Part 1: Where They Went Right
When I was growing up, the first truly great drama that I ever watched was NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street. I’ve already written an entire book about the essence of what made it a great show, so what I want to deal with was why it was a great police drama.
Set in Baltimore, based on David Simon’s book and ran by Tom Fontana, Homicide rewrote the book on what police were supposed to be. They weren’t the icons of Kojak or SWAT; hell, sometimes you actually feared what would happened in one of tried to run. They saw just how badly broken the war on drugs was as far back as 1993. While some of them thought being a policeman was a calling, most of them viewed in a cynical way. (One of the very first lines uttered on the show was when a rookie was asking if this was homicide, a veteran detective said: “Homicide? We work for God.” The African-American Lieutenant was anything but a straw man; there were as many black cops as there were black criminals, and the bosses only cared for the rank and file as for whether they made the Baltimore PD look good.
Perhaps most strike, there was no police brutality. Confessions were extracted by getting the suspects — most of whom were portrayed not as masterminds, but simpletons — to ignore what should have been the most obvious thing: to act in their own self-interest and shut up. The greatest moments in Homicide were not chase scenes of shootouts, but watching Frank Pembleton or Tim Bayliss get a confession by barely raising his voice an octave. They would bend the law, but never break it. Nearly thirty years after it debuted, I have to see a network cop drama like it. Which may be part of our problem as a nation.
Both Fontana and Simon chafed at the level of pressure they got from the network to do things “normally”, and it was a rebellion against that pressure that led both Fontana and Simon to eventually go to HBO for more creative freedom, and not coincidentally, usher in the New Golden Age. Most of the freedom they wanted was to express themselves using the obscenities and violence they were never allowed to do on NBC, but another part of it had to do with express ideas that network television in 1997 (and maybe even now) just wouldn’t let them.
Fontana moved out first, and ended up created the prison drama Oz. Set in a state and city that were never named, the Oswald State Correctional Facility housed criminals who were truly without redemption, officials who believe in punishment rather than reform, and a unit management trying his hardest to build a better life for his inmates, most of whom don’t want it.
Oz is remembered for the excessive brutality and nudity that it featured (I believe that it averaged one inmate death per episode), but it would try to shout out about the injustice in the criminal justice system. Most of it was expressed through the Greek chorus of Augustus Hill, a narrator whose ability to break the fourth wall was never really explained. But perhaps the best moment where it spoke the plainest about how stacked the deck was same in the first season finale.
In the midst of a riot, Em City manager Tim McManus and leader Kareem Said have an epic conversation. McManus tries to convince Said that they ‘are on the verge of disaster… before we all join hands and jump, I want another chance.” Said tells him. “…the best prison wouldn’t be good enough. I’m not saying the men in this prison are here because of the crimes they committed, but the color of their skin! Their lack of education! The fact that they are poor! This riot isn’t… about life in prison. It’s about the whole hoary judicial system! We don’t need better prisons! Safer prisons. We need better justice! Now what can you do about that?”
And the tragedy is, McManus can do very little. Even when Em City is reestablished the next season, almost every major effort McManus and his colleagues try to do fail, mostly at the hands of a law-and-order governor who himself completely corrupt and amoral. (He gives the orders for the sort team to break up the riot that leads to eight deaths and creates a commission to vindicate his decision.) The sad thing about Oz, is that even a quarter century later, all of its arguments for prison reform are still valid and unfulfilled.
Simon’s approach was less graphic in violence but more revolutionary in execution. A lot has been said about The Wire since its premiere about Simon and company’s attempt to paint a picture of the death of the American dream, but for now, let’s just deal with its view of policing. Because the Baltimore PD of The Wire is thoroughly and completely broken, starting with the fact that the cops are still using typewriters to fill out their reports in the Pilot.
The idea of doing policework has been completely laid to waste. No one in the department is interesting in doing anything to actually investigate crime. The task force is started just to please a judge, is filled with the dregs of the department, and is just supposed to make a few “buy and busts” to please the judge. Every attempt to widen the investigation is thwarted by the brass every step of the way, not because their corrupt (ac common misconception) but because “that’s the way things are done.” The fact that the way things are done has led to a literal state of urban decay in the city doesn’t matter to the brass who are just interested in getting things done well enough to get promoted. The people who are interested in fixing things, like Captain Daniels and Detective McNulty are punished for sticking their heads out. The legal system is no more interested in making things better than the cops are. And as each successive season demonstrates, this utter decay has happened because of flaws in society: the death of blue-collar labor, the corruption and ambition of politicians, the utter wretchedness of the educational system, and the deterioration of the media. And since no one at the national level is interested in fixing these flaws, the spiral will never end.
All three of these series have been recognize among the greatest and most revolutionary ever made. And if the world were to take them seriously as notes on reform (as Simon has constantly advocated for) as well as television, maybe our society would be in a better place. But the fact is, none of these shows were audience hits. Homicide was famously labeled by TV Guide as ‘The Best Show You’re Not Watching.” The Wire had to fight for renewal every year it was on the air. And while Oz is remembered today as a pioneer, it’s more for its (admittedly importantly) role in normalizing same-sex relationship for cable television and then broadcast television.
And it’s easy to see why. All of these shows take place in the grey area. If there is one thing that most viewers wants, it a clear cut case of black and white, good and evil. We want the bad guy to go to prison or get shot to death by the law. We don’t want to think why he became a bad guy. We don’t want to think about whether the cop believes in anything but justice, no matter how cynical he may act. We don’t want to think that the people in prison are anything other than the crimes they committed. And the fact is, television gives us what we want.
But are there same showrunners who are more than willing to make this myth even larger than it is? That might have done their bit to paint the picture this way deliberately. I think there may be one showrunner who is guiltier of this sin than anyone else, and in my next article, I’ll tell you who he is.