Ken Julian has been described as somewhere between a Twitter curmudgeon and raconteur, both of which are charges he pleads guilty to, especially when it comes to TV and sports. Here’s his take on the evolution of cop shows on TV.
I love police shows. There, I said it.
Not the Law and Order/CSI type, but shows like Homicide: Life on the Street, NYPD Blue, The Wire, and more recently True Detective and Broadchurch.
It’s not only that I find them entertaining; they deal with fascinating social issues for which there are no easy answers. For example, how do you catch the bad guy? Do we have the right to hold someone guilty of a crime without due process? Do we really want our police using the same tactics as criminals to do so?
I’m sure this dates back to when I was twelve or thirteen and hid in my friend’s basement during cold weekends watching his Dad watch shows like Adam-12. That, and later sneaking bits of his Dad’s HBO (yes, and before you ask, I’m aware of how awful that makes me).
But anyway, shows like Homicide were something entirely new when they premiered. But, of course, dramas about cops are still controversial today, so they must have been downright shocking in the early 90s.
As fascinating as they were, there was a problem with these shows: they were essentially cinematic.
Specifically, they were mini-movies movies. They took their cues not from the TV cop dramas that had come before but from film noir classics and the police procedurals of the ’90s like Badge of Honor (which was actually quite good) and others I’m too young to remember.
Yet, the creators of Homicide and NYPD Blue wanted to tell stories about cops in a way that only TV could.
They wanted to show the minutia of police work: the paperwork, the conflicting priorities working against each other day after day; how politics plays into decisions made by those supposed to be faceless bureaucrats yet become the unofficial face of their departments.
So they created a very different kind of cop drama, which became known to some as “the realist” school of police shows.
That let TV creators and writers write with a much more cinematic feel without seeming like a movie-of-the-week, even if it wasn’t exactly how real life works. Hence the word “realist.”
Actually, they weren’t the first to create a police drama with a more cinematic feel. Both Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere did this before them (I wrote about Hill Street Blues last year).
But unlike those shows, which were medical dramas first and foremost, Homicide and NYPD Blue were police procedurals. They wanted to tell stories about cops, not doctors or nurses.
A lot of people think that the “realist” style was a reaction to David Simon’s The Wire, another groundbreaking show that just finished its run on HBO (although it seems unfair to call any show “groundbreaking” after twenty years of The Sopranos).
It was a show that seemed intent on showing real-life involving drug dealers, the politicians and bureaucrats who make it all possible, and the police who try to take these people down.
But Simon’s Baltimore was not a typical city; it was a cesspool. It was a place where cops were so compromised by the time the series started that they were more like mobsters than cops. It wasn’t just the drugs. It was also how some of them fought corruption with corruption.
Homicide and NYPD Blue writers already knew you couldn’t have “clean” cops in a dirty city. So they worked hard to show their detectives as flawed, broken people who were trying their best to do the right thing despite that.
So while it’s true that The Wire was a reaction to the “realist” police dramas, I think those shows were actually reacting more to film noir and its influence on contemporary crime films, if not television itself.
Anyways, that’s my take…I could be wrong.