“You have the right to remain silent …”

0On Sundays for the past few months, the two public television stations we get (one of which is part of Wisconsin Public Television, the other of which is not) has been carrying PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery,” which is actually British TV’s police procedural contribution.

When Sunday’s installment of “Inspector Lewis” (which has been on since the end of “Zen,” whose three episodes made me want to see more) came on, I commented that “Masterpiece Mystery” starts our police  TV-viewing week. The new “Hawaii Five-0” is on CBS on Mondays, the original “CSI” is on CBS on Wednesdays, “Rookie Blue” is on ABC on Thursdays, and until football started we would occasionally watch “Blue Bloods” on CBS on Fridays. (On Tuesdays it’s “Combat Hospital,” proving that there’s an exception to every rule, except that “Combat Hospital” followed “Detroit 187.”) On weekends, I watch the syndicated “CSI: Miami,” which stars David Caruso, who we watched on the first season of “NYPD Blue.”

My cop TV viewing goes back a long, long way, to two series that started in the 1960s: “Adam-12” …

… and the original “Hawaii Five-O”:

“Adam-12” was one of the creations of Jack Webb, who started by creating “Dragnet,” which I sporadically watched. One episode stuck in my brain early on, an episode sometimes called “The Big High” and sometimes called “Grass Kills,” about a marijuana-smoking couple who are too high to notice that their baby is drowning in a bathtub.

Another creation of Webb’s was a personal favorite, although it came and went in one season — “Chase,” about a special L.A. police unit assigned to cases too hot for regular cops to handle. I probably noticed the series most because of its cool theme music and because the series included a mag-wheel-equipped unmarked squad car, a motorcycle, a helicopter and a police dog.

The original “Hawaii Five-O,” meanwhile, ended as the longest-running police series in TV history, having cycled through its entire cast more than once except for star Jack Lord. I was somewhat skeptical about Five-O’s return given past rumors (including a 1990s recasting with Russell Wong and, of all people, Gary Busey).  But as long as fans of the original make allowances for the updating, such as the non-square characters and their willingness to seriously bend or ignore the rules, they should enjoy the new “Five-0.”

Now that I think about it, my police TV viewing can be viewed as a continuum of YouTube clips, starting with officers Reed and Malloy …

… and McGarrett and the rest of the Five-O four …

… to really young cops …

… to the cops you call should you be bothered by, say, hostage situations …

… to detectives Starsky and Hutchinson …

… to Ponch and Jon …

… to the Hill Street Station in an unnamed city that looks suspiciously like Chicago …

… to much warmer Miami …

… back to Chicago …

… then to New York …

… then to another part of New York …

… then Baltimore …

… and back to L.A. …

… and, too briefly, in Detroit …

… and back in L.A.:

… and back in Honolulu:

You may have noticed that Los Angeles keeps coming up. The fact that L.A. is where all the movie studios are would be the first explanation. But read a couple of novels of Joseph Wambaugh, former L.A. police officer, and you’ll find that L.A. has both geographic and personal diversity, the latter meaning enough aberrant personalities to provide at least one story on every street corner.

I’ve been known to watch cop TV that is older than I am as well. One of the most noteworthy early cop series was “The Naked City,” based on the movie of the same name:

I don’t remember Burt Reynolds’ one season as a New York detective in ABC’s “Hawk.” But a decade later, when Reynolds was one of the biggest movie stars of the day, NBC decided to reshow the series:

One thing you may have noticed about all these series, and even such series I didn’t mention here, like “Kojak” …

… features distinctive, dramatic theme music, written by such master composers as Elmer Bernstein (“The Rookies”), Mike Post (“NYPD Blue”) and Lalo Schifrin (the first “Starsky and Hutch,” among numerous others), and titles in which one of the stars is the setting of the series:

And my cop TV viewing isn’t limited to the U.S. (Or North America, given that “Rookie Blue” is pretty obviously Canadian.) One benefit of the year I worked in New London was the New London library, which was part of the Fox Cities-area library system, which introduced me to a 1970s British cop series, “The Sweeney”:

To come full circle to the lead, the star of “The Sweeney,” John Thaw, later played the title character in “Inspector Morse,” whose partner became the title character in “Inspector Lewis” after Thaw’s death:

I’d watch Australian TV cops too, but their availability even on YouTube is dodgy.

So what is it about police TV, one of the oldest forms of radio and TV drama? Certainly everyone who ever played cops and robbers can relate to the real fictional thing. (Our house has enough weapons in it to stock a decent-sized police department, or a banana republic’s army.) A veteran police sergeant nicknamed “The Oracle” in the Wambaugh “Hollywood” police novels is quoted as telling new officers that “Doing good police work is the most fun you’ll ever have in your life.”

Whodunits appeal to the brain, unlike many other forms of entertainment (and certainly the oxymoronic term “reality TV”). Even if your vocational interest ended around the time you had to get glasses, most people can admire the idealized image of someone who defends victims and oppresses the bad guys.

We’re in the re-cycle, so to speak, of a trend that first started in the early 1970s — series about specialized cops beyond the traditional beat cops or detectives. The aforementioned “Chase” and “SWAT” were two examples; all the CSI series fit into that mold now.

But what is most compelling about good TV is not the stories; it’s the characters. Time was when my identification with a particular character depended on such things as his name (Steve McGarrett, natch) and heroic nature. Perhaps because I’m getting older, or perhaps because I can now discern good writing, I enjoy watching the cops like Andy Sipowicz of “NYPD Blue,” Lennie Briscoe of the first “Law & Order,” or John Munch of “Homicide” and “Law & Order: SVU.” (Or, to go off canon for a moment, Sam Axe of “Burn Notice.”) I suspect that in some alternative universe, Sipowicz and Briscoe are sitting in a Manhattan bar, drinking their club sodas (they were alcoholics) and trying to top each other with lurid stories about cases they’ve worked.

I have three TV cop projects floating around in my head, one of which could fit the current recycle:

  • “Black and White,” about two young detectives in 1968 New York. The white detective’s name is Black, and the black detective’s name is White, natch. It would be an interesting look at a turbulent, to say the least, period in our history from the perspective of two young members of the establishment, complete with period music, fashions, cars, etc. The theme music: The Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes.”
  • “DCI,” about agents of the Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation, which is responsible for “investigating crimes that are statewide in nature or importance,” including “homicide, arson, financial crimes, illegal gaming, multi-jurisdictional crimes, drug trafficking, computer crimes, homeland security, public integrity & government corruption as well as crimes against children.” That and various Wisconsin settings should be enough to fill a few seasons, right? Theme music: Something from a musical act with Wisconsin roots; perhaps the Bodeans?
  • An unnamed series about two older detectives who violate rules,  rough up suspects, get involved in high-speed suspects and other frowned-upon police activity but are barely tolerated because they also have the highest clearance rate in the police force. Think of two Dirty Harrys in their late careers. Theme music: Perhaps this underappreciated Post work?

I’d be willing to work on a cop series for free if I could write the story that  included the arrest of every reality TV “star,” beginning with the two-digit-IQ “stars” of “Jersey Shore.”


6 thoughts on ““You have the right to remain silent …”

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