'Cops' dropped, 'Law & Order' revamped: How TV shows are responding to police protests

Ethan Sacks

Television police are now suspect.

The Black Lives Matter protests that fanned out across the United States and around the world after the George Floyd killing has led to a backlash against state and local police forces. And that reckoning is now extending to their fictional, on-screen counterparts.

Detractors on social media and elsewhere are criticizing shows like ABC's "The Rookie," NBC's "Law & Order: SVU" and "Chicago P.D.," and CBS' "Blue Bloods" and "S.W.A.T." for burnishing the badge and portraying police officers and detectives, for the most part, as morally upstanding heroes.

That has producers and networks suddenly scrambling to figure out how to best navigate a major sea change that threatens to sink one of the most lucrative genres on television.

"We are taking the opportunity to examine our police shows through this lens, both in regards to what happens on screen as well as what we are doing behind the scenes," said one industry insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Some of that appears to already have had a direct impact. Spectrum Originals postponed the Season 2 premiere of "L.A.'s Finest" — a spinoff of the "Bad Boys" films that was originally scheduled to return Monday night — until later this year. While the move was interpreted by industry magazines as a reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement, the show is more diverse than most on television, with two women of color, Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba, as the leads. Both play police detectives with the LAPD. (A spokesperson for Spectrum confirmed the delay but declined to comment on the reason for the change.)

Schedule shifts aren't the only option. Police procedurals now have an opportunity to chronicle this moment if they don't go by the book. Writers on "Law & Order: SVU" will address the fallout of Floyd's murder in the upcoming season, show runner Warren Leight recently told The Hollywood Reporter's "TV's Top 5" podcast. The program has shown an ability to respond to the zeitgeist before.

"'Law & Order' still exists because it’s a done a good job covering these subjects over the years," said Wilson Morales, editor of blackfilm.com, a news site that covers diversity on the big and small screens. "These shows have covered issues like stop and frisk and police brutality before. When you have 21 years of renewals, it means they’re doing something right."

"What's important is when the material on an episode deals with racial issues, you have never seen a situation where you see a bad cop get away with it," Morales said.

Police drama may be nimble enough to write for the moment. But it's been harder for networks to navigate these questions on unscripted shows that feature on-air confrontations between the police and the policed. This week, it was widely reported that the Paramount Network dropped "Cops," an unscripted ride-along with real police officers that has been on the air for 32 seasons. "Cops is not on the Paramount Network and we don’t have any current or future plans for it to return," a network spokesperson said in a statement. But even before the the Floyd protests, the series had come under fire for its perceived glorification of aggressive policing tactics.

"The idea of canceling 'Cops' and pulling it off schedule, that was an easy thing to do," said Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University and director of its Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. "There have been complaints for a long time."

A&E pulled a similar program, “Live PD,” from its lineup, “out of respect for the families of George Floyd and others who have lost their lives,” the network said in a statement.

'Live PD' was pulled from the schedule by A&E. (A&E)

Those moves haven't assuaged those critics who say all police shows, drama and comedy alike, are doing a public relations service for police forces by neatly wrapping up their morality tales in 30 minutes to an hour. In that time, the cops almost always get their man (or woman), and the moral arc of good and bad is clear — and the hero is on the side of the city.

"The result is an addiction to stories that portray police departments as more effective than they actually are; crime as more prevalent than it actually is; and police use of force as consistently justified," Washington Post columnist Alyssa Rosenberg wrote last week on the depiction of police in popular culture.

One advantage that writers' rooms scripting most police shows have right now is time. In part because of production delays caused by the coronavirus lockdown, new episodes that will try to navigate the issues at the core of the Black Lives Matter movement won't be seen for months, by which time viewers may be more likely to give a show a chance rather than rendering a verdict in advance on whether to watch at all.

Image: NYPD protest (Wong Maye-E / AP)

"In many ways this could be a high-voltage injection into what’s gotten to be a pretty formulaic way of telling a story," Thompson said.

"Presenting unambiguously heroic police forces is going to be dreadfully out of touch. You won't see any one introducing a new TV show called, 'Officer Friendly.'"

"But I could see a good, smart show-runner coming up with a new generation of police programs that acknowledge what we are seeing on the news channels," Thompson said.

It's not completely unprecedented. Thompson points to the 1992-93 television season featuring "special episodes" months after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles on series as varied as "L.A. Law," "A Different World" and "Doogie Howser, M.D."

One-off episodes, however, won't cut it 30 years later, with a civil rights movement that has shown remarkably widespread support. Cop shows are going to need some major reforms of their own to continue on the beat. Morales, of blackfilm.com, said that going forward it will be difficult for audiences to watch, say, a white actor playing a detective rough up a black suspect and not find problems in the dynamic.

"Writing and filming in this genre is going to present challenges, but I don’t think the cop show genre is going to go away," Syracuse's Thompson said. "It's been one of the backbones of television for a long time.

"The real question is whether the George Floyd story going to be the stuff of a single episode or will transform the genre."