Any time I hear the song “Bad Boys” by Inner Circle, I immediately think of the iconic Fox show “Cops.” Unbidden, as if triggered by something deep within my genetic code, the opening begins to play in my head. I see a rough take-down on the street, a wheezing and dilapidated car trying to outrun a fleet of police cruisers, a drunk making a run for it, and a guy getting Tasered and then twitching pathetically on the street, while satisfied officers stand by, watching.
The “Cops” logo—Old West style—with some bullet holes chipped out of it, appears on the screen, and a Troy McClure voice whizzes by, telling us that all suspects are innocent until blahblahblah…
Now in its 22nd season, “Cops” is a firmly embedded part of our cultural landscape. Shot in a gritty, cinema verité style, the camera follows some cops as they go about their day-to-day job. With no narrator, we rely on the cops’ commentary, as well as the unfortunates they come in contact with, to get a general understanding of the world they inhabit and patrol.
On a recent episode, we listen as a cop speaks slowly about his job. Looking through the same windshield that he does, we see the golden arches of McDonalds and a variety of illuminated big box stores flow by as he drives down some generic strip. It’s 9:24 at night, and there’s a fight in progress at a nearby gas station.
Upon the officer’s arrival, bystanders in the parking lot become excited and begin to point and shout, “its that guy without a shirt!” (It’s almost always the guy without a shirt.) The cop drives off in mad pursuit, and in very short order we see the shirtless man face down in the middle of the road, a hulking and unforgiving police officer driving his knee into his back, making the experience as painful as possible. He’s swiftly tossed in the back of a police cruiser, and we’re taken back to the gas station.
Standing in front of the food center is a witness who looks like he’s positively delighted to be on the right side of the law for a change. Using the expression, “you know what I mean” as a kind of comma, he provides a physical demonstration of the confrontation he saw for the cops. Underneath the Aline light of the service station, this tableaux takes on a surreal theatricality, with everybody present assuming some sort of role, as if actors in a movie.
The police are told that the shirtless dude wanted beer and, unable to pay for it, decided to attack the Indian guy working behind the counter. With the attending cop, we watch the grainy surveillance feed of the assault, which showed things unfolding exactly as the employee said they did. The furious assailant sweeps the lotto machine onto the floor, punches the guy, and then scatters pencils about in his rage, all the while slurring a barrage of unimaginative racial insults.
In spite of the fact that the Indian man’s English was perfect— if accented— the cop speaks to him in a condescending form of Pigeon English: “He say bad words to you?” he asks. Remaining guarded and respectful of the power the police wields, the attendant keeps his composure, but it’s a weird and kind of perverse glimpse into the social structure of the land. An angry and out of control white man assaulted somebody he presumed was an immigrant—robbing him and calling him a criminal—and then the police, trying to help the victim, managed to further humiliate and emasculate him.
At 4:58 in the afternoon, the Wichita Police Department has dispatched a car to a fight in progress.
A heavy shirtless man with an impressive array of tattoos and a long braided rattail stands in front of his modest bungalow speaking in a slow, accented voice. “Well, yesterday we come back from the BMX track, ” he begins, saying this in the proud manner that some people might use when they’ve been to the opera. He proceeds to tell a self-serving story about the ongoing battle he’s been having with a disrespectful neighbor. As his voice rises in anger, his 12-year-old son, who is as confident and well fed as one of the kids from Talladega Nights, nods in agreement.
The police officer listens patiently before trudging off to get the other side of the story. At the adjacent home, he speaks with a woman with a picture of wolf on her shirt and her plump, pony-tailed husband. They seem reasonable, until the husband scrunches up his face and starts shrieking “SCUM” in the direction of his glowering enemy. It turns out that the husband’s brother, who looks like the Unabomber only with a rattail, had interceded on his behalf, threatening the neighbor by saying, “I been in the special forces, and I could snap your nose just like that,” before pulling up just short with some fancy Kung-Fu move.
The cop sighs. Treating both parties gently, like children, he implores them to just stay away from one another. Walking away, he declares this visit a victory, as nobody got shot or went to jail.
The final segment of this episode took us through a desolate landscape of flat, empty warehouses. Late at night, we come upon two very humiliated looking women sitting on a curb beneath a sign that said NO LOITERING.
One of the women, the one who resembles Benicio Del Toro and has a tattoo of a really mean looking butterfly on her throat, has “bully” written all over her. She’s been drinking, and starts to beat on her girlfriend. Her girlfriend, who sits cowering near a pay phone, speaks quickly and nervously as the camera zooms in to focus on her broken fingernails and the scratch on her leg. The police officers talk to her about domestic abuse and how it inevitably escalates, and she nods her head, agreeing with every word they say, but somehow, in her eyes, you can see that she is not going to follow their advice.
And then everything fades to black. We hear the sound of dispatchers crackling over the airwaves and cars speeding away, before the theme song— Bad Boys— returns to conclude the show.
Usually, what “Cops” conveys is the massive discrepancy between the classes. The omnipresent police, portrayed as a beneficent agency, troll the periphery hoping to mediate between those that for whatever reason, lack the ability and means to govern their own lives.
Sometimes this plays for cheap laughs, and other times, it’s utter tragedy.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.