TV Cops

Beat Generation

The Bill, The Cops, The Vice, Taggart, NYPD Blue…
People are always complaining about the number of cop shows on television and I am one of them. Why aren’t there more cop shows on television ! It’s an outrage.

Yes I will put my hands up to the charge. I am banged to rights. I am addicted to cop shows.

Raised on cop shows like The Sweeney, Hazell, and 667 episodes of Z Cars, I am part of what seems like an entire generation – the beat generation: viewers who will watch any cop show and whose appetite knows no bounds.
(I even watched every episode of Without Motive in which Grant from EastEnders had mysteriously joined CID.)

Cop shows have evolved into two categories: soaps and thrillers, based primarily on cops on the beat and detectives. Really ambitious, high quality dramas like The Bill and Taggart attempt to straddle both, which is a fine trick if you can do it, but not if you can’t. (Just look at spin-off series like Burnside or the nonsensical Beech On The Run, which combined the worst aspects of Magnum and Baywatch – namely car chases to the sound of guitar solos.)

TV series about local bobbies on the beat have changed out of all recognition – mostly by way of mirroring the type of crimes being carried out on our streets. In a way TV cop dramas have been forged by documentaries – series like Police, The Nick, and Murder Squad – which changed our cop shows because, once we knew the grim, gritty realities of your average police station in Leeds, we expected to see that reality reflected in fictional stations too.

So Dixon of Dock Green, Z Cars, and Softly Softly inspired The Bill, Mersey Beat, Out of The Blue, and The Cops. (Or “the fookin cops” as I, and most of the characters themselves, used to call it.)

But even shows like these – in which the police investigate bog-standard break-ins, muggings and kids joy-riding – are in danger of becoming as out-dated as an episode of Heartbeat – cops shows where the chase scenes take place on FOOT for example.

I used to like these shows and their ridiculously minor retro crimes (shop-lifting ! Graffitti !) but these days they are mostly confined to old episodes of The Bill on UK Gold or nostalgia compilations like I Love 1984 in which you see a clip of Juliet Bravo warning her squad, “someone is selling heroin powder in Hartley.”

Yes the days when the likes of Frank Burnside (a sort of orange gorilla rampaging round Sarf London terrifying lowlife criminals) used to complain about the toms, grasses, snouts, juvis, slags and scrotes on his manor seem to be over. Sun Hill has been spiced up, transformed, into the crime capital of Europe, over-run with Yardie gun-runners, Eastern European prostitute rackets, and Rwandan war-lords.

The Bill also became a soap – after EastEnders and Coronation Street, probably the best soap on TV – aiming at combining the tawdry and mundane nature of the cops’ daily lives with the glamour of the crimes they were investigating. Polly and Dave and Jim Carver went under-cover so often, it was almost a shock to see them in uniform. When they started going under COVERS. (Polly and Dave, not Dave and Jim, cop dramas changed, though personally I preferred it when they were just plods walking the beat chasing pickpockets.)

The blueprint for this of course was Hill Street Blues, still the greatest cop show ever made and the reason why we still tend to think of America as the home of the cop show.

The cop-series-cum-soap (Touch of Frost, Prime Suspect, Cracker, Touching Evil) invariably portrays the grim, grimy, grubby little lives of Her Majesty’s Constabulary, where our heroes’ private lives are falling miserably apart.

The Bill has, apparently, had a re-think against the soap format – finally realising that we are ultimately more interested in the crimes than the people solving them.

This is essentially what the British do best, why they make the best cop shows in the world. (American shows like Homicide: Life On The Street, NYPD Blue and the glossy post-Quincy Channel 5 series CSI are terrific but still living off Steven Bocho’s former glories like Hill Street.)

The secret and the main reason why we love cop shows remains each one is a whodunnit in miniature.

The best Hill Street proteges, like Barry Levinson’s superlative Homicide: Life On The Street (where one murder – the Adina Watson ran through an entire series, like a 14 hour movie), have operated as detective series.

Intricate, intriguing high quality cop shows like Inspector Morse, Taggart, and Prime Suspect tax the brain – place the viewer in the role of detective. Taggart for example is literally impossible to work out who done the murder (or “mordagh” as they all call it) because the killer doesn’t appear in the cast of suspects until fifteen minutes from the end. In fact, you can usually only work out the killer because he/she is the only who hasn’t been murdered.

We can’t get enough of show like these. (Even when like Touching Evil, they star Robson Green – although we draw the line at Nick Berry’s In Deep.)

Prime Suspect, Taggart, and Cracker have inspired the BBC’s Crime Doubles, The Vice, Touching Evil, Messiah.

Increasingly dark and twisted, they also put us in the role of the victim and the victim’s family and sometimes the killer as well as the detective. Serial killer/child-snatcher dramas have become to proliferate, satisfying our morbid curiosity with the worst possible crimes.

The bottom line is we like being frightened.

Cop shows like Millennium, Cracker, Prime Suspect, Silent Witness, Messiah, Touching Evil, Taggart, The Vice… are the new horror shows – the Thrillers of the 70s, slick hommages/copies of films like Seven and Silence of the Lambs.

They have become sleazier and more gory. The detectives in The Vice are committing more Vice than most of their suspects.

I for one am all for it.