A Darker Shade Of Blue

From 'Dragnet' to 'The Wire', the police drama has evolved to reflect a changing society with ever more moral ambiguity.


May 26, 2002|By David Zurawik | By David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

There is more than a little understatement at play when Steven Bochco, co-creator of such landmark police series as Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, says, "I always thought the television cop drama was a pretty good way to look at America."

Bochco, the man behind some of the most successful cop dramas in TV history, knows it's a very good way to look at America. It has been, in fact, one of the most enduring and resonant formulas in which to see our collective fears and aspirations symbolically played out on the landscape of prime-time television.

"Cops interface with every segment of society exactly as it is today. And, as such, the cop show really is a window into the social, cultural, socio-economic realities of any given time," Bochco says. "It really goes profoundly to how the culture is reflected or refracted through the eyes of cops." And then he amends his first assessment: "It's an excellent way to look at America."

In this season of self-congratulatory, quasi-historical network anniversaries, there's a legitimate milestone that has been overlooked: the 50th anniversary of the police drama. If you take its origin as the debut of Dragnet on Jan. 2, 1952, you can see an archetypal symmetry worthy of mythologist Joseph Campbell between the template created by Jack Webb in postwar America and the several modern-day versions of it produced by Dick Wolf under his incredibly successful Law & Order banner.

But you don't need a golden anniversary to warrant an in-depth look at the genre and what it says about the culture that consumes it. Signs of its vitality and relevance are everywhere today.

In the fall schedules announced earlier this month, CBS alone added four new police dramas to its lineup, including one that will bring Andre Braugher (who won a best-actor Emmy for his cop role on Homicide: Life on the Street) back as a police detective. For better or worse, even Tiffani Thiessen (Beverly Hills, 90210) will play a television cop next year on Fox.

As for this year's lineup, along with MTV's The Osbournes, the biggest midseason hit is undoubtedly The Shield, with Michael Chiklis as Los Angeles police detective Vic Mackey, who runs a special unit that operates under its own rules. Those rules include stealing drugs, violating civil rights and even assassinating another cop who was sent to investigate the squad. "Morally ambiguous" is a generous way of describing this show's lead character.

And just as this critically acclaimed series ends its first season on the FX cable channel on June 4, HBO next Sunday presents the debut of The Wire, a 13-part drama filmed in Baltimore about a police investigation into drug dealing in public housing projects. The series, about a hopeless drug war in which all sense of moral purpose long ago vanished, is created by David Simon, who wrote the book on which NBC's Homicide series was based. Simon also co-created the Emmy Award-winning HBO mini- series, The Corner.

The Shield and The Wire are both distinguished by strong acting, fine writing, intensity, grit and enough cultural resonance to make your ears ring. But it is their distinct lack of a traditional moral center -- any clear sense of right and wrong, of good guys and bad -- that makes them so intriguing, and raises the question of whether they mark a new stage in the development of the cop-drama formula. Indeed, some cultural critics and Hollywood producers question whether you can still call a show without a clear sense of right and wrong a cop drama -- even if it is about cops -- so fundamental is that moral sense to the form.

Modern-day Westerns

"The paradigm of the cop show has been good vs. evil, and I don't think anyone did that better than Homicide," Simon says during an interview at his production offices in Baltimore.

"I mean, once they introduced [Detective Frank] Pembleton's [Braugher] theological crisis and the idea of these guys as a band of flawed brothers confronting evil, no one did it any better. And certainly, if you throw in [Detective Andy] Sipowicz [Dennis Franz of NYPD Blue], nobody's ever done it better. I mean, those are the archetypes.

"I didn't want to go there again," Simon says. "I am less interested with the idea of good vs. evil than I am with individuals vs. institutions. So, what I was trying to do, within the vernacular of a cop show, is basically tell a visual novel about something I was feeling about the modern world and about what institutions do to people who serve them or commit to them."

Simon calls The Wire a "post-cop show." "It's in the police vernacular, but I'm a big student of stuff like John Ford, Howard Hawks or Sergio Leone and what they did with the Western -- the idea of the Western as a motif for saying things about society or about community."

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