Crime procedural have long been a staple of prime time television. In a crowded TV landscape like the Peak TV we’re in now, crime shows remain a familiar draw for viewers. There is an easy-to-tweak formula that networks can replicate over and over again. This formula is how we end up with so many TV police tropes, including ripped-from-the-headlines police, psychic police, detectives in a certain location, crime scene unit officers, law enforcement teaming up with mathematicians, federal agencies enlisting cutting edge technology, and goofball police all crowding the TV Guide with their antics.
But as the political climate shifts more and more divisively, show runners need to start being more aware of the moral predicaments their heroes are thrown into — and what that means as a reflection (or not) of modern policing.
I’ve been enjoying my cruise through BBC’s Luther. It’s a great showcase for Idris Elba, Hollywood’s leading man who perpetually needs more time, and I can’t think of another show that seems to paint its supporting cast so minimally yet still yields mostly rich stories from them. It’s ludicrous, often, but it’s matched by its appealing watchability. But there are some criticisms that haven’t gone unnoticed. For now we won’t touch on how the women often get fridged or take the fall for Luther’s methods. Today we’ll just talk about how Luther is a cop.
It’s a profession, but it’s a lifestyle. Luther is framed to be the sort of guy whose whole life has pointed him here; his methods, his madness, they all add up to brilliant cop. But he also doesn’t play by the rules (classic). He routinely breaks not only protocol but trust with the public he’s sworn to protect. And it’s all in the name of the “greater good”—something the narrative rewards him for. He’s the title character after all, everything he does is if not sympathetic than at least understandable.
But in a year when U.S. police have killed over 700 people since January 1 that mentality takes on a new danger. Police in procedurals are used like toilet paper, they’re easy to reach for and often sullied. That constant dimensional narrative, available in whatever flavor of cop show you like, helps humanize the police force, making them seem dimensional in the face of the protestors against them—who are, in turn, often not multi-faceted. And when we see narratives like Luther‘s, it helps reinforce the narrative that police always know best, even when they are clearly crossing a line.
For anyone out there who thinks that’s not true, that pop culture shouldn’t be taken so seriously or that seeing that narrative isn’t aiding and abetting: When was the last time you saw a show that humanized DOL workers?