Thoughts on TV police procedurals as ideology
I’ve been meaning to write something about crime fiction. The protests against the police murders of African Americans and the police rage riots in response to these protests compel me to say something . . . anything . . . now.
I’m a fan of certain crime writers and an unofficial student of the literary genre, as well as film and television crime fiction. Today, I want to talk about one particular sub-genre of crime fiction (in this case the television kind): the police procedural.
Prior to early fifties television, American media cooperated with Hoover’s FBI to make radio police procedurals like G-Men and Gangbusters. The first televised police procedural I remember, having been born in 1951, was Dragnet. Anyone who hasn’t seen it, check it out. This was the embryo of the hugely successful and still running Law & Order. Sergeant Joe Friday was the protagonist, a detective with the LAPD.
I’ll remind readers here that when this show aired, in 1951 (until 1957), that the actual LAPD was run — like the whole city government — by a pack of local oligarchs which included ruthless Hollywood moguls, corrupt real estate developers, and organized crime. The police force had been recruited from the ranks of out-of-state racists, many from the South, and was known locally for its brutality, especially directed at blacks and Chicanos. Los Angeles itself was a cesspool of money-grubbing fraud, vice, and violent “primitive accumulation.” It’s this disconnect between reality and the police procedural I’d like to explore.
American social imaginary
The police procedural television series has been formative of the American imagination. Television itself has served as the greatest tool for ideological conformity in history. Television, of course, as a kind of mass sedative, caught on beyond the toy-castles of postwar suburbia. It served as a sedative for the poor as well as the up-and-coming suburban white “silent majority.” That’s why it continues to function so effectively as an ideological conformity machine today. It was through this intravenous infusion of cathode-ray-ideology that I, myself, as a child, transdermally soaked up the (white) American social imaginary about policing.
Cop dramas, most of them, are both entertainment and pro-police propaganda. Looking back, the propaganda masterstroke of the horrific Bush II administration’s Iraq occupation was the “embedded reporter.” Reporters lived with the troops, sharing to an extent the same dangers originating from the same sources as the soldiers. They formed personal relationships with them, and embedded reporters predictably came to share the point of view of the military. The police procedural is written. Writers who write police procedurals research their material by forming relationships with cops. Writers are then entrained within the interpretive frameworks of the police.
Viewers of these writers’ audiovisual stories, likewise, have been indoctrinated from childhood to such an extent that the entire signification matrix which constitutes our “world view” is in jeopardy from today’s developments. Cop shows figure so heavily into this view, this social imaginary, that if the liberal fantasy of police is being undermined, the entire epistemological architecture is destabilized as a result.
The episteme of the police procedural wields cultural power, especially among white, economically comfortable, and sheltered people who have been spared police abuse. They really do not know that modern police trace their lineage to slave catchers and mercenary thugs. They’ve had “reality” pumped into them from a screen.
“ . . . an elite squad of detectives who investigate these vicious felonies . . .”
Using the Law & Order television series now, the whole franchise which includes generic Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Law & Order : Special Victims Unit , and so forth— let’s peek at the content and meanings. I’ve been watching that show for years now and thinking about this. Law & Order: SVU is now the longest running American Prime Time series, so I’ll tight-focus on that.
The program format, with a few exceptions when they went for pretentiously artful bullshit, is (1) the investigation, (2) the arrest, and (3) the prosecution. In other words, there are two sets of heroes each episode — cops and prosecutors.
Like Dragnet, every show portrays cops and prosecutors as an especially enlightened body that stands between daily civilized life and some horrific danger, or chaos — those who stand watch at the gates of civilization, allowing the rest of us sheep-like citizens to go about our days in blissful ignorance of the dark and ever present danger beyond.
Like Dragnet, L&O portrays interactions between police and citizens to be those of an adult talking with a child. The regular people are frequently represented as clueless, silly, and naive. My dad disliked Dragnet, to our childish chagrin, for “making everybody but the cops look like kooks.” (He’d had several bad interactions with police in his life.)
Modern crime fiction — text or audiovisual — has a mixed pedigree. On the one hand we have Sherlock Holmes, valorizing Enlightenment reason in its application to the investigation of crimes, and on the other hand, Edgar Allen Poe’s crime fiction exploring the dark inner stirrings of crime — like revenge. The crime fiction “cozies” of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers in the early twentieth century gave way to the “hardboiled” or “noir” fiction of the post-war period, from Dashiell Hammett on the left to Mickey Spillane on the right.
Noir fiction, in particular, was driven more by character development than the technics. It abandoned the Sherlock trope of uber-rationality, and it often included more than a little class criticism. There’s still a truism that the thriller genre is more suited to right-wing views, whereas the Noir whodunit is more suited to left-wing perspectives.
Police procedurals are spread across the field, as a flexible genre — not unlike the Western — a canvas upon which a writer can paint his or her own picture. Look at the different perspectives, for example, of Law & Order compared to Seven Seconds and Happy Valley.
As an aside on Happy Valley, a high quality UK production like one of my own faves, Broadchurch, one thing that sets many Brit productions apart from US productions is the American emphasis and reliance upon guns to move the plot along. Brit cops do not routinely carry firearms (something I wish US cops would emulate, but we have more guns than people in the US), nor are most Brits obsessed with guns in the same way as Americans —it’s a cultural thing.
Guns of redemption
On Law & Order, coming back to that now, guns are whipped out on nearly every episode. Film and television, especially in the US, have from the very inception of American film given a central place to the gun and to gun violence (committed by the right people) as redemptive.
When today’s rookie cop leaves the academy, s/he starts out seeing cops as guardians of civilization and gun violence as redemptive (as well as hero-making). That cop, too, has been indoctrinated almost from birth. In time, of course, this cop integrates into real cop culture and is schooled by supervisors and peers into a different relation . . . bully, occupier, enforcer, shock troop.
My belief, based on my own contact with police: Contrary to their virtue-signalling claims, cops are not averse to using their guns. Most of them fantasize about it, leaning in, looking for the chance. They joined the force in the hope that they would one day have a chance to prove themselves while achieving positive social recognition (esteem/reputation) by shooting and killing another human being. They fantasize about it the same way many soldiers do.
And still we wonder why — with increasing cover provided by the courts through doctrines like “qualified immunity” — cops whip out their guns not as protection against actual threats but as a way of communicating a deadly threat to “problematic” citizens.
What do I mean by redemptive violence?
To answer that, we turn to the psychological plot of most police procedurals. The world is stable and ordered until a threat appears to that order — usually some monstrous caricature of an individual. The procedural’s standard narrative arc is that the police, as guardians of civilization (patrolling in “the concrete jungle”), step in to destroy the threat; and the disorder is vanquished . . . we can all go about our lives again, with cops standing on the boundary between all that is orderly and all that is evil. When they shoot the bad guy, the world is redeemed from the threat of chaos.
The policeman is your friend
I’ll make mostly broad claims here about various tropes that reoccur throughout Law & Order SVU. These reflect reoccurring tropes, and because there were like a million writers submitting scripts, there are exceptions to most of these tropes, and I don’t mean to disparage everything about this program.
Law & Order SVU purports specifically to represent the New York City Police Department (a forty thousand strong pack of thugs). On Law & Order, NYPD is comprised of bright, attractive, articulate, interesting, and likeable people who are driven by oversized consciences and an intense concern for the public. They are perpetually distressed by the ethical quandary of Kantian duty-ethics (letter of the law) versus Benthamite utilitarianism (the end justifies the means).
There is an occasional “bad apple” cop who appears, but the preponderance of good police — who purportedly depict ‘the real system’ — always zero in and excise the cancer. Self-policing police. The system works, the system works, the system works . . .
In this imaginary world, there is a category of subhuman that merits neither the respect of law enforcement officers nor the sympathy of the viewer: the perp. This dehumanization extends temporarily to the suspect, who — for the good of general order and our way of life — can be bullied, lied to, and threatened . . . things that the good police can do with a clear conscience because they’re the guardians at the gate . . . what stands between “us” and the dangerous wild animals (subhumans, “scumbags,” perps) who threaten civilization. The TV cop episteme, laced with PG-ified, teen-friendly hardboiled dialogue and manipulative, obnoxious moralizing.
In a society that’s relentlessly hostile to rooted cultures — modernity itself has been a protracted war on subsistence that dissolves people’s connection to the land — integration can be achieved through the manufacture of mass culture that flows out through televisions (and now social media).
People are not naturally uprooted. We cry out for some kind of ground, and these reassuring audiovisual hallucinations with their simple, familiar story lines are late capitalism’s reply to the desperation that inheres in a culture where there is no longer any attachment to tradition or place. Before television, human beings didn’t spend eight-plus hours a day with these illusions being pumped into their heads. Television is the heavy artillery of the culture industry. Even with the rise of other social media platforms, Americans still spend seven hours and fifty minutes a day watching this shit, a drop of only a hour in the last ten years, and the number is again rising.
This isn’t some mechanical process where the media screws off the tops of our heads and pours in content. Television is constantly innovating. Like all capitalists they have to constantly refresh their product lines. It’s more subtle and dangerous than that. As Omar Wason, a media critic, notes (I’m paraphrasing here), “media can’t tell you what to think, but it can tell you what to think about.”
Dick Wolf, the creator of Law & Order, started as an ad man, and broke into cop TV with Hill Street Blues, the blues here not referring the a state of mind of the oppressed or the musical style that reflects it, but the police — the blue line of defense between civilization and all those brutes and psychos. The cop drama master trope.
Tropes: bad seeds and the disciplinary state
Don’t even get me started on the Hannibal-Lecter-knockoff, brilliant-serial-killer trope, which serves as a foil for one of the biggest con-games in law enforcement — criminal psychological profiling.
Dr. George Wong (played by B.D. Huang) is SVU’s forensic psychiatrist and profiler — an almost stock character now, the man or woman who has special, nearly gnostic insight into the minds of “criminals,” criminals which the show relentlessly taxonomizes as if they were separate species with genetically coded behaviors. A “serial,” a “pedophile,” a “rapist,” not to say there aren’t people who kill serially (apart from the military, and almost always men), people who molest children (mostly men), and people who rape (overwhelmingly men). (See here for women [honorary men] who behave like men to move up.)
It’s the reduction of these various “species” of criminal to their crimes comfortably suggesting that these are inhering characteristics of the perpetrators. Bad seeds, partial-humans, damaged goods. SVU, in particular, is prone to this kind of biological determinism, this naturalization of “crime,” and its correlative apotheosis of the pseudosciences of forensic psychiatry and criminal profiling. Foucault would have a field day with this stuff. The only time I’ve seen a critique of biological determinism in the program is when defense attorneys use some version of it to excuse the behavior of a defendant. Biological determinism of the “bad seed,” the “sociopath”: good. Biological determinism to defend a criminal: bad.
Authoritarian government can now incarcerate people based on diagnoses instead of “criminal” actions. An authoritarian government that can’t afford to represent itself as authoritarian — I call the American version “absorptive authoritarianism” (another post perhaps) — can play the shell game of incarceration for cause or incarceration for “mental defect.”
Think about how these programs naturalize social ills by individualizing them. This is manifest in the police procedural as the irredeemable perp, the defective, monstrous human individual that has to be caged or put down. Naturalization leads to normalization. Normalization of what?
In line with this disciplinary state is surveillance society, another pernicious phenomenon that is relentlessly promoted on Law & Order as a valuable, nay necessary, weapon in the defense of orderly society. “Check the security cameras.” “Run the data on his phone.” “Get a warrant for electronic surveillance.” We’ve learned to accept, even embrace, the surveillance society “for our own good.”
Respectability and art
Our lifelong indoctrination by these PG-14 prime time “crime” stories leads us to cheer along our hero detectives, actively wishing they would take that illegal procedural shortcut, pound on that perp, bully and intimidate that person of interest. We lean forward for our dose of redemptive violence. What draws us back to these narratives is the reassurance that violence will be directed only those who “deserve it.” And herein is the basis of the Big Lie in the background of Law & Order and like-minded television police procedurals — that “the system works,” and “bad cops” are merely bad apples . . . aberrations, rather than the products of an established and morally bankrupt practice and its culture, one that has by now nearly completed a dangerous process of militarization.
PG-14 is the ‘respectability zone’ where no story can question the legitimacy of the police. The very act of uncritically watching the PG-14 police procedural begins with passive acceptance of the public school line of the police being heroes — the domestic version of our symbolic soldier worship. The most questionable premise of the whole enterprise is smuggled in before the story begins. That’s only possible when we’re thoroughly habituated already.
None of this is to say that the police procedural of the Law & Order species (PG-14, prime time) is solely reducible to propaganda. Yes, the agency of the viewers is truncated, but what takes place in the telling of stories is inescapably interactive between the production and the viewer. There are social norms and ideas, translatable as story, prior to production; and if the story strays too far from those preexisting values and desires, it will be rejected by the audience. Audiences influence stories, and stories influence audiences. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? It’s the dialectic of mass culture production.
From the standpoint of the storyteller, the cop show can grab viewers like any good fiction . . . conflict to maintain dramatic tension and conditions of extremity to test the true character of the protagonist(s). Where better to find this conflict and extremity than on the boundaries between law and crime? Even if those boundaries are not representative of the actual netherworld of law and crime.
I studied Shakespeare many years ago, in spite of the fact that he was a deeply conservative anti-Semite, because while his plays were historically inaccurate and he failed to meet certain moral ideals (retrojected onto him by me), they do give us a glimpse into the time and its temper, into the hegemonic ideology of his period and place. And Shakespeare, as well as some of the many writers for Law & Order, can exercise their craft with great skill in spite of ideological or moral shortcomings. (Law & Order has some good writing, as well as plenty of insipid liberal shit.)
Tempo task & acceptable sadism
Law & Order functions like war stories do, aiming our attention at attractive characters with whom we identify, simultaneously foreclosing any examination of the systemic realm. The viewer is pulled along by the plot and dialogue, entranced by the investigation, then thrilled by the tempo task.
The tempo task is a device thus named by film maker Sergei Eisenstein, wherein the protagonist is confronted by a danger so urgent that there is no longer any time to follow the rules. There is a bomb in the subway. Is it now okay to beat the shit out of a suspect to get the location of the bomb?
In 2012, director Katherine Bigelow received Department of Defense cooperation for her (and the government’s) fictionalized account of the assassination of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, a film that used the “tempo task” to justify torture — even when the story line about the torture was itself a fabrication. It was more important for Bigelow to make her “ethical” argument in favor of torture than to represent actual events; and the tempo task got her there.
The tempo task softens us up to accept certain forms of brutality, another accomplishment of the Law & Order form of pop crime fiction. It feeds our own aggression, inures us to accept forms of sadism . . . even celebrate it. Our identification with our favorite protagonists allows us to enjoy when that suspect is abused. We give our tacit approval to the cop who threatens to put a “snitch jacket” on a “perp,” tantamount to a death threat. They relish saying, “They’re going to put the needle in your arm.”
SVU frequently validates the horror of American prisons by celebrating prison rape as just desserts. SVU is a show purportedly on the side of sexual assault victims. Yet Olivia and Eliot gleefully tell the perp he’s going to be raped in prison, because rape is only bad when it happens to the wrong people. There’s good rape and bad rape apparently. When you are one of the brutes who need policing, you’re — like black women in the Old and New South — no longer sufficiently human to be raped.
Eliot’s unoriginal masculine archetype, as well as Fin’s, is a complete mindfuck about sex police, a massive cover-up of the fact that the macho-man is far more likely to be a rapist than any non-macho-man demographic. Machismo is in many ways at the center of actual rape culture.
Eliot’s a bully in a time when we claim that society is turning against bullying. I guess we mean bullying children, though I’ve seen that on Law & Order, too. When children are bad seeds, they’re inevitably going to offend anyway, so why not?
Any brake on the police bullying their way through investigations is portrayed as either naive or malicious. Lenient judges or jurors are demonized. The public now (or prior to the George Floyd murder) has the lowest opinion of police who police the police — internal affairs, called “the rat squad” on Law & Order, because oversight of cops is perverse. Rat, we might remind readers, is slang that hearkens back to crime syndicates. (Irony, no? Or is it analog?)
Leniency is demonized, and compassion is marginalized through caricatures. Activists,for example, are consistently portrayed on Law & Order as dangerous loons or crass opportunists, a narrative directly out of the right-wing playbook.
Law & Order has two spheres — enforcement and trial. The aforementioned struggle between duty-ethics and consequentialist utilitarianism is played out in the form of ethical quandaries that pit the police (as utilitarians) against the prosecutors (duty-ethicists). Again, this struggle is imaginary. Cops, judges, and prosecutors are pals in a club that is self-insulated and driven by metrics.
Police misconduct, prosecutorial misconduct, and judicial misconduct as well as incompetence are so ubiquitous as to almost be the norm. Truly, a nest of vipers. Everybody is trying to score points, and the public could be roadkill for all they give a shit. Note how bad convictions, even when there is evidence to show these are bad convictions, is automatically resisted . . . how prosecutors actually try to block new evidence when it threatens their conviction scores.
Prosecutors aren’t nice-looking, personable, conscientious, idealistic lawyers. They are predators. Exceptions, of course, but ruthlessness is more the norm.
Many convictions are accomplished through plea deals (few cases actually go to trial). This is particularly awful for the poor, because a prosecutor can accuse, then offer a deal for a confession. If the accused has insufficient funds for a robust defense, that person can feel compelled to accept the deal as the lesser of two evils, even if they are innocent, resulting in a lifelong record that makes this person a target of the police until the day they die.
Prosecutors are elected, so they pander to their electorate, which seldom includes their victims, victims who have been disenfranchised by conviction. They generally run on “toughness,” which sets up a kind of arms race of cruelty. Who can be the meanest to those sub-humans, those pre-demonized by shows like Law & Order?
When collars and conviction rates become the main metrics, justice is euthanized. What’s next? Body counts?
Why does this matter beyond being a kind of academic critique? Beyond being timely as the character and role of the police is called into question in an historic way right now?
Because Siberia is on fire. Because actual unemployment is now one out of five adults. Because fascists have come back out into the open and re-valorized racism and woman-hatred. Because the pandemic just broke out of the gate again, and there may be a swine flue pandemic on its heels. Because the economy is in the shitter and won’t recover, and capital is showing its true colors by demanding we die rather than quit working for them. Because cops all over the country went on a rampage against the public for demanding they are accountable.
We are in the context of an upcoming General Election. Donald Trump is the main target, as it should be, speaking from a purely tactical perspective. Even though, through his fundamental stupidity, he has gone further than anyone in recent memory to tearing apart the former relations and institutions that secure transnational capital as well as American hegemony (ironic, eh, for MAGA). The problem with Trump is that he might launch a nuke over a perceived insult while he’s accidentally undermining capitalism.
Which may fool us into a state of pre-complacency about a Biden administration. Law & Order liberal ideology is at the heart of the revised Democratic establishment, which has adopted almost identically the positions taken by the Bush administration — neoliberals who are neoconservatives. These people are now in league with the whole security state apparatus — FBI, CIA, NSA, and fucking cops. The neocon Democratic Party, which we shall have to begin attacking the day after the election, is the truest servant of capital; and they will use the security state to secure their power and that of capital as the current social unrest continues to explode. The reason defeating Trump is so urgent right now is that Trumpophobia has been the organizing principle of the DP ever since it started being challenged from the left. Remove Trump, and they stand naked.
That Law & Order ideology is on the rocks right now, and it has to be demolished as the future cover for security state Democrats. But to challenge it, we need to be aware of how it works.
My two cents.