cop shows

A History of Violence: Why I Loved Cop Shows, and Why They Must Change:

From Marshal Matt Dillon (Gunsmoke) to Marshal Raylan Givens (Justified), Sgt. Joe Friday (Dragnet) to Detective Vic Mackey (The Shield), television’s endless flood of cops has accomplished two things. Early on, it presented police officers as infallible heroes who are professionally and temperamentally equipped to handle any delicate situation. Then eventually, it began depicting less admirable cop behavior, but in ways that tended to explain it — and, after a while, to normalize it. These fictional stories have rewired many of us to assume cops are always acting in good faith, and to ignore or wave away those moments when they’re clearly not.

This is a pretty good piece about the dominance of cop shows in American media. General sort of rule, there’s only shows about three professions – cops, lawyers, and doctors.

Now, I like cop shows pretty well, some of them at least, but there is just too much of the shit and a lot of them are just shit. And they’re not the only possible show. Like, here, I saw part of some drama that was like a CSI but for park safety. It was like the haunted, gruff genius head of the department would look at a fence and FLASHFORWARD ZOOM ZAP and he’d see how it would break, and he’d imagine someone falling through the fence, and put his team of dedicated lieutenants to work on fixing that fence. It was like a cop show but about civil servants. Not a bad idea. Why not glamorize those jobs? Fences probably save more lives than cops. At the very least, they don’t shoot people.

And, also, I fucking love The Shield. To me, that is a show about dirty cops that, by its end, totally subverts the cop show, and the act of watching cop shows. It just nails the cops and nails the viewers of cop shows. It gets you rooting for these pigs or at least used to them, and it has you, on some level, seeing their point of view. It has to do that to do the thing it does. And then it does the thing. Boy, does it ever do the thing. Just a great fucking show.

There’s also a problem, a big one, touched on here.

 But the protagonist problem applies just as well to shows about villains as it does to ones about heroes and antiheroes: We form attachments to the characters with whom we spend the most time, and we come to understand them and even root for them in ways we might not like, and that the creators may not have intended. (See also the “Skyler White is the true villain of Breaking Bad” truthers.)

This is a problem I’ve thought about a lot. Too much, probably. I thought about it before, during, and after writing Technicolor Ultra Mall. It’s not a problem that I have any satisfactory solution to. The problem is this: People root for so-called antiheroes. Making it worse, if you write anything, any male character, that is meant to criticize, satirize, or make male violence clear and obviously bad, men will fucking root for that character. They cheer not in spite of the fucked up shit but because of it. No matter how debased and fucked up you make that character, men will root for them. The worse you make the character, the harder they cheer. This is disturbing in and of itself. To my mind, it gets worse. I think men and art has to interrogate male violence. But the method we use to do it is totally inadequate. It’s like we lack the words to have the conversation we need to have. Something is wrong.

I hate talking about this book shit, and I think an author’s point of view is of no more value than a reader’s but, it may have some value here, and, in terms of what I was trying to do with Technicolor Ultra Mall . . .

At the time, even back then, I felt like there was a risk that people would just enjoy the violence. I thought, if I didn’t have a really terrible and painful ending to the thing, one that knocked the gloss off, the book would end up glamorizing violence and misogyny. And, Satan knows, I did not want that to be the message. Aside from my personal reasons for doing what I did, and, to me, writing is basically a personal act of divination which is appropriated into a concept of “art” or “writing” or whathaveyou, that was my arty-shit reason. It had to hurt and be senseless to destroy the glamour. Violence could not have a point or be moral. I never even thought Budgie was a hero. I don’t even think about characters in terms of hero or antihero. Least of all him. I don’t even like him. Never have.

(Like, in my head, his gang is a basically a bunch of fucking cops. That’s why I dressed them like mounties. And the protection rackets? Well, Toronto cops have some experience there too. They’re not rebels. He’s not a rebel. He’s just trying to get a different job and will do just about anything to get it. And that sort of ambition (I really distrust ambition) is what fucks up the world in a lot of different ways. His ambition is manipulated and appropriated. The kid is a fucking stooge of a corrupt and destructive system, and when he tries to improve his position, even more so. Technicolor Ultra Mall is not supposed to be a cheering read about the value of dreams so much as the danger of them. It’s not “hopepunk.” I don’t like hope. Don’t trust it. But try putting that shit on the back of a book.)

The issues I’ve worried about with that novel, I’ve since seen play out on television. I don’t think Walter White from Breaking Bad was really meant to be a hero. But he sure becomes one. I don’t even like that show — really, to be it’s some weird white power fantasy about how even a chemistry teacher could be a better gangster than cartels — a kind of racist trope of ‘we’re scared so we’ll be the really scary ones.’ It’s like, again and again, you see these plainly villainous male leads get cheered on. No depravity or abuse of power seems depraved or abusive enough to turn people off power. It just makes power more attractive. And so it is with cop anti-heroes. No matter how corrupt and fucked up you make them, people cheer for the shit. The more fucked up, the louder the cheers. It’s a problem. If you mean something totally different, it’s a little heartbreaking, tbh.

A show that, I think, does a much better job than most at looking at male violence thing, is Better Call Saul. It makes his villainy feel like failure. Makes it pathetic. His success never feels like something to be cheered or the overcoming of an obstacle. It feels like failure. You get the arc of becoming a monster but it’s not about overcoming problems. It’s just falling flat on your fucking face again and again. The wrong thing feels wrong, you know? It hurts. And there’s no redemption. It just fucking hurts.

That model, to me at least, feels like a way forward on some of this. But like, what the fuck do I know? And if we got to give up some cop shows to get the cops defunded, small price to pay. There are other sorts of stories to tell about other sorts of people. I’d like to see more of them. I do like Monk tho.

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