At some point (Lord make it soon), COVID will go away and public places will overflow without shame. And for those of us who — maybe a little guiltily — feel like staying at home, images of the pandemic will vanish from our TV screens. In the not-distant future, people bingeing old This Is Us episodes might be jolted to see Kevin and Madison wearing masks in the maternity ward. You’ll hear “Lean on Me” on Spotify and not immediately think of Walmart.
The novel coronavirus, however, was not the only world-changing event in 2020. I’m referring to that Minneapolis police officer taking a knee to George Floyd’s neck, a nearly nine-minute video that even today brings back all the feelings, mostly heartbreak. The stunning repercussions from that police killing cascaded through America and around the globe, as millions paid tribute to the fallen Floyd. Public opinion for the Black Lives movement soared. Dave Chappelle made a searing video called 8:46 with exactly one (outstanding) joke in it.
There were calls to “defund the police,” although I don’t sense much stomach for that. Even people who join Black Lives marches are overwhelming pro-cop. Yet clearly something is very wrong with our justice system — mass incarcerations, wrongful convictions, and the body-cam videos that just keep coming. There is no vaccine against any of this.
Or is there? One of the surest ways to make money in television is to make a cop show. And with few exceptions, cop shows produced for a mass audience (i.e., people who have never heard of David Simon) reinforce a single narrative that has been in our psyches since the age when we liked to play cops and robbers. Cops good, robbers bad. Over time cops didn’t just chase robbers but killers and, inevitably, serial killers. And did you know that even bad cops are good? You did if you watched NYPD Blue or other “realistic” dramas in which the ends always justified violating the suspect’s rights.
Of course there are Very Special Episodes that feature dirty cops being brought to justice. Law and Order had an episode titled “Corruption” and SVU had one called “Dirty,” so that’s two… out of more than 900 hours of Dick Wolf television. But over the years mainstream (i.e., white) America has mostly looked the other way. TV news convinced us that there was a crime problem and that communities needed every tool at their disposal to deal with it — including coerced confessions, no-knock warrants, and prosecutors who never admitted failure, even if they had to try the same innocent man six times. Of course, TV news modeled its storytelling on Hollywood, which then empowered Hollywood to turn out even more “cop-aganda.” After all, it was in the news!
This is an old critique, especially in America: If it bleeds it leads. What’s new since George Floyd’s death is the conversation about systemic racism. While watching Amazon Prime’s Yearly Departed special, I noted with interest Natasha Rothwell delivering a comic eulogy for TV cops. “They came in so many different pairings: big cop, small cop, old cop, rookie cop, good cop, bad cop — or as Black folks call them, bad cop, bad cop, bad cop, bad cop,” Rothwell said while dabbing back crocodile tears. “By the grace of executive producer Dick Wolf, you survived longer than Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
Last I checked, no one has cancelled Dick Wolf or any of his shows. Still, we have to look for encouraging signs where we can. Which brings us to the new season of ABC’s The Rookie. If you missed last week's season opener (re-watchable through Hulu or the ABC app), it features a white cop — our beloved Nathan Fillion as an old-ish rookie on the force — being disciplined for violating the rules. Not for nothing, the head of Internal Affairs is a Black cop.
What I especially liked about The Rookie’s story line is that it will permanently change the trajectory of the show. Fillion’s character, it was strongly hinted, will never have his storybook ending of being promoted to detective. Breaking the rules has consequences that can’t be neatly tied up in the time it takes to watch a procedural. Even better, Commander West (Michael Beach), the head of Internal Affairs, appears to convince his son, rookie Jackson West (Titus Makin Jr.), to join him in rooting systemic racism out of the LAPD. This is the kind of storytelling that primetime TV has never shown much interest in. That someone could reboot an entire series into a post-George Floyd, post-Breonna Taylor world is rather amazing.
Of course there will always be reruns of Chicago PD and Cops. Going forward, there will still be throwbacks like Blue Bloods, whose showrunner recently said he has no intention of making Tom Selleck’s character woke — which, let’s be honest, is probably in everyone's best interests. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s how to look for teeny tiny diamonds in a dung heap, and this small advance for racial reckoning within America’s most popular form of entertainment after the NFL is worth watching, in more ways than one.
The Rookie airs on ABC Sunday nights at 10:00 PM ET.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.