Looking beyond copaganda
American TV is saturated with copaganda: media intended to sway public perception in favor of the police. Even in a world where it’s become clear that the police disproportionately kill people of color and otherwise enforce adverse power dynamics for oppressed communities, we see show after show after show where the police are unambiguously the good guys. Often those maverick cops get their good guy jobs done by flaunting the rules - because, after all, what possible good could those rules possibly do?
Traditionally, the domain of TV police procedurals has been as morality plays, where clear lines are drawn. The past 60 years have seen shows like Dragnet, The Untouchables, and Adam 12 establish a formula where, within an hour of story, good lawmen, also known as square-jawed white cops, defeat bad guys, often known as poor people of color. This stark clarity, indulging the idea of the hero cop, often provides a sense of satisfaction for some viewers in an otherwise complicated world.
It’s worth considering which viewers. His whole piece is an important read, particularly on white voice even in the face of diverse casting.
I’d love to see more shows - any shows, actually - about law enforcement that move beyond this narrative and are willing to discuss the complicated power differentials that underpin oppression. There’s so much to talk about here, so much great drama that speaks to peoples’ lived experiences, yet I wonder if it would even be possible to put it on the air.
Copaganda is part of the culture. Some of it was certainly produced with the explicit intention of swaying the public towards law enforcement. But it’s a trope now: these are established categories of drama that perpetuate themselves because we’ve come to expect them. Just as the CIA funded Iowa Writer’s Workshop and shaped modern American literature as a result, police PR has shaped television.
As that last linked piece puts it:
Maybe it's just a reminder that we need to be wary of the sandboxes we’re building our castles in, of the institutions that define our creative thought so wholly that we often forget (or never bother to ask) how and why they were established in the first place.
British TV does a slightly better job, perhaps partially because Britain tends to hold a bit less reverence for its institutions (at least if you squint a bit and don’t ask too many questions about the enduring legacy of its empire). I enjoyed both seasons of Slow Horses, a British drama about dysfunctional MI5 agents who find themselves working against establishment corruption that is at least as formidable as any outside force. Back in the nineties, the BBC show Between the Lines dealt directly with police corruption. They’re both great TV, but while the protagonists in both cases are from a semi-ostracized branch of the powers that be, they’re still formally a part of that established order. I would love to see drama fully drawn from the perspective of people who wind up on the wrong side of it.
The Wire might come the closest, at least in intention. Its star, Wendell Pierce, speaking to Yahoo Entertainment last year:
Sure, you're recognizing the individuals that were lost in a system that perpetuated this sort of misconduct, and maybe you had empathy for some of the individuals in that system. But in no way did we celebrate the moral ambiguity, the moral inconsistencies and the failures of the police — quite the opposite. We showed the dysfunction of the police and hopefully awakened people to why it needs to be changed.
But the real answer is going to lead from more diversity at the highest levels of television. You’re not going to get an authentic story about communities who have been oppressed unless you greenlight shows written by people from those communities, again and again and again. There’s a lot of work to do.
I often hear platitudes about hiring more diversity at the lowest levels and tolerating new points of view from “cooler” white writers, but rarely hear how any writer of color can manage a career to get to a point where their voice drives a show and impacts the worldwide narrative on these stories.
Please, let’s get on it. I want to watch some TV.