As a criminologist and longtime cop, it might come as no surprise that I watch and listen to a lot of police procedurals. Whether on television, podcast or classic radio reruns, I love a good crime drama. I am aware this proclivity makes me the carpenter who’s transfixed by episodes of This Old House. Yes, it is the proverbial busman’s holiday.
I try to share aspects of this passion with students in my policing classes. More often than not, my attempts only illustrate the generational and cultural literacy gap between us.
I find myself asking questions like ‘Who has ever seen the Jack Webb show, Dragnet?’ Nothing… blank stares and dead silence.
‘How about Dirty Harry?’ If there’s a male student in class who happens to be a cop, they typically respond, but few others. Inquiries about Serpico, The French Connection, Hill Street Blues, Adam-12, Bullitt, The Wire… garner similar reception.
I decided these references may be too far removed. ‘How about Law and Order?’ Many more hands go up. ‘CSI?’ almost all hands ascend. ‘True Detective?’ a full house.
Watching the recent profusion of cop dramas, I have come to understand we have experienced a paradigm shift in what the viewing public wants to see. Why our appetite manifests as it does says something profound about the meter of society.
If you look at the most popular police (or private investigator) dramas, they all have elements of a mystical or super human quality. It is no longer sufficient to be a tenacious and wily detective. One must now be either surrounded by magic machines (CSI, Person of Interestor NCIS) imbued with extraordinary intellectual or paranormal abilities (The Mentalist, Numbers, Psych) or possessing ultra-masculine panache (Chicago PD, Magnum, Hawaii 5-0). We might also include shows such as Fox’s hospital drama, House, as the title character is a kind of antisocial savant medical mystery solver.
One thing’s for sure, whatever they’re looking for cannot be found inside a number five capsule… when they try, that’s where I come in. I carry a badge.
Of course, this enumeration is incomplete, but it gets to the central point: We like these extraordinary problem solvers because they offer comfort in uncertain times. This phenomenon is hardly new.
Those old enough to remember the proliferation of westerns during the early Cold War may recall a variant of this same idea. That era gave new life to a Depression era moral avenger, the Lone Ranger. The masked man clarifies social expectations through a selfless and anonymous quest. With the help of his faithful companion, Tonto (think also: Watson to Sherlock Holmes, Robin and Alfred to Batman, etc.) he brings evil-doers to justice. What the Lone Ranger, Holmes and Batman all share is a transcendent quality. They rise above some great adversity, personal failing or tragedy to act as agents of a higher order and they do so with gifts that are almost, but not quite magical. Nonetheless, these characters exist to reassure us and give continuity to our sense of security.
Dragnetis an especially good example of this. It stands out from the pack because its moralizing and justice-mindedness are expressly articulated by its lead, Sgt. Joe Friday. Friday holds the line on law and moral certainty almost to the extent of losing his humanity. He is such an exemplar of rectitude, he becomes alien. This is why we are both drawn to and mock him. For a modern critique of Dragnet, you might want to check out Conor Friedersdorf’s evocative 2015 article for The Atlantic, “The Dragnet Effect: How TV Has Obscured Police Brutality.”
Dragnetalways starts with Friday’s narration, “This is the city, Los Angeles California. It’s a fine place to enjoy life. There are places reserved just for kids when they’re young and feel young [cut to amusement parks] … Place they go when they’re young and feel old [cut to nightclubs] … beginning the big search for something that doesn’t exist in the places they look for it … they might find it here [cut to churches]… they could try here [a museum]… or their search might end with a college degree… one thing’s for sure, whatever they’re looking for cannot be found inside a number five capsule… when they try, that’s where I come in. I carry a badge.”
Chilling. Clear. Concise. There’s no mysticism. No clairvoyance. Just Friday, alone, standing sentinel over the Grail of moral order.
Post-modernity holds no truck with such notions. There are no absolutes. Thus, we need magic and mystery – even if that mystery comes from a science we don’t quite understand. If any order emerges, it is contingent, fleeting and permeable.