December 13, 2013
Who Made Those Cop Shows?
By DANIEL ENGBER
When David Simon, the creator of “The Wire,” pitched his pilot to HBO, he promised to deliver “a cop show that seizes the highest qualitative ground through realism, good writing and a more brutal assessment of police, police work and the drug culture.” His show would reveal the gritty truth of law enforcement — with all its politics and sleaze — and give the lie to other cop dramas like “CSI” and “Law & Order,” where “every punch was pulled.”
But Simon’s project, which went on the air in 2002, wasn’t the first to play the gritty-realist card. It’s a quirky fact of cop shows on TV that a more authentic one arrives with every generation and loudly stakes its claim to credibility. The first police procedural on TV, from the actor and producer Jack Webb, made its debut in 1952 as “Dragnet,” with consultation from the L.A.P.D. “We’re trying to play fact, not fiction,” Webb told the press at the time. “We try to make cops human beings, guys doing a job for low pay.” To make his stories seem more realistic, Webb had his actors hurl department slang and rarely draw their guns.
Even Webb was following a trend that began in radio. “The procedural has roots in the 1930s,” says Kathleen Battles of Oakland University, in Michigan, author of the media history “Calling All Cars: Radio Dragnets and the Technology of Policing.” Radio producers worked closely with the police so their shows could give the ins and outs of actual investigations. In 1933, the L.A.P.D. collaborated with a West Coast network to create “Calling All Cars,” an early version of the reality-style police drama, and the practice quickly spread.
In contrast to today’s cop shows, the early programs were very pro-police, without much moral ambiguity, says Michele Hilmes, a University of Wisconsin historian of television and radio. Policemen could even be funny, starting with “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Car 54, Where Are You?” and running through “Barney Miller” and “Police Squad.” But that lighter strand has mostly gone away. (This season’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is an exception.) “Our ideas about law and order are a little more complicated these days,” Hilmes says. “People are more aware of how crime intersects with race and ethnicity and social problems. Maybe it’s not so funny to be dispensing comedic justice.”
The novelist Joseph A. Wambaugh Jr. served in the Los Angeles Police Department from 1960 to 1974. His Emmy Award-winning cop show “Police Story” first aired in 1973.
What made “Police Story” special? It was an anthology, and that gave us such incredible freedom. We could kill off our main characters if we wanted to. We could have them go bad. We could have them be weak. We could have them be duplicitous. We could have them do anything from week to week.
Did the network push you to make the show more exciting? The editors on the show were all Irish, or mostly Irish. Three of my four grandparents were from Ireland. We had the producer, Stan Kallis, our Jewish leprechaun. David Gerber, the show’s executive producer, used to get so frustrated. He’d say: “Jesus Christ, I’m doing a cop show, and cops have guns; they get in cars and chase people. But the Irish Art Theater over here doesn’t like it. The Irish Art Theater wants emotion!”
On “Dragnet,” Jack Webb tried to get away from guns and car chases. Sure, they minimized the gun play — that was good. But “Dragnet” was sanitized police work. At L.A.P.D., there was a police sergeant who was working in the chief’s office, a wonderful guy. He approved or censored every script that Jack Webb came up with. You weren’t seeing the cops with all their vulnerability and flaws and sins.
So that’s what you were going for — flaws and sins? We were getting right into the marrow of their bones. We did shows about PTSD, depression, premature cynicism. At 22 years old, these guys become world-weary cynics. It’s dangerous! Police work isn’t the most physically dangerous job in the world; it’s the most emotionally dangerous.