Last week, Hollywood, Health & Society at USC Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center released a report titled “Trigger Warning: Gun Guidelines for the Media.” This report focuses on the portrayal of guns and gun violence in the media, particularly in movies and television. It sheds light on the alarming levels of gun violence in the United States and provides suggestions on how the media can update its portrayal of guns and gun violence.
The report begins by presenting both real-world and Hollywood statistics, emphasizing what most of us already know: there are too many guns, and the prevalence of violence is negatively impacting our children. Unfortunately, Hollywood’s portrayal of gun violence is not helping the situation.
When you reach the recommendations section for Hollywood, the first item on the very short list is “Avoid portraying law enforcement use-of-force as heroic.”
I was thinking about that as I watched the series finale of NCIS: Los Angeles on Paramount+. It’s not a show I was particularly attached to during its network run. I was just interested in how they would wrap up 14 seasons of storylines. (Spoiler Alert: A pregnancy, a wedding, and a call to adventure.) The NCIS franchise has always been odd in that it covers a very specific niche type of law enforcement. However, that is limiting in terms of procedurals, so the NCIS crews seem to do a lot of jurisdictional overreaching. They’ve always managed to make the Navy seem like the deadliest of all branches of the armed forces. There are almost 1000 episodes of NCIS across four different shows, all created by Donald P. Bellisario. That’s a lot of dead sailors. And every week, there are gun battles, explosions, and bombs detonating on the streets of various locations, be it Los Angeles, Bethesda, New Orleans, or Honolulu.
Dick Wolf’s Law & Order franchise has been running even longer with seven different series over 22 years (Law & Order, Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent, Trial by Jury, Law & Order LA, True Crime, and Organized Crime). As a show, it’s definitely more grounded in the real world of law enforcement. However, there’s no question that it glorifies use-of-force whenever necessary to advance a storyline.
Wolf is also responsible for the “One Chicago Universe,” featuring shows such as Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., Chicago Med, and the short-lived Chicago Justice. These interconnected shows dominate NBC’s Wednesday night lineup, intertwining their narratives.
In addition to the above-mentioned franchises, CBS has made Tuesday nights dedicated to its dramatic portrayal of the FBI, with shows like FBI, FBI International, and FBI Most Wanted airing back-to-back-to-back. These series often feature cast members from the Law & Order franchise, seamlessly adopting the jingoistic language of federal law enforcement.
CBS’s S.W.A.T., led by Shemar Moore, and David Boreanaz’s Seal Team (formerly a network show, now streaming-only) also contribute to the pervasive presence of police dramas on television. While these shows entertain viewers, it’s important to recognize that they often present an unrealistic picture of how law enforcement operates.
Another CBS show, Blue Bloods, has spanned 14 seasons, chronicling the lives of one family deeply rooted in the NYPD. Tom Selleck portrays the family patriarch, who also serves as the Police Commissioner. The show portrays a family in which every member is either a cop or a lawyer. However, this portrayal glosses over the financial realities of multi-generational cop families struggling to afford to live in New York City’s five boroughs.
When we consider the collective impact of these shows, it becomes evident that they contribute to a pervasive representation of cops, gunfights, explosions, and deceased perpetrators on our screens week after week. Despite growing public distrust and calls to defund police forces, network television continues to venerate law enforcement. It’s worth noting that the Unfare NYC Twitter account, which aims to help people avoid interactions with police in the NYC subway system, has gathered almost 8,000 followers. However, how many of the city’s 8 million residents are eagerly cheering for cops to shoot the “bad guy” on television every week?
In Atlanta, protests have persisted against the construction of “Cop City,” a massive police training facility. The city has witnessed the tragic death of a protester, and now the Atlanta PD and The Georgia Bureau of Investigation have arrested organizers of bail funds and are considering RICO charges against them. Even Pajiba favorites like Will Trent are guilty of glamorizing police violence without facing real consequences.
When Barack Obama was elected President, many people hoped it would mark the end of racism. Similarly, the summer of 2020, filled with protests, raised expectations for a reckoning with police violence and extrajudicial killings. Unfortunately, neither of these expectations was realized, and it feels as though we have regressed on both fronts. Hollywood has long had a tendency to depict protestors and activists in a negative light, often suspecting them first and assigning them the most compelling motives. The concept of “Broken Windows” policing is frequently endorsed. It is crucial now to examine how characters in law enforcement are portrayed. Are they always depicted as right? Do they face consequences for their actions? How do these shows address issues of corruption and the presence of “bad apples”? Are the police on these shows allowed to kill suspects without repercussions? Furthermore, how are suspects and defendants treated once they enter the criminal justice system?
Around five or six years ago, I noticed a shift in many crime procedurals. They started focusing more on character relationships and delving into the emotional lives of the police protagonists. This shift disrupted the traditional case-of-the-week format and forced viewers to consider the inner complexities of their favorite TV police officers. Armed with the insights from the Norman Lear Center’s report, TV writers and producers have an opportunity to continue this thematic evolution. They can remind viewers that there is nothing glamorous about law enforcement officers shooting someone and that police officers and other investigative agents are not meant to be judge, jury, and executioners while on duty. By introducing more realism and showcasing real-world consequences in these procedurals, we may be able to assuage the fears fueled by a vocal minority on social media about the actual level of danger in cities. Perhaps, if people weren’t constantly fed the idea that automatic weapons and military-level gear are necessary for everyday police work, fewer individuals would vote in favor of equipping the police with military-grade weapons.
Therefore, this fall, I hope for a 40% increase in paperwork, a 60% decrease in gunfire, and a 15% increase in the depiction of brutality charges against TV cops. Let’s not disappoint Norman Lear.