It’s possible the crime shows have never been more popular. With the market for cable-original shows popping up, it’s exploded. Paradoxically, though, with the exception of Law & Order, there are extremely few of what I would call “cop shows”. When L&O eventually goes off the air, it’s possible that there will be one on regular TV and a few on cable.

The distinction I make between a crime show and a cop show is that the latter is about cops while the former is about people that are solving crimes. Almost all cop shows are crime shows but not the other way around. Matlock, for instance, is a crime show but falls in a different category (“legal drama”). NYPD Blue was a cop show. In between the two are what I would call pseudocop shows. They’re shows that are technically about law enforcement, but are actually about some super-specialized group of cops.

For example, I don’t really consider CSI to be a cop show. It’s a show about forensics pretending to be cops. Crossing Jordan also fell into this category except about MEs. NCIS is and JAG was about military police, which is similar but not the same. Castle is a show about a crime novelist joining forces with the cops, so it doesn’t count any more than Murder She Wrote did. Monk is about a former cop who is a “private consultant”, as are the protagonists in The Mentalist and Lie to Me and The Forgotten. Others are about special units of dubious realism. Cold Case is about a special unit investigated old homicides and Without a Trace is about a non-existent FBI missing persons unit. So while these are shows that are ostensibly about cops and police departments, they’re still not what I would call “cop shows” in the same way that NYPD Blue, Homicide, The Shield, and to a lesser extent even The Wire were.

There are some exceptions. New TNT series Dark Blue as well as Criminal Minds sort of count insofar as they are about groups that exist, but they’re still special units of cops solving very special crimes. Saving Grace and The Closer more-or-less count and may actually shed light on the recent shift towards pseudocop shows. Life mostly counted, though they had the special hook of an ex-convict detective trying to find out who framed him. Southland counted, but was unceremoniously dumped (though it appears TNT will be bringing it back).

The question is, why is it that at a time when crime shows have never been more popular. Here are some possible explanations:

  1. Cop shows have gotten old and therefore, the only way to get people interested in them is to have some unique twist. This could be true. It could be that if you take the pseudocop shows off the air that they will be replaced with more reality shows.
  2. Law & Order sucked the oxygen out of the room. This strikes me as quite possible. L&O is not one show but three. Therefore, fans of cop shows get their fix out of the way and there’s not much room for any other standard procedural and so the networks have to find original twists. It’s possible that when L&O goes off the air, it will create a void that will bring in more regular cop shows.
  3. There are just as many cop shows as there have always been, it’s just that they’re of more segmented interest and therefore are more likely to be on cable and less conspicuous. It isn’t so much that L&O has taken over but rather that the new cop shows that would be network shows are now debuting on cable. Mathematically, it is probably true.
  4. It’s Jay Leno’s fault. His show can’t fail fast enough for my taste. Taking away 5 1-hour timeslots killed Life and Southland (albeit temporarily). This makes network TV real estate more scarce and makes cable a more natural venue.
  5. It’s women’s fault.

I mention (5) because it seems that of all of the cop shows, there are a surprising number of them that feature women prominently. Blond women in particular. These things are sometimes a coincidence, but in this case I’m not so sure. One of the interesting factoids about Law & Order is that it is extremely popular among women. I really wonder if one of the issues is that the demographics behind cop shows have changed from a primarily male to a primarily female audience. That would explain cables creating shows around women and crime-y shows in particular. In addition to Saving Grace and The Closer, the most prominent character in Cold Case is female and In Plain Sight features a woman (all blond women, actually). Further, one longstanding tradition of cop shows is to have very uncoplike women as cops. I’ve Facebooked before “male or female, cops should never look dainty”. Watching some long-haird 5’4″, size-0 woman try to be intimidating in an interrogation room is amusing but not very real-seeming.

And it also helps explain why there are so many more shows about crime but not more about cops. I think that women watch these shows primarily because they’re interested in crime and not very much interested in the testosterone-fueled atmosphere of police departments. So these cop shows either center around a woman that bucks the norms or about cops that aren’t really cops. “Cops” that use their intellect rather than brute force. Cops that are really scientists or medical examiners or psychologists or pet-mindreaders or whatever. Hence, more and more of the Special Unit stuff. That way they can make it about crime, but also have more in the way of romantic plots between dainty women agents and their hunky underwear model turn actor coworkers.


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6 Responses to Pseudocop Shows

  1. David Alexander says:

    As you pointed out, one could argue that the desire for female audiences for advertising purposes has skewed crime shows toward less gritty, yet relatively interesting police shows.

    BTW, for what it’s worth, the Law and Order series* still reeks of pseudo-cop compared to say, NYPD Blue. Of course, it’s possible the long shadow of NYPD Blue and the cult-fandom of Homicide are clouding our perspective of what constitutes a “cop show”. Given the controversies of the first and the ratings “failure” of the latter, it may be possible that the industry doesn’t want to focus on real cop shows unless they have the free range that cable networks provide for its shows.

    *The original L&O is weird given it’s focus on both prosecution and detective work, but SVU is a crime show with special units à Cold Case. Plus, hasn’t Criminal Intent been compared to Columbo?

    Further, one longstanding tradition of cop shows is to have very uncoplike women as cops

    Where does one find a attractive, yet (white) tomboyish looking actress in Hollywood?

  2. trumwill says:

    I used to put SVU in the same category as Cold Case until I discovered that there is actually an SVU that does investigate the sorts of crimes that they do in the TV show. It’s a bit of a stretch, but not quite as much of one as Cold Case. Criminal Intent was meant to be more Columboesque than it turned out to be (in form).

    Good point about NYPD Blue. That was pre-wardrobe malfunction and things are a little iffier now. Reportedly, the FCC gave the network fits over Southland. So “male” cop shows may be permanently relegated to cable.

    Hollywood is certainly short on actresses that look like they could be cops. Catherine Dent was phenomenal in The Shield, ditto CCH Pounder. I thought Andrea Thompson pulled it off somewhat on NYPD Blue. But it’s not common.

  3. Barry says:

    Where does one find a attractive, yet (white) tomboyish looking actress in Hollywood?

    The first one that comes to mind is Katie Sackhoff, i.e. Starbuck from the new Battlestar Galactica. While she is a beautiful woman, she pulls off tough tomboy with ease. Less so is Tricia Helfer from that same show, who I’ve seen playing tough girl roles since BSG went off the air but merely pulling long hair back in a ponytail doesn’t make you a tomboy.

    I think Evangeline Lilly (LOST) could pull off tomboy from the freckles alone, but I don’t know if she has the build to make me believe she’s a cop.

    I caught a bit of a rerun of Hill Street Blues on TV the other day, and was trying to explain its concept and groundbreaking-ness to my 13-yr-old son, and failed. Its type of show seems to have run its course for the time being. It was the precursor to large-cast ensemble shows like ER, LA Law, etc that have given way to the procedural dramas that Will mentioned.

    I don’t think I’ve ever watched any of the new “procedural” dramas at all, past a few Law & Orders here and there. Are they really all that and a bag of chips? What’s the hook?

  4. trumwill says:

    Sackhoff would be pretty good (notably, her love interest from BSG is a detective on the UK version of Law & Order). Not as sure about the others.

    I think the main draw of the newer shows is sensational crimes. Less focus on the investigators and more on the crimes seems to be the new MO.

  5. DaveinHackensack says:

    Amazing that you guys skip over the big innovation of Hill Street Blues, and the big secret of Law & Order’s phenomenal success in syndication.

    Hill Street Blues was the first network drama to include season-long (and longer) dramatic arcs. Before then, the action of most shows (including cop shows) would wrap up at the end of the episode. Hill Street Blues pioneered the pairing of episode-length resolutions with the longer dramatic arcs. This ended up becoming common place among network dramas (e.g., ER, NYPD Blue*, etc.).

    Dick Wolf’s innovation was to ditch the season long arcs and wrap nearly everything** up in a tidy package at the end of each episode. That gave the episodes more staying power in syndication, because they can be watched on a stand-alone basis, out of sequence.

    *Since NYPD Blue’s creative team included at least one vet from Hill Street Blues (and of course one actor who was a veteran of Hill Street Blues), it’s interesting to note how the look of the show was intentionally made different. For example, it was almost always raining on Hill Street Blues, which I think was set in Chicago (or an unnamed city meant to resemble Chicago). In contrast it was mostly sunny on NYPD Blue, and sunlight streaming through the precinct windows was a pretty common visual touch. Also, Hill Street Blues would often shoot people from the waist up, where you got more full length shots in NYPD Blue.

    **The only meta-episode drama explained the occasional cashiering of the cast members, which was another clever idea of Wolf: To keep production costs reasonable, he rotated cast members every few years. That minimized the importance of specific actors and limited their compensation demands.

  6. trumwill says:

    Hill Street Blues was slightly before my time. NYPD Blue wasn’t before my time, but it was before I became interested in cop shows (with the exception of The Commish). I only got around to seeing it last year.

    Dick Wolf’s model is phenomenal for syndication, which is the main reason that I watch it during vacations like this. On the other hand, what helps in syndication hurts in DVD sales.

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