(As published in WORLD during the year I was its television critic ... )
To appreciate better the importance of television's longest-running real-life drama, COPS (Fox, Saturday, 8:00 EST), imagine the following: It's 1991, and the show has chosen the officers of the Los Angeles Police Department as its subject. Late one night, a squad car becomes involved in a dangerous, high-speed chase. Several tense minutes later, the police, having brought the vehicle to a halt, experience difficulty in subduing the drug-crazed driver. Exasperated, they hammer him to the ground with billy clubs and finally bring him under control.
Other than the fact that the segment might merit the series another Emmy nomination, nothing in it would strike those familiar with either the show or police work as a big deal, least of all that the reckless driver's name would happen to be Rodney King.
That the Rodney King incident wasn't an episode of COPS instead of a home movie is a shame. Without so much as a voiceover, the show would've almost certainly presented King as a thug who even with his beating got off easy.
Every week COPS provides an officer's-eye-view of (mostly) big-city life in the United States. What emerges is a portrait of the police as unglamorous heroes doing a dangerous job for an ungrateful public. What also emerges is a portrait of that public as a tired, poor, huddled mass of wretched refuse yearning to break laws--and to lie about doing so to avoid going to jail.
No law is too big or too small. During a typical season, a viewer will see inner-city crack addicts arrested for possession, intoxicated Mardi Gras revelers arrested for public urination, cross-dressing prostitutes arrested for theft, middle-aged joyriders arrested for going the wrong way on one-way streets, and dozens of variations thereon. An occasional disaster rescue or domestic dispute will interrupt the flow of criminal activity, most of which has its roots in the drug trade.
The value of the series lies in its nearly unedited presentation of its subjects. "We don't editorialize about what [the cops] do or how they do it," explains John Langley, the show's executive producer and creator, in an interview at the COPS website. "We just show it, and hopefully [sic] the facts speak for themselves."
It is this policy of noninterference that makes the series as bracing now as it was when it debuted eight years ago. The viewer who comes to it after a diet of TV's slanted "documentary" fare may find the jerkiness of the hand-held cameras and the warts-and-all view of the criminal activity jarring at first. (Blurred faces and muted expletives are the only censorship.) But it’s with such techniques that COPS is able to convey one of its primary messages: Reality is not politically correct. That a disproportionate number of the drug arrests occur in minority neighborhoods, for instance--and that many of the officers are themselves black or Hispanic--does not seem to trouble the show's producers. Neither does the fact that "police brutality," shown in its proper context, is often revealed to be nothing more than a professional response to a provocative situation.
Like Langley, who says that producing the series has given him "a profound respect for police offers ... and everyone else involved in public service," those who watch the show will find their appreciation for law enforcement--and for the fragility of the civilization that spurns it--reinforced.