Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Six Degrees of Cop Shows

by
John McFetridge



Monday night I watched the premiere of a new cop show called The Chicago Code. One review I read said that it, “wasn’t a game changer,” but was still pretty good.

Most reviews have been pretty good.

I was interetsed because it covers a lot of the same territory we tried to cover on The Bridge – the complicated stuff about police corruption, politics and how hard it can be to “work the streets.” This appraoch naturally leads to longer story arcs, more serialization and, inevitably, comparisons to The Wire.

So, I was watching The Chicago Code and I was very jealous that they had such a big budget and were able to dig into longer story arcs but there was something missing, something I liked about The Wire that I didn’t see here but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I was sure it was also missing on The Bridge and most (all) other cop shows.

And then it hit me.

All the characters are either cops or criminals.

Well, of course, it’s a cop show, that’s what they’re about.

Crime.

But just crime? My favourite season of The Wire is Season Two – the dock workers. For a lot of reasons, but mostly because those are guys I know well and can relate to. My father was in a union (an installer for the phone company) that was slowly bled dry by the company switching to sub-contractors. I really don’t know if that’s right or wrong in the big picture, I can only see it from my perspective where a lot of social stability and long-term planning that comes from a steady (but let’s be honest, small) paycheck disappeared and a lot of scrambling and insecurity ate away at the working class culture I grew up in.

Of course the dock workers were wrong to get into bed with drug smugglers to try and raise the money to bribe the politicians to get the harbour dredged so the newer, bigger ships could be unloaded there and they could keep their jobs. But I understood their motivations and their feelings that in the big picture what they were doing was small and wouldn’t really make much difference and there we are again, back to The Big Chill and have you ever gone a week without a justification?

But then a woman’s body was found in the harbour and eleven more died in a container on the dock and watching Frank Sobotka get crushed under the guilt was some powerful TV. At times I forgot The Wire was a cop show at all.

(as I was writing this I watched the trailer for Season Two, posted below, and the tag line is Bunk saying, “It’s all about self-preservation, Jimmy.” That’s a nice, clear statement of the season’s theme)

Other people I know prefer the seasons set in the school or the newspaper or “the corners,” but what everyone who likes the show appreciates about it is the big canvas on which it was painted.

The Wire was a game changer because it wasn’t about cops solving crimes, it was about a whole city dealing with a whole city’s problems. There were cops and criminals and politicians, as there are on The Chicago Code, but there were also a lot of people who were just caught up in events – that whole six degrees of seperation.

Bringing in the larger picture is also something that Southland has been pretty good at, though I haven’t seen any episodes of the current season because it’s now on some weird pay-TV channel out of western Canada that I have to pay a lot more for. Oh well, someday on DVD, I’m sure.

So, The Chicago Code is a network show and is trying to move into this ‘bigger canvas’ territory and I’m going to keep watching and hope it gets the freedom from the network to do that. Because if my experience is anything to go by that writer’s room is getting flooded with notes that say things like, “wrap up the story by the end of the episode,” and “have fewer characters,” and “do we really need so many sub-plots?”

And maybe my favourite note, “This needs stronger act outs (which means cliffhangers before every commercial break or viewers wil lose interest) and the beginning of each act needs to be a quick summation of what happened in the last act (because networks seem to think viewers can’t remember what they saw two minutes ago).”

And I wonder if any network note has ever asked what the theme of the season will be?


17 comments:

Patrick Murtha said...

"Hill Street Blues" viewed its neighborhood and its city in that systematic, top-to-bottom, Dickensian way, with ordinary citizens, politicians, journalists, and others all involved in and affected by the intersecting storylines. That narrative approach, along with the cinematic techniques (handheld cameras, overlapping dialogue), made "Hill Street Blues" a very exciting program to follow in the early Eighties (and still worth watching today).

seana said...

I loved the second season, too. But I would also add that it gave a wonderful actor a terrific role to play in Frank Sobotka. It's not just a complex situation, but a complex reaction, which I find missing not just in a lot of television, but a lot of crime fiction as well. Often the main character is a morally ambiguous one, but very rarely do the people caught up in crime seem to be.

That's one reason I like Breaking Bad so much.

Dana King said...

Season Two was my favorite, as well. I grew up in Pittsburgh while all the mills were closing. My dad wasn't a mill worker, but our little river town had a small one that closed, it was impossible not to feel the whole world we'd all become used to slipping away.

Season Two of THE WIRE captured that better than anything I've seen. The dockworkers were wrong to get in bed with The Greek as they did, but I can see how a series of minor transgressions could lead down a slippery slope.

@Patrick,
I was a devoted HSB follower. Given much of what's on TV now, it might be time to check out some DVDs. That's a show (like THE WIRE and THE SOPRANOS) that is best watched in sequence.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

A brilliant and under-viewed, under-appreciated, and quite frankly just plain old unknown TV show from just a couple of years ago is Brotherhood that ran on Showtime. It stars Jason Clarke (Wysocki from The Chicago Code).

It takes place in Providence Rhode Island and is about two brothers, one a politician and the other a criminal. The characters are complex. You see the effects of actions on a range of characters. There is true moral ambiguity and emotional and motivational complexity. They are both dirty in their own way and both good men in their own way. They are flip sides of the same coin but refuse to admit it.

And all of the characters are all from The Neighborhood so there are a ton of overlapping relationships. Like one of the cops grew up with the brothers and practically lived at their house because his own home situation was so bad.

It only lasted three seasons before Showtime canceled it due to low ratings. But the creators knew that the end was coming so they were able to wrap up the series with echoes to the first episode.

I'm telling you with all the conviction that the typed word can muster it's fantastic.

John McFetridge said...

Thanks for the tip, Brian, I'll check out Brotherhood.

And yeah, Patrick, I just piked up the DVDs of the first season of Hill Street Blues - I remember how shocking it was when I first saw it back in the early 80's when Hill and Renko were shot and left for dead.

Seana, it was a perfect fit of actor and character - and not just Frank but everyone. Ziggy may never get another part so good ;)

Patrick Murtha said...

I second Brian's recommendation of "Brotherhood." Wonderful show, very dark. Jason Clarke is excellent in it. I did a brief write-up on the first season here:

http://patrickmurthasdiary.blogspot.com/2009/05/brotherhood.html

Scott Parker said...

Networks are not interested in themes. They are interested in commercials. And, if any show can have the mini cliffhangers going out to every commercial, then the audience will stay tuned in. And, of course, see the ads.

What I wonder, however, is, in the age of the DVR, broader canvass programs will gradually emerge. Now, granted, those potential broad-canvass shows will have characters pitching products in the story, but perhaps we'll get some good, longer, stories with an overarching theme.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

I had an old blog post about Freddie Cork (the head of the crime organization in Brotherhood) and the scene where he chokes to death his dead gay sons lover and how it is ultimately an act of emotional impotence and not aggression. Outside of Breaking Bad I've never seen a death scene in a TV show so devastating.

I'll have to dig it up and repost it on Spinetingler

John McFetridge said...

Yes, Scott, I think we're seeing some good examples these days of the mixing of serialized and episodic shows - take a show like Castle which is very "body of the week" episodic, but still has the longer story arcs of Beckett looking for her mother's killer and also the stuff with Castle and his daughter - and mother.

Also, The Good Wife, I think is doing a very good job at finding the balance the between episodic and serial.

The more you talk about it, Brian, the more interesting Brotherhood sounds.

Thanks for the link, Patrick, I'll check it out now.

Steve Weddle said...

I really gotta start watching this WIRE show all you people are talking about.

Keith Logan said...

I thought one thing that was fresh about THE CHICAGO CODE was the speed of delivery. The episode unfurled at breakneck speed, which I appreciated very much. I don't want or need recaps, just more story.

Your dad worked at Northern Electric, right? My dad also worked there in installation during the 50s and 60s, then moved to a desk job in purchasing.

Can you set part of a novel in Montreal? I am sure you can write a helluva tale with that setting; you lived quite a while in Montreal, right?

John McFetridge said...

Yeah, Keith, I agree the pacing was very good on Chicago Code. It will be interesting to see how the show settles in now that the characters have been introduced.

Hey Keith, it was my older brother who worked for Norhern Electric, my father and mother both worked for Bell Canada, or as it was always referred to in our house, "The Bell."

I would really like to write something set in Montreal. So far I've only tried this short story set in 1946. I'm now thinking about something set in Montreal in the 70's.

And I'd really like to see a good cop show set in Montreal.

seana said...

I would really like to see a cop show set in Montreal too. I would like to see anything set in Montreal, for that matter.

I hope Brotherhood is on Netflix, because it sounds right up my alley.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Can't go wrong with "The Brotherhood". I really liked it and always wondered what the hell happened to it. It just disappeared and I was pissed.

Dana King said...

I never veen heard of THE BROTHERHOOD before this chat. I'll check NetFlix for sure.

My wife gave up on THE CHICAGO CODE between the first and second commercials; I lasted about 15 minutes longer. There was no dialog; everyone gave speeches. Nothing in the story grew organically; Wysocki is a caricature and the plot lines we saw were presented with no subtlety at all.

Worst of all, the acting wasn't what we've come to expect from shows like JUSTIFIED or even TERRIERS on cable. How is it FX and HBO can find unknown actors who can give nuanced performances and the big network can't?

Keith Logan said...

John, I have certainly read "Barbotte", not to worry. Glad to hear you have ideas about a book set in Montreal in the 1970s. Lots of material there, with the corruption surrounding the Big O, the mafia, the whole (still thorny) language issue...

If you understand French, a recent film FUNKYTOWN chronicled Montreal during the disco era. It was fiction, but was really a thinly-veiled true story of the Limelight club, Douglas "Coco" Leopold (whom you may recall as a media personality), and another tv host/dj named Alain Montpetit. Flawed but worth checking out.

John McFetridge said...

Yeah, Keith, I've seen the trailer for Funkytown and read a couple of reviews and I'd like to see it. Not that I would have been caught dead in the Limelight, but in the 80's I did live on Overdale, just south of what we probably still think of as Dorchester.

And yeah, lots of great material in Montreal in the 70's, even going back to the beginning of the decade with the October Crisis. Something to think about for sure.