Bad cops are a mainstay of fall television

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A routine stop? Hah!
  • A routine stop? Hah!
But I repeat myself.

Welcoming our favorite TV dramas back into our home this fall, I've noticed something curious. It's to be expected that the cops are all corrupt on Boardwalk Empire—it's a Prohibition melodrama, set in a long gone but never to be forgotten era of wink wink, bang bang. Hell, the most sympathetic character at the close of the last installment of Boardwalk Empire was Al Capone.

As for Boss—well, OK, the mayor sells out the police chief, who then drops a dime on the mayor. No one's clean in this show, dedicated to showing that pragmatism when pursued with cynical, brutal, totally self-involved intensity is orgasmic.

And if the police barrel in Treme weren't loaded with rotten apples, who'd believe a word of what it has to say about New Orleans?

These are the nonexceptions that don't prove a rule—other than that bad cops make for good drama. The shows that got me to thinking were the first two episodes of season four of The Good Wife.

Episode One: A highway cop in downstate Madison County pulls over Alicia Florrick and her kids on I-55 as they're driving back to Chicago from a college visit in Saint Louis. The cop is young, soft-spoken, jut-jawed—a straight arrow from central casting. He says he's looking for drugs. But by the end of the hour the truth comes out. It was a bogus stop. The cop's instructions weren't to stop drugs from coming south into his county; they were to intercept and confiscate drug profits headed north.

Episode Two: A wholesome-looking young Chicago cop is in court explaining the death of a young man Tasered at the May demonstrations against NATO. "He charged at me. He kept charging at me," explains the earnest officer. But by the end of the hour the truth comes out. The victim had been wrongly targeted as a leader of the demonstrators; truth is, he hadn't even been demonstrating.

Neither episode turned on these police deceptions. They were undertones complicating the narrative rather than driving it. Shows like The Good Wife can't afford to straighten out the lives of their main characters in any fundamental way—otherwise the show would be over. But the heroes can be allowed little triumphs; and in each episode the triumph was the same—success in penetrating the righteous facade of a dissembling young officer of the law.

These weren't rotten cops, but there was nothing attractive or forgivable about their imperfections. They stood in the way of justice. I'm wondering how many viewers noticed The Good Wife repeating itself. How many will care for either dramatic or civic reasons that the Cop Who's Shading the Truth has turned into a lazy prime time trope?

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