“… it’s yet another generic Canadian cop show, and peculiar because, even as a generic cop show, it’s awful, falling below a minimal level of competence in keeping viewers engaged.”  — John Doyle, TV Critic, The Globe and Mail, October 3rd, 2013

Nothing new, John. In my memory, the dismal state of Canadian television programming stretches back to the imitation Howdy Doody Show that CBC foisted on us kids in 1954. CBC’s Timber Tom couldn’t hold a candle to NBC’s Buffalo Bob, (and, as a result, the necessity of singing O Canada! and God Save The Queen! each morning was thrown into question). Crummy cast-off puppets from the American original, lacklustre performers, and near-zero production values that were obvious even to me as a child, set an ankle-high benchmark for All-Canadian Imitation American Television that has been its governing principle ever since.

But there’s another principle at work here, too: North American television averages a dozen new police procedurals per year, and, beginning with TV broadcasting in the late 1940s, now boasts a historic total of over 500 English language cop shows, and Canada has produced more than its share. That’s 500 separate police series, with episode totals for each often reaching into the hundreds. This far exceeds the number of, say, medical dramas in the same period – totalling around 150 (or, come to think of it, dramas about how to exercise your democratic rights, fight corporate fascism and create a better world – totalling around um, zero) – but I digress. Uniformed-men-with-guns-stories trump girly-nursing-tales because punishment and force are more important to the men who control broadcasting than healing-with-feeling. The same men drive western governments to spend trillions more on warfare than welfare.

Although John Doyle warrants a modest round of applause (the sound of one hand clapping?) for his criticism of Canadian TV’s undistinguished (lots of boring cop shows) production history, he sings an old lament. And he stops short of asking a serious question: “Why so many cop shows in the first place?” Rather, the seasoned TV critic focuses on the cretinous quality of our indigenous policiers: Populated with robotic Canadian meat puppets acting like comic book adults and heroically repressing incredibly stressful fears for their partners’ safety while cruising mean streets in their muscle cars armed to the teeth, they’re tedious and un-involving. And, while I wish people would tire of cops being portrayed as the best (“finest”) people among us (Gosh, I wonder what corporate entertainment in a militarized police-state would look like!), there is, like zombie apocalypse shows, endless audience hunger for cop shows.

Or is there?

Cop shows may be viewed as public relations campaigns (a.k.a. propaganda) promoting the image and activities of the police.  Masquerading as entertainment, this massive effort’s claims to being “what the public wants” are open to question. One would think from the sheer ubiquity of police drama that our cities were overrun with criminality, however crime rates have been falling since the 1980s. Nevertheless, cop shows depict a war on crime, with our newly-militarized police forces posing “on the front lines” of law enforcement. “Front lines” is a military-type term, referring to open warfare, but hardly applies to Toronto or any other Canadian city. Still, television drama paints a grim picture of beleaguered police forces, their hands tied by (ho, hum) pinko/liberal zealots, hobbled in their efforts to catch all those bad guys popping up on the front lines of crime.

An unacknowledged effect of all these paeans to law enforcement lies within the police themselves. As high school English students, our men in blue were probably not the sharpest pencils in the box, and television police drama gives them a convenient and welcome narrative framework in which to hone their self-regard. I’ve lost count of the number of shows and movies in which the cops and their bromantic partners are drenched in self-pity for how tough they have it, despite having (in the real world) apparent license to kill, beat or taser citizens who annoy them, and wages that are roughly double that made by honest workers with comparable education. “Police culture” has also led to legitimizing a police voice in the public realm, where the “police community” expresses political opinions – usually about needing more police and bigger guns – and openly endorses pro-police electoral candidates. But men with guns speak with ominous force in public debate, often causing dissenting voices to fall silent. This is one of the fundamental characteristics of a police state. Mr. Doyle might have mentioned all this, but he didn’t.

So, lousy television is a Canadian tradition, John, and maybe we should stop waving the flag and pretending otherwise. Little will change until we start asking better questions about why Canadian – and American – television is filled with cops and violence and horror. There was a time when critics complained that television was putting them to sleep with sanitized Father-Knows-Best visions of social stability. Now it seeks to terrorize us with warnings against sticking our noses out the door.

Television cop shows are of pivotal importance in maintaining stability in a culture torn by outrageously deepening class divisions. Celebration of war, competition, status, celebrity, wealth – and policing – needs constant media reinforcement. But in the real world that survives, day to day, only because of communal effort and good will among working people who aren’t police, I’ve stopped watching.

About Doug Williams

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