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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Radical Empathy and the Prison-Industrial Complex

Radical Empathy and the Prison-Industrial Complex

Spoilers through to the end of season 5 of Orange Is the New Black.


Orange Is the New Black has become a cautionary tale of the streaming era of television. When it first debuted in 2013, it quickly became hugely popular, one of Netflix’s most watched and acclaimed original series. It was at the forefront of that brief moment when “Netflix original series” meant something: ground-breaking television, exploding our very conception of what television could be. With its sprawling, diverse ensemble cast, binge-friendly structure and mixture of comedy and drama, Orange Is the New Black was the kind of show that was regularly preceded by a “I can’t believe you haven’t seen” and followed by an exclamation mark.

But not anymore. The show’s fourth season was polarising, but its fifth was widely disliked, to the extent it made any impact at all. It’s become just another show in Netflix’s bloated catalogue, just another past-its-prime show that you’ve forgotten is still on the air.

Orange is the New Black seems destined to remain in a sort of TV purgatory,” The Guardian writes, “It has more than enough fans to sustain itself on Netflix and the streaming site is keen to back it considering it’s still one of its most-loved originals. But does it feel as vital as it did when it was first released?”

The answer is supposed to be no, so obviously that it doesn’t need to be said. But here’s the thing: in its latter years, Orange Is the New Black has become something more important and much more radical. I tend to rag on Peak TV quite a bit – if I say something “could only exist in the streaming era” I usually mean that it’s bloated, incoherent and insufficiently concerned with making individual episodes high-quality or enjoyable. The second season of Jessica Jones could only exist in the streaming era, and it fucking sucks. But Orange Is the New Black, too, could only exist in the streaming era: a beacon of light guiding the way to all that streaming television has the possibilities to be.

At what other point in history could a TV series get made – and become hugely popular – that argues, full-throated, for the abolition of prisons?

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