambridge for a few days. And for another reason.

On forensics - they can't both be right. i.e. they can either crack 90% of solved or 5% of solved cases but not both.

Louisefeminista said...

Southpaw: Yeah, he's utterly pedantic old Goran and knows so much about most subjects but I also like his long suffering partner, Eames, who acts like a foil and despairs when he comes out with his various sayings.

I do like it and it is on tonight as well. The back story re: his mum and her schizophrenia is interesting as well as I he seems to worry, in some way, that this will happen to him.