Before the days of LOST, 24, Battlestar Galactica, It’s Always Sunny and Mad Men, there was one thing everyone could agree on. The cop was king. Dragnet, JAG, Magnum, P.I., Miami Vice.
These are shows that defined their generations and set the bar of quality programming. Maybe it was the fact that the characters were witty jerks who just can’t get enough out of pissing each other off. Maybe it was the fact that characters in the genre were always in search of that one defining moment in their lives. Maybe it was just the eternal battle between good versus evil.
Whatever it was, cop shows held a special place in many people’s hearts. With the exception of a select few, the genre as a whole went down hill in the last two decades, but after seeing what the last two years had to offer, I think that the once beloved genre is getting ready for a second coming.
While the last two decades did give us heavy hitters like Law & Order, CSI and NCIS, there was more than enough schlock to hurt the genre’s overall reputation. Think shows like Kidnapped which ran on NBC for one thirteen episode season in 2006. Law & Order: Trial By Jury which along with the L&O spin-off Conviction was a very, very low point for the franchise. Or how about Pacific Blue which ran on USA from 1996 – 2000? The show was so bad that it was funny, which is why it stayed on as long as it did.
It was generous to think of these shows as even decent programming. The audience, both through critical reception and ratings agreed. It got to the point where many networks just tried to imitate the heavy hitters like Law & Order and CSI, but those programs had their own problems.
I don’t think you’re going to find a single person who says that the later years of Law & Order were anywhere near the show’s finest hour. The mothership of the franchise went from a series high 18.7 million viewers at the end of 2002, to a dismal 7.2 million when it was canceled in 2010.
Shows like this became tired. And while some franchises like NCIS and CSI still rank among the top 10 (NCIS still being the most watched scripted show on television), many have lost touch with what the audience wants. Put simply, they’ve succumb to the dreaded curse of formula.
Perhaps I should give a little insight as to why this topic has suddenly taken hold of my boob tube-filled mind. I was watching the latest episode of NCIS – a conclusion to a two parter in which NCIS Director Leon Vance and Mossad Director Eli David are involved in what’s believed to be an assassination attempt against David. As the episode progresses, we learn through flashbacks that the attempt was actually meant to kill someone else.
Now, I know that sounds like a basic plot, but the execution of the episode kept me guessing. I was so convinced that the outcome was going to be the standard “this guy did it” formula that the curve ball in the final act blew me away.
This is a trend I’ve been seeing in many cop shows lately. Long running shows such as NCIS and Law & Order: SVU have finally broken the mold of what has become very predictable television. It’s becoming harder and harder to guess who the bad guy actually is episode to episode. A sign that these writers have regained the art of mystery.
Another trend is that many of the new cop shows are taking the cue of a serialized format from many shows in the main stream populace. Shows like LOST, 24 & Battlestar had a much larger impact on the face of television far beyond the reaches of just providing long form content for fans.
These shows trickled down into the modern day cop show, and now what we get are police dramas with season and series-long arcs. Things like the mystery of McGarrett’s father on the new Hawaii 5-0 or the drug cartel out for Raylan’s blood on Justified. By creating these multi-episode arcs, these shows are able to progress their characters beyond how they’re portrayed in the pilot episode.
Another change is the design itself. Cop shows aren’t limited anymore to the successes and failures of the local P.D. The U.S. Marshals, The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, The C.I.A, The Emergency Task Force, The BAU, many organizations that either got very little play or no play at all are finally being featured in cop shows. This is important because it widens the scope of the genre as a whole, beyond the confines of a single city or town.
But if a show does choose to take the route of local P.D., there has also been a change in setting. No longer is the television audience subjected to only the adventures of NYC and LA. Now we get shows set in Memphis, Toronto, Chicago, Dallas and Honolulu (the original 5-0 was ahead of its time). Like the change in organization, this helps widen the geographical scope of the genre and allows for even broader expansion. Who knows, maybe next year we’ll get a show set in Buffalo.
But above all else, the one thing that has brought the genre back to its glory days is character. The characters in today’s cop shows are not the one-note cardboard cut outs that we have come to expect in the last twenty years. Today’s cop shows take their characters and send them off into ten different emotional directions. A smart-ass divorced father of a five year old girl living in Hawaii. A woman who has learned to get into the mind of her criminal and find the one thing that will help bring them to justice. A team of men and women that work as single, cohesive unit to bring an end to the most dangerous situations imaginable.
These are the kind of people we want to tune into every week. These are the kind of people we want to stand up and cheer for. These are the kind of people that have been missing for a long time from the once great genre.
And don’t think I’m alone in this; the numbers speak for themselves. Hawaii 5-0 has consistently done between 10-12 million every episode it’s been on. Flashpoint earned it self a very respectable summer rating of 6 million on Friday nights during its most recent run. Justified, during its first season did about 2 million an episode, which on cable is very, very good.
The cop show went from TV’s “it” thing, to bottom of the barrel, and has slowly begun its ascension back to its rightful place on top of the mountain. The climb is going to be tough, and the odds are stacked against it, but if the genre can maintain the current path it’s on, maybe we will once again be begging to hear those all important words: “you have the right to remain silent.”