Maybe some attitudes are changing now, even among the people making the shows. Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, an executive producer of the reboot of “S.W.A.T.” and a rare African-American creator of a police drama, recently wrote about the need to “address the image of the hero cop.” The police comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” whose goofy cops have been criticized for putting a smiley face on a police department rife with real-life abuses, has explicitly addressed racism within the force and the vulnerability of even black police to racial profiling.
Still, the gestalt remains: cops, cops, cops. As Kathryn VanArendonk wrote in Vulture, TV’s default is to make police the main characters, and that is a message in itself. A TV series is a ride-along. It places you in the perspective of the protagonist, whether that protagonist is valorized or not. We have spent innumerably more hours looking through the windshield from the perspective of the police than of the policed.
If we’re going to continue to have crime shows, better to have more thoughtful, nuanced ones. But I’m less optimistic about the ability of TV to overcome its cultural wiring, which is to use the easy, perpetual engine of conflict that crime stories provide: Someone bad did something bad, and someone good needs to catch them.
The changes coming from the wave of protests across America may be deep and have lasting effects. They may even mean a generational change in attitudes among the people participating, or those listening to them.
But that will run up against generations of narratives in the minds of Americans who have unwound in front of the TV for decades. No one, after all, forced those broadcast audiences to sit down for those still relatively popular nightly hours of crime. And when a politician goes on Twitter or stands at a convention declaring for “LAW & ORDER!” those viewers have an enormous mental library of images to illustrate the slogan.
Someday, if you are a TV programmer, you will be choosing a schedule at a time when there are different headlines in the news. Maybe there won’t be protests in the streets, at that moment. Maybe no one will be directly pressuring you, at that moment. Maybe you will feel that you already made your statements, gave your donations, did your bit, back then. And now, you have a lineup to fill and money to make.
When that day comes, as the “Cops” theme song asked: Whatcha gonna do?