Wednesday, January 8, 2020
January 8, 2020: AmericanStudying Unbelievable: Police Dramas
[This fall I watched Netflix’s Unbelievable, one of the most compelling and important TV shows I’ve seen in a good while. The show opens up a number of AmericanStudies conversations, so this week I’ll highlight and analyze a handful of them, trying my best to avoid SPOILERS (but probably not entirely succeeding). Leading up to a crowd-sourced post on the TV recommendations of fellow AmericanStudiers—share yours in comments, please!]
On a trio of ground-breaking shows that embody three stages in the evolution of TV representations of the police.
1) Dragnet (1951-1959): Across 8 seasons and 276 half-hour episodes, Jack Webb’s Dragnet (adapted from his radio program and itself the source of numerous subsequent TV and film adaptations, including a late 60s one from Webb himself) established a straightforward, earnest cultural representation of police work that has endured across all the decades since. Dragnet’s “The story you are about to see is true” might have turned into the Law & Order franchise’s “ripped from the headlines,” but the two shows nonetheless have a great deal in common, as do many of the current iteration of procedurals (particularly in the CSI and NCIS franchises). Moreover, while of course the casts have become much more diverse over those decades, virtually every one of those procedurals has featured a white male leading man and hero who seems to occupy quite clearly the same role that Webb’s Sergeant Joe Friday did on Dragnet. Those leads have developed additional psychological complexity and, at times, ethical nuance in the more recent versions, but at the end of the day they remain our heroic guides into a world of procedure very much still inspired by Dragnet.
2) Hill Street Blues (1981-1987): Part of the reason for those character continuities is that Dragnet and its ilk are not focused on the police themselves, but on their procedural roles in investigating and solving crimes. Somewhere along the way an alternative developed, however: a police drama that was at least as interested in the lives and identities of the cop characters as in the crimes and mysteries they were solving. One of the most influential shows in that mold was Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll’s Hill Street Blues, which chronicled the work and lives of police officers at a single station in an unnamed city. Along with Bochco’s own follow-up show NYPD Blue (1993-2005) and David Simon’s shows Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999) and The Wire (2002-2008), Hill Street Blues employed gritty social and psychological realism to explore multiple layers to its urban setting. But Hill Street’s most influential innovation remains its complex attention to the police characters and world themselves, to both the individual and communal identities and issues present in that station and profession.
3) Seven Seconds (2018): The cops on shows like Hill Street were three-dimensional humans, and could be both individually flawed and (somewhat less frequently) collectively corrupt as a result. But the recent Netflix series about which I wrote in that hyperlinked post represents another evolution in the genre, one in which police corruption and brutality become not an aberration but a central element to the show’s portrayal of cops. There are still more heroic investigators as well, but, like the two detectives at the heart of Unbelievable, they find themselves all too often working both in and against a system that seems designed to thwart their question for justice. Yet at the same time, the heroes of both Seven Seconds and Unbelievable extend the legacies of these other two forms: employing procedures in the meticulous, detailed manner of Dragnet; while bringing all their own identity layers and complexities in the manner of Hill Street Blues. As so often in pop culture, while these sub-genres do represent distinct threads, they also overlap and interconnect and serve as collective influences on our current 21st century crop of police dramas.
Next UnbelievableStudying tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this post and show? Other TV shows you’d recommend and analyze?