Blue Bloods, Bosch, Broadchurch, CSI, Foyle’s War, Inspector Morse, Law and Order, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Midsomer Murders, The Bridge, The Closer: the list of police shows I have watched is a long one, of which this is just a sampling. Some have kept my attention year after year, some I wander away from after a few episodes or a season or two, some I reject almost immediately.
My fondness for cop shows is unsophisticated and indiscriminate. I like everything from the fairly light through shows that are thought-provoking and carry some measure of political or social commentary to those that are downright violent.
I’m often troubled by my fondness for this kind of entertainment, especially the shows that position police officers as all good and those who commit crimes as all bad. Many shows, sometimes nicknamed trauma porn, disproportionately focus on violent crimes against women, providing more blood and gore than could possibly be necessary. Others target Black communities, people of colour, immigrants and the poor as constant villains.
None of this reflects my world view, and yet I watch and watch.
Tiara Sukhan, assistant professor of media studies at Western University admits that she, too, enjoys this kind of “comfort watching.” Just like a big dish of macaroni and cheese at the end of a tough day, a couple of hours of good guys catching bad guys can be very satisfying.
Sukhan fully recognizes the flaws in police procedurals. Take Midsomer Murders, for example. Set in rural England, it has run for 22 seasons so far. In each episode, at least anywhere from one to three or even four people meet their untimely end at the hands of a killer before the police manage to capture the miscreant. My partner and I watched all 128 episodes in the first year or so of the pandemic and often marvelled that there were any people left to kill in the countryside of Midsomer.
More seriously, Sukhan points out that cop shows create an idealized image of law and order; promote the notion that police are there to help and keep us safe, and that anyone the police are after is, by default, bad. This is an unrealistic picture of the police and those who are suspected of breaking the law that brings no nuance to our analysis of good and evil and does not reflect the realities of the lives of many in our communities.
There are, of course, exceptions to this. The Wire offered a more realistic, grittier look at the world of policing. Miss Fisher is a socialist (maybe even a communist!) and, while not a cop herself, offers her services to the police, always with an eye out for the underdog. Bosch works to humanize the victims of the crimes he investigates and eventually resigns because of corruption in the police force. The Bridge explores social issues through both its characters and plot. In both Foyle’s War and Inspector Morse, we see police inspectors who use intelligence rather than brute force to solve crimes. But these kinds of shows are in the minority.
Forensic cop shows offer their own set of challenges. The women, always Hollywood beautiful and scantily clad, who work for any of the CSI units have instant access to state of the art technology for even the smallest of crimes, and are able to wrap up extremely complex cases on the basis of the science alone, usually very quickly.
There’s no doubt these shows must be frustrating to real police. I was once a witness to a car break-in in a medium-sized city in northern Ontario. The police were called and dispatched their crime scene officer. She did not appear wearing the latest fashion or with her breasts saucily displayed to the public. She was not carrying a titanium case containing all the tricks of her trade. Rather, she was dressed in sensible gear for attending at a crime scene, and her fingerprinting tools were in a plastic tackle box. She told me that shows like CSI make her life much more difficult, because they create unrealistic expectations in people. (Despite her lack of glamour and glitz, she got the job done.)
Sukhan acknowledges why she and so many of us find these shows satisfying: they present a problem at the beginning of each episode, which is resolved by the end, and then the process starts over with the next episode. The shows are formulaic, and that can be comforting, especially when we live in a world or have a job with little predictability or certainty.
In my work, women who have been harmed by gender-based violence seldom get justice. And, whether the outcome is good or bad for them, it takes much longer than 60 or 90 minutes to achieve. But they, like me, watch these shows, so often have hopes of what the police and legal system can provide that will never be met.
Sukhan cautions those of us who watch these shows:
“We think that we’re smart, and we’re savvy, and we understand the difference between reality and entertainment, and that we can create that boundary for ourselves. But the ideological implications are often more subtle than we think, and they seep in over time.”
I have no doubt that she is right. I’d like to declare that I will never again watch a cop show, but that would be a lie. They satisfy a need I have for, if not law and order, then at least order, so my comfort watching will remain my guilty, if no longer secret, pleasure.