For every Ferguson and Baltimore, we look at our televisions and wonder why the institutions don’t work. We have civilian oversight committees, we demand accountability, we rage when police departments assure us that they’re perfectly capable of objectively investigating themselves and then inevitably find that nothing was done wrong. Who watches the watchmen, we bemoan because we might not remember Juvenal, but we’ll quote Alan Moore all night.
And then we flip on our police procedural of choice and sympathize with our poor protagonists who at least every four episodes will be investigated by the malicious and conniving nest of vipers who are the sole members of the Internal Affairs division of pretty much every single television show or movie ever broadcast. They are always wrong, and always blindly trying to destroy the careers of good cops.
Why hello cultural dichotomy, I didn’t see you sitting there.
We have plenty of shows featuring corrupt cops. Just look at the long run of The Shield, or a dozen other shows with edgy anti-heroes who are constantly teased as being as bad as the criminals they arrest. But even these shows get you rooting for them, or at the very least rooting for them to go out in a blaze of glory. Remember the odd inversion of sympathy on shows like Breaking Bad, in which the audience roots for Walter and against Skyler because she gets in his way? Internal Affairs is the Skyler White writ large across all of our entertainment. If the show is about good cops, then Internal Affairs is a bureaucratic villain getting in the way of the real cops. If the show is about bad cops, then Internal Affairs is the Skyler White getting in the way of Heisenberg knocking on doors.
And yet there simply are no shows in which Internal Affairs gets to be the heroes. Oh, only the Sith deal in absolutes: there are one or two movies floating out there, and a 13 episode run of Against the Wall on Lifetime back in 2011. But against the backdrop of literally hundreds of series dedicated to police, that tiny trickle is staggering.
Stories have power, they slowly change the way we think about things, even while reflecting exactly how we think about them right now. We shouldn’t be horrified if police are systematically unaccountable when our fictions systematically villainize the very idea of doing so.