Cop Shows and the Carceral State

Cop Shows and the Carceral State

The police procedural is possibly the television genre par excellence, ever since Dragnet debuted in 1951 and spawned a wave of imitators. Though the sitcom may be the most perfect televisual form, the police procedural is the one best suited to the rhythm of broadcast, each twist and turn toward the mystery of the crime’s resolution keeping the viewer engaged through ad breaks. No other genre has endured so long and changed so little, with some shifts in style, sure, but virtually none in the basic formula.

On just the Big Four networks (plus the CW), in the current television season, there are some fifteen or so police procedurals on the air, including Blue Bloods (in its 9th season), NCIS (in its 16th season) and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (in its 20th season). Note my count excludes three superhero shows (Gotham, The Flash, Arrow) whose protagonists are police officers of some kind, as well as any shows about people investigating crimes who aren’t cops. And those are just the ones still in production. The most cursory channel surfing will lead you to a hundred different channels who almost exclusively broadcast reruns of old police shows, from Kojak to NYPD Blue to the lately departed CSI franchise.

Cops shows are popular, ubiquitous and seemingly infinite. When one falls, another rises to take its place. They’re incredibly long-lived compared to other genres: NCIS started during the first term of George Bush’s presidency and it was the most-watched television show in the entire world in 2014 and 2015. They’re beloved by people of all ages, but particularly the middle-aged and elderly. This makes it all the more concerning that cop shows are, intentionally or not, mass propaganda for the carceral state.

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The Rise and Fall of Brooklyn Nine Nine

The Rise and Fall of Brooklyn Nine Nine

To love a TV show is to set yourself up for disappointment.

There are exceptions, obviously – Breaking Bad had a pretty much perfect run – but the serialised nature of television means it has infinitely more chances to let you down. Maybe it’ll be cancelled before it’s time. Or worse, maybe it will destroy itself from the inside out. The Simpsons is the greatest TV show ever made, but that fact is obscured now that there are more bad seasons than good. “Classic Simpsons” and “new Simpsons” are fully compartmentalised in my head. It hurts too much otherwise.

But The Simpsons was allowed be good – be great – for nine years. The greatest tragedy, one that seems to be constantly getting worse and puts me off watching new shows, is for a once great show to destroy itself within a year or two, the length of time it used to take a show to figure itself out. There’s more TV than ever now, and the whole cycle moves at double-speed: a show has to find its feet faster to survive, but it also burns out quicker. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had one my favourite seasons of television ever and then immediately fell apart in season two, True Detective revealed itself to be a bloated pretentious corpse in season two after an acclaimed first season, and Westworld didn’t even make it to the end of its first season before people stopped caring. There are fifteen shows currently on air with eight or more seasons, six of which are procedurals and another four of which are Fox’s animated comedy slate. A show can be long-running and soulless, but it’s telling how few long-running shows there are – how hard it is to sustain a show for that long now.

You’d think the rise of shorter seasons would allow shows to continue on for years longer without burning through as much material – and yet, again and again, once-great shows collapse in what is, to the binge-watcher, a few short hours. The Simpsons had nine great years, but more and more, a show has to be exceptionally sturdy to be good for three or four.  It becomes harder and harder to remember the shape of the show you once loved, because every time you think you catch a glimpse of it, another wave of crap comes along to drown it once and for all.

I really hate Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

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