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.