Vintage Cop Shows – Why Is The Cop On The Job?
I recently had a question from a reader about how different Character Types do the same job OR how the same Character Types might do a job differently. This previous post answers both questions. I love questions from readers. Be sure to submit yours.
Three cop shows changed forever how police work is depicted on television. Each show was original and iconic in its own time. Each remains an example of emotional storytelling at peak intensity and engagement. Let’s look at Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue and the lessons that can be drawn going forward.
Hill Street Blues redefined the cop/crime genre through intertwined partnerships that combined police officers’ stressful work lives with the conflicts in their private lives. Very few investigations or interrogations were ever featured on the show. Instead, each episode charted a “day in the life” of the precinct from the early-morning roll call to a late-night rehash of the day’s events. This recap was usually in the bedroom with lovers Captain Furillo and Public Defender Joyce Davenport. Hill Street Blues focused almost exclusively on the interpersonal relationships between the core cast members. The show also introduced a more “documentary” look and feel to the genre. Real-life personal issues and situations were explored in a raw and more explicit manner than previously depicted on earlier shows such as Columbo or Kojak. Real-life street slang was used throughout the program.
Homicide: Life on the Street exploded television racial stereotypes with multi-dimensional complex depictions of African Americans. The show was set in Baltimore, a predominately black American city. The storylines managed to cross racial barriers that were previously taboo on television. Homicide also broke many of television’s editing and narrative continuity rules. Jump cuts were numerous and unpredictable shifts in the narrative marked it as one of the most unconventional programs at that point in the genre. With a sharp unflinching honesty about race, prejudice and violence, the detective’s job is depicted as repetitive and emotionally draining. The show examined the enormous toll that policing took on individuals and on partnerships.
NYPD Blue was set against the backdrop of urban decay in New York City. Career cops were depicted as complicated, complex and often deeply flawed human beings. Although the show featured risky adult material, most of the stories were about families and the terrible emotional aftermath of violence. Less attention was paid to the crimes than how the crimes affected the relationships in the core cast. NYPD Blue was really about one man’s journey toward redemption. Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) began the show as a drunken abusive racist cop who is about to be thrown off the force (for good reason). Seventeen years later, he’s earned the top position in the precinct and, although still Andy, is fit to lead.
Each of these classic cop shows focused on the “Why” of the human cop story rather than the “How” of the crime story. That’s what made them successful. And that’s what separates these shows from the current generation of procedural cop shows like Law & Order (and all its varieties). But even in the Dick Wolf Law & Order universe, “Why” each person does the job is based on the individual’s very clear Character Type. For example: Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), over many years on the show, still wrestles with the same questions of ethical principle vs. political expediency and law vs. justice. His “Why” is clearly driven by the Power of Conscience.
In a one-hour drama it is only possible to do one thing well– procedure or personal relationships. There isn’t time to do both well. There currently is lots of procedure on television. Perhaps it’s time for the pendulum to swing back to emotional personal relationships in cop shows.
Clear true emotions travel. They connect with the audience and move them week after week to watch a show. The definition of “to be entertained” is to feel something. In the classic cop shows discussed above, the mechanics of “How” a crime is solved is so much less important than “Why” the cops are doing what they are doing and “Why” they are affected by the job. If there is no “Why” it’s just cops going through the motions, which can make a story feel by-the-numbers and hollow.
The “Why” provides the passion and inter-personal conflict between the individuals in the story (and all the internal conflict within the character). Too often writers simply project their general idea of being a cop and the mechanics of “How” to put the cops through their paces— Instead of being specific about “Why” one particular individual is a cop.
There are four basic categories of “Why” anyone becomes a cop (or anything else for that matter):
1. It’s a job. Being a cop is solid union employment and a way to make a living or support a family. The cop does what is expected and punches out. The cop puts in the time and is concerned and responsible on the job. But he or she doesn’t take the job home and retires as soon as is feasible.
2. It’s a career. Being a cop is a good opportunity for advancement. The cop is working to achieve something else. The job is a means to an end (rising through the ranks, running for political office, becoming a consultant etc.) It is a stepping- stone to something else and worth the hard work and extra effort to achieve a larger goal.
3. It’s a vocation. Being a cop is a life mission or a higher calling. The cop is there to make a difference, have an important impact or change people’s lives. The work is a consuming passion for the cop. There is no dividing line between work and personal life. Work is the cop’s life.
4. It’s a mistake. Being a cop is not a good fit. The individual is a cop for the wrong reasons or the wrong motivations. Or the reality of the job doesn’t conform to the idea of the job or the fantasy of being a cop. In any case, the individual puts in the time and effort, got the job and now is trapped.
Any kind of employment, but particularly policing, has a variety of people who look at the “Why” of doing the job very differently. All individuals naturally assume their “Why” is the most valid reason or, if everyone else was honest, is the real motivation “Why” anyone works at the Station House or Precinct. This is a great opportunity for personal conflict in a story. Too often in cop shows (or shows featuring any profession) everyone is doing the job for the same reason. That isn’t the case in life and it shouldn’t be the case in your drama.
Layered onto “Why” someone is employed as a police officer (it’s a job, a career, a vocation or a mistake) is the “Why” of the individual’s Character Type. Looking down on nine different police officers toiling away long into the night it might be easy or convenient to believe they are all working hard for the same internal motivation or with the same value system and world view in mind. Every one of the Nine Character Types sees the world very differently, believes very different things about how the world works, and sees the primary role of a cop from a unique perspective.
1. Power of Conscience cops believe policing is a duty and a responsibility to make the world a better place. Doing the right thing is crucial to these kinds of cops. Their struggle is what is the higher duty or the most right—law or justice. (These two principles are not the same thing). Hill Street Blues‘ Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) is this kind of character. Howard Hunter (James B. Sikking) is the comic version on the same show. Homicide’s Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) is also a Power of Conscience character. Rylan Givens (Timothy Oliphant) is a more recent example.
2. Power of Will cops believe policing is a matter of strength and the ability to dominate the situation. The use of power is crucial to these kinds of cops. Their struggle is what actually constitutes strength or power— excess or restraint. (Does compassion and tolerance make you stronger or weaker?) NYPD Blue’s Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) is this kind of character. A more recent example is Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) on The Shield.
3. Power of Ambition cops believe policing is a matter of winning or losing. Appealing to other’s self-interest is the way to get things done. Their struggle is with short cuts vs. the long hard patient slog—results or process. (If no one else plays by the rules why should they?) Hill Street Blues‘ John “JD” LaRue (Kiel Martin) is a Power of Ambition character. A more recent example is Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) on The Wire.
4. Power of Love cops believe policing is caring for others and helping them succeed. Compassion and understanding is crucial to how they get the job done. Their struggle is when to employ “tough love” or just give up on someone. (When does empathy or understanding simply enable bad or destructive behavior?) NYPD Blue’s Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) is this kind of character. Another example is Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) on Hill Street Blues.
5. Power of Idealism cops believe policing is a matter of individual style and personal excellence. Use of unique talents and refusing to buckle under to stupid bureaucrats is crucial to their method of policing. Their struggle is how to maintain their individuality and still be part of a larger organization. (When does being a maverick or a rebel cause more harm than good?) Homicide’s Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) illustrates the Power of Idealism character as a cop. A more example is Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) on The Wire.
6. Power of Reason cops believe policing is a matter of keeping personal self-control and maintaining the social order. Objectivity, expertise and a depth of knowledge are crucial to getting the job done. Their struggle is to connect with their own emotions. (When is objectivity actually alienation?) Dexter’s title character (Michael C. Hall) is one of the best recent examples of this kind of character on the police force. Monk’s title character (Tony Shalhoub) is the comedic example.
7. Power of Truth cops believe policing is a matter of uncovering secret agendas and avoiding hidden pitfalls. Establishing trust, knowing who your friends are and being attuned to conspiracies are crucial to getting the job done. Their struggle is to accept the ambiguity of the job and the possibility of never finding real certainty. (Is the “truth” a moving target or something fixed and certain?) Homicide’s conspiracy obsessed Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) is this kind of character. Hill Street Blues’ loyal to the core Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) is another example. Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) on the UK version of Wallendar is a more recent example.
8. Power of Imagination cops believe policing is a matter of listening to your instincts, following hunches and special intuitive clues. Often access to what others cannot see or hear or a quirky special kind of insight is crucial to doing their job. Their struggle is how to interpret their unusual intuition or how best to communicate it to others. (Do they take me seriously or do they think I’m crazy?) This kind of cop is rare on television. Hill Street Blues’ Michael (Mick) Belker (Bruce Weitz) is an uncouth ruffian version of the Power of Imagination character. A more recent example is police consultant Allison DuBois (Patricia Arquette) in Medium.
9. Power of Excitement cops believe policing is an adventure and a thrill ride. Their charm, good-humor and ability to get themselves in and out of traps is crucial to how they do their job. Their struggle is in following orthodox rules when it is so much more interesting to play fast and loose, improvise and shoot from the hip. (Are we having fun yet?) Beverly Hills Cop’s Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is the quintessential example of this character.
The “Why” of policing combined with Character Type creates a variety of complex and interesting individuals. It would be possible, for example, to create four very different Power of Conscience characters depending on whether they view policing as a job, as a career, as a vocation or as a mistake. Their values and their world views would not change but their attitudes would clash. For example: How these characters define their “higher duty” or what is the “most right” is hugely influenced by the reason they are on the job. Those different perspectives provide enormous potential conflict. Here is the breakdown:
1. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a job would probably believe the higher duty is owed to family. This cop would follow the rules, be conscientious and not take the job home.
2. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a career would probably believe the higher duty is owed to the organization or society. The higher the cop rises, the more effective the position becomes to do good and improve the larger situation. This cop would be relentless in seeking opportunities to advance a larger moral agenda.
3. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a vocation probably believes the higher duty is owed to the victims of crime. This cop’s passion would be justice for the victims and punishment for the criminals. His or her personal life would be consumed by this life mission.
4. A Power of Conscience cop who see policing as a mistake would probably believe the higher duty is owed to one’s self. Policing can be a murky business where there often is no right answer and true justice is hard to find. This lack of clear-cut black and white or right and wrong would probably be an unbearable burden on this individual– giving rise to external moral outrage and internal guilt or self-loathing. How can I be good or worthy in a cesspool?
Creating an ensemble which clearly addresses “Why” the cop is on the job combined with Character Type provides an endless source of internal and external conflict. Making use of the full variety of human experience in specific combination creates memorable partnerships, unforgettable enemies and extraordinary individual characters.