Watching Boyhood got me thinking about how so few TV shows or films try and faithfully represent real life. So called reality shows have become soap operas, with sob stories and story arcs intentionally bludgeoned into proceedings to cater for those who crave escapism in their Saturday evening viewing. But there is one show that has never ever done this and it is a show that might not be familiar to many British audiences. That show is ‘Cops’.
Cops has no soundtrack, no selective editing, no voiceover, no actors and no narrative. It is reality in its purest form. It is, in many ways, a bastion of quality and faithfulness to the people it films. There are so few shows that let the filming do the talking and Cops lets viewers make up their own mind as to whether the police officers treat the accused correctly and what drives each criminal to do what they do.
Cops episodes are nineteen minutes long and are split into three segments, which each show a different real-life police scenario. This can be anything from domestic violence, armed robbery, traffic violations or (and this is by far the most common) drug possession. Each segment starts with the officer giving a brief background as to how they came to be a part of the police force and why they enjoy what they do. This structure never changes, but the cases are never the same.
What makes Cops so good is that the producers never embellish anything and, as a result, we are able to see exactly what leads to each crime being committed. There is an episode that has a fourteen year old stealing a car before attempting to run away from police. When he is caught, he claims he was given permission to drive it. When asked why he was running away, he claims he was scared. After a background check, they find out this child has a long criminal record and has stolen cars before. They then look at the footage of him getting into the car and driving away. They call his mother in, and she watches her son steal this car with a look of horror and helplessness etched across her face, while the fourteen-year-old looks at the floor, unable to respond to the evidence. When asked why he did it, he shrugs and doesn’t look up. It is one of the most powerful pieces of television I have ever seen.
The ones who commit crimes almost always have previous convictions and, more often than not, are on parole or have a warrant out on them. The habitual criminal is represented not as an evil pariah but as a desperate and hopeless misfit, who is unable to live day to day without stealing or using drugs. Most of the cops feel genuinely sorry for them, but the show does not attempt to find solutions. They only show us what these criminals do. Answers are not given.
Though the show is tailored to conservative-minded viewers with some of the policemen’s hardline rhetoric, Cops actually gives poverty-stricken communities a much-needed mouthpiece. Most of the culprits are black and live in desperate conditions, with seemingly no other response to their situation than to fall into criminality.
Cops has been running for 25 years and has never failed to be completely neutral to the people it represents. It is a wonder to me that it is only on minor cable channels in this country. It provides something that many of us crave; unembellished reality. This Fox show is one of the great undertakings of television and deserves to be praised as such. It is the anti-X Factor, the anti-World’s Wildest Police Chases; it is the anti-everything. For a show of such high quality, this is a sad indictment of the way reality television has progressed in the past quarter Century.