Why Cop Shows Are Eternal
He is there, David Caruso, week after week, with his red hair and narrow eyes and bitter irony, aided by the other CSI: Crime Scene Investigation officers, picking up the pieces of incredible violence and following them back, like Hansel in the asphalt jungle — though he follows computerized simulations of entry wounds, not pieces of bread — to the deformative trauma that shattered a life; and there is Jerry Orbach, a nice Jewish actor playing a nice half-Jewish cop, as Lenny in Law & Order, who hates the scumbags with matter-of-fact irony and feels for the helpless unlucky guys driven beyond the law to defend themselves; and there is Vic in The Shield, brutal, good-hearted, and corrupt, way behind CSI in technology, and way beyond Law & Order in psychology. And there are a lot of other guys, and also a few women, running around the tube with a badge and a gun. The proverbial complaint that there's never a cop around when you need one may or may not be true, but there's always a cop show around, whether you want it or not.
Here is a sample of the police dramas currently on television, both new shows and old: CSI, Without a Trace, Law & Order, 24, The Shield, a new Dragnet, The Division, Fastlane, Cops, The Sentinel, Streets of San Francisco, True Crime, Boomtown, The Wire, NYPD Blue, Hawaii Five-O, Columbo, Miami Vice, U.S. Marshals, Hill Street Blues, Forever Knight. At any moment on American television, someone is either committing a crime or getting arrested, shooting or getting shot, chasing or being chased. There is even a show called Animal Cops, which — alas — is not about animals empowered by the state to pursue and apprehend bad animals ("Up against the wall! Spread your legs! Now spread your other legs!"). This particular brainstorm depicts real cops pursuing and apprehending miscreant schnauzers and so forth.
And in the unlikely event that you tire of any of the countless television series about the police, you can flip between cop movies and cop shows — between Training Day, in which a good cop battles a corrupt cop, and The Shield, in which good cops become bad cops while battling to remain good; or between the wildly successful black-cop and white-cop teams in Lethal Weapon and Die Hard with a Vengeance (where Samuel L. Jackson isn't a cop but acts like one) and the current incarnation of Law & Order, whose writers have given Lenny a new black partner. The configurations are the same; only the names have been changed to protect against the hypercritical. On the big screen and the small, cops enthrall us the way gods and demigods captured the imaginations of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Like the demigods of mythological yore, like Achilles with his divinely wrought shield, cops on television — they also have shields — occupy a hybrid, liminal realm. They are half ordinary citizens constrained by laws, customs, and convention, and half divinities, free to exert their will, to thwart someone else's, to punish and to kill, to set matters straight: that is, they are glamorously unconstrained by laws, customs, and conventions. When you sit for an hour in a traffic jam and fantasize about taking the motorcycle away from the guy ahead of you and tearing straight up between the lanes, you are fantasizing about being a cop.
Excerpted by permission from Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television by Lee Siegel © 2007. Published by Basic Books.