The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Television Collision: The Cultural Implications of “Good Cop, Bad Cop”

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

This week I chose to highlight a topic that lies somewhere between the world of television and the world of movies. It came to me while watching TV and seeing the trailer/ad for the buddy/cop comedy 21 Jump Street, starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. Not only was I offended by what this movie seems to be making of the concept that inspired the original TV series (starring Johnny Depp), it also offended me because it derives its humor from discrediting a group of people I really don’t think should be discredited in this day and age: police officers.

I come to this (new-found) respect for the daily work police officers do courtesy of TNT’s excellent cop drama Southland, which just came back on the air for its fourth season last week. To be fair, there have been other cop dramas before Southland that have treated the work as a police officer in detail and with respect, such as NYPD Blue, but Southland stands out to me for several reasons.

First off, I was too young to watch NYPD Blue when it originally aired, so all I have seen of the show is in retrospect, which makes a lot of what the show deals with seem dated and less apropos than a lot of the things Southland incorporates and depicts. Secondly, I can’t recall any other show that did justice to the average street cop, the boots, as much as Southland does. This show is not all about the high-profile murder cases that get solved within an episode, even though there are homicide detectives on the show. Southland goes way beyond any “Case of the Week” format, in fact, it forgoes that concept most of the time and simply shows the work of Los Angeles police officers on any average day of the week. (I recommend watching Season 4 opener “Wednesday” to prove this point.)

And even though there are plenty of things one can criticize about the police force (corruption, racial bias, male domination etc.), Southland made me realize something: police officers have to deal with a lot of crazy people all day long. I can walk by the weird, drunk dude mumbling offensive words, hanging out in front of the train station, but police officers actually have to do something about it if they are called to the scene. I don’t even want to think about the hell it has to be for police officers to be called to a domestic disturbance of a couple that is just out-of-their-minds yelling at each other and refusing to calm down. Half the time I stare in utter disbelief at a friend of mine, who actually is a street cop – although in Germany – when he tells me about some of the things that have happened to him over the years. I wouldn’t want to have his job for all the money in the world.

But for as long as there have been cop shows that take the profession seriously, there have been franchises that don’t subscribe to upholding that ethos. And of course artistic license has to be given and we shouldn’t make any topic or profession permanently exempt from being the butt of a joke. But there is a difference between the police-related high-jinks such classic franchises as Die Hard or Bad Boys have given us and the adolescent and eroding humor the movie version of 21 Jump Street wants to sell.

Sure, the cops in Police Academy were all incompetent too, but that was the whole point. Everybody was incompetent. From what I could tell from the full-length trailer for 21 Jump Street (which, yes, I did make the effort an watch online), here we are meant to believe that two absolute boneheads somehow made it onto a major city (Metropolitan City) police force and none of their superiors, who are actually accomplished officers, ever figured out that these two play tossing games with their service weapons and that one of them can’t even recite the Miranda Rights (which every kid who has ever watched television can basically do).

This movie (trailer) doesn’t offend me simply because I can’t take a joke (although I have had it up to here with adolescent humor adults are supposed to find funny). It offends me because it is lazy at best and picks a target that has been hit so many times, that it’s more than dead and there is no more blood to be squeezed from it. And I really do believe that we need to stop repeating the cultural message that it is okay to make fun of cops and do so often, with at least one crappy cop comedy a year. Because when these kinds of messages get repeated over and over, that’s when they start to nest and fester and manifest into the wrong kinds of attitudes and beliefs about the police force.

I applaud Southland (and to a certain degree Blue Bloods and even Rookie Blue, feeble as the latter’s attempts sometimes may be) for giving credit where credit is due and working meticulously towards portraying what being “a real cop” is really like. Because in a lot of ways the movie 21 Jump Street and the two main characters in it are exactly the kind of disease that results from the cultural repetitions of false images of the police force. The characters believe being a cop is all fun and games and explosions and car chases. That is one side of the coin you can see in a lot of cop movies and shows.
And the makers of 21 Jump Street believe it’s okay to make fun of cops and show them being completely incompetent, because that is the other side of the coin of our cultural heritage of the genre.

I say it’s time to stop both false messages, but especially the latter, because it is so detrimental to an integral part of our society. Being a cop is not glorious 99.5% of the time. But the fact that it can still make for spectacularly good television as in the case of Southland should be all the proof you need that it’s time to start an appreciation movement for cops. People who feel appreciated are proven to do a better job. So if you’re dissatisfied with the police force you have now, start appreciating what they do right, and maybe they’ll do more of it.
And if you think all of this is pointless and I should just shut up and laugh about a silly movie, then at least watch some Southland and we’ll call it a compromise.