After more than 1,000 episodes, the longest-running reality TV show is coming to an end. Paramount Network, in response to public outcry over the death of George Floyd, has pulled Cops from production, making the 33rd season its last.
Cops started in 1988 during the WGA strike that crippled the production of scripted TV programs. The show quickly developed a following as viewers tuned in to ride-along and observe the “real-life drama” that happens in the parts of town that they wouldn’t dare drive through on their own.
Using a cinéma vérité approach to bring policing to the small screen, Cops and various spin-offs that followed became low-cost programing hits. But the dramatized portrayal of crime and punishment as spectator sport left critics disturbed about the way that it portrayed the “stars” of the show. With recent scrutiny focused on police brutality, especially towards suspects and victims who are minorities, the fate of the long-running program was sealed.
But reality TV shows are only part of the equation. With scripted dramas like Law & Order, CSI, and Blue Bloods also under the magnifying glass, we may be witnessing the start of a new approach to how we tell stories about law enforcement and the people who serve as first responders. For decades crime dramas have made up a significant portion of prime-time TV schedules, and for decades we have known that the portrayals of victims and perpetrators have not reflected reality. As I’ve said before, art is a mirror…but it is a funhouse mirror that distorts reality and alters perceptions.
According to IMDb’s entry about the Cops TV program, “The theme song, ‘Bad Boys,’ is one of the most well known television theme songs in the last 30 years. The lyric, “what cha gonna do when they come for you?” takes on new meaning when the bad behavior of law enforcement officers is in the spotlight.