One of my favorite genres on television is the formulaic but sometimes incisive police procedural. As kids, my mom wouldn’t let us watch the actual crime, but the rest of the show was fair game. We’d attempt to solve the crime (she always won.) More importantly, Mom used the shows to highlight things about life. One of the biggest recurring discussions was around how suspects and victims were treated based on their identities. After 9/11, those conversations turned to depictions of my people, and who the writers chose to portray as criminals.
I grew up watching the original Hawaii Five O, Matlock, and Murder She Wrote. By high school, I was also watching the newer shows. Procedurals drew my family and I in for the same reason as many other people–the victims receive closure. I say this knowing that all media has messages. These shows especially convey that law enforcement is wonderful and serves to catch and put away criminals. Who cares about the police brutality involved in getting that necessary confession? Or the illegal methods of putting pressure on a suspect? This article isn’t about the long-term effects of shows like Dragnet on the genre and audience responses to police, or whether the shows are harmless or not.
Instead, I focus here on two shows which investigate their worlds in all of its varied and sometimes ugly realities. I picked two CBS shows, since that network is famous for its police procedurals.
Blue Bloods (2010-present)
A show about a progressive Catholic law enforcement family isn’t one I expected to watch for six years (I’m now behind by two seasons). They sit down for dinner in almost every episode and discuss whatever the case of the week is. At least episode one per season there’s a police shooting or something similar and the writers tackle the cases from various angles. A large portion of the time, the show indicates that the cops are indeed in the wrong and the Police Commissioner—the Reagan family patriarch—must deal with the aftermath.
Blue tackles the issues that come from working within law enforcement. Danny, the detective brother, is the stereotypical hothead with a heart of gold for young and/or female victims. There are multiple cases where his sister Erin, a district attorney, has to reign him in and explain that it doesn’t matter if he believes someone is guilty. You have to FOLLOW THE RULES and acquire confessions legally and without pressure.
When it comes to race, however, the show is worse-than-average. There are multiple episodes where the writers depict complaints and issues from communities of color as fraudulent and malicious. People cry police brutality where there is none. One police shooting involves the dead man’s gun being hidden to frame the cop as shooting him on purpose! And as with pretty much every crime show, the viewpoint of the criminals is almost never addressed, especially those who have issues with cops. The Reagan family is a great stand-in for White America. Power doesn’t recognize its power, and privilege doesn’t believe its privilege. No number of family dinners changes that the Reagans are one of the most powerful families in NYC. Otherwise why would so many episodes focus on people trying to get something from the Commissioner?
Blue is one of TV’s better attempts at portraying investigation law enforcement but falls flat in cases involving race.
Cold Case (2003-2010)
Then there’s my absolute favorite procedural. Cold Case was incisive in its commentary on law enforcement and our society precisely because the team solved cold cases which went back decades. The writers tackled issues including, but not limited to: racism, homophobia, sexism, abortion, and police brutality. The team investigated cases as new evidence appeared. The show actually received six GLAAD media awards among others.
Use of music and double casting distinguished the show from its peers. Characters looked realistically like their past selves. This detail is important to its success in depicting the heartbreaking cases where victims were killed due to their identity and refusal to stand down to their society’s destructive social and cultural expectations. Everyone involved with this show obviously understood the importance of representing America’s varied and many times prejudiced, oppressive, and harmful histories. The team solved the cases because they understood these histories.
All of the characters, led by Detective Lilly Rush (one of the few female leads on a crime show) cared about solving the crimes. Each of the characters had something that connected them to the cause for long-forgotten victims. Rush, for example is her department’s first female homicide detective and grew up poor. The main cast made the viewers care too and that’s how the show succeeded.
Of all the procedurals I’ve watched, the writers for this one had the most success in portraying victims respectfully, finding the criminal’s motives, and honoring the victims. For example, in an episode about a transgender woman, Lilly signs the box with the case files in the woman’s name, and not her dead-name. This was in 2004!
After all, like Det. Rush states in the first episode, “people shouldn’t be forgotten. They matter.”
Harmless Entertainment or Propaganda?
Well, all media is messaging right? True, I end many episodes of my favorite shows rolling my eyes, or when an episode is particularly terrible wishing I had just skipped it entirely. However, I still enjoy watching crime shows which give victims closure. Plus, I love trying to figure out who did it and why.
Still, I and the rest of the viewing audience can and should hold writers accountable for portraying police brutality as okay when finding criminals, or that people of color are the most likely to be criminals and terrorists (after 9/11, every crime show seems to have token terror attack episode).
This is all to say that, the above shows tackle issues of law enforcement and prejudices in our society with varied levels of success. Shows that succeed, like Cold Case do so when they are explicit in their commentary on our society’s prejudices.