Was “COPS” the Ultimate Documentary? By Mark Borchardt
I watched “Cops” for about twenty years before I stopped watching TV altogether. Sure the box gets fired up for the Packers, you can bet on that, but other than that hallowed ritual, it remains as a black monolith in my living room ala “2001: A Space Odyssey” (not counting VHS and DVD viewings). Ask people who knew me, whatever it took, Saturday nights I’d find myself planted in front of the electronic fireplace for the two riveting back-to-back episodes offered 7 p.m Central time sharp. And that’s when the “Bad Boys” theme would begin to reverberate in living rooms across the U.S.A. I never was a big TV watcher but there was something definitely special about that show.
When “Cops” premiered in 1989 our television culture wasn’t yet mired in the miasma of the “reality show,” but soon came the likes of “Survivor,” “American Idol” and such, and the dam of forced perspective burst force. The bulk of many of those reality shows spawned by those initial hits were ostensibly produced and consequently as fake as a three dollar bill. Participants were coerced into contrived situations and cajoled to malevolently react against each other. “Cops” of course remained sincere, how could it not? It was the real deal and these were real police at work out on the streets, in the alleyways and within the kitchens of domestic disputes. It was happening in the moment, no furtive cues from the sidelines, the officers were there to do their job.
Many people couldn’t understand my obsession with “Cops.” What was it about the show? Was it the heart-stopping, high speed car chases? Not really but somewhat. Was it the close foot pursuits through tight alleyways and over precarious fences and through winding yards? Not really but somewhat. Well, what was it then? Over time some people began to understand where my interest was coming from. And that interest was in the show’s humanity. Yes, its humanity. And the humor. Humor on a real police show? You bet, lots of humor, often times sub-textual as it may be, but therein resides one of the clever conceits of the show. It is about us.
For “Cops” is about the human condition, albeit one that predominantly takes place out on the streets of America. It’s about people in heightened situations and how those people react toward each other, whether trying to candidly explain their circumstances or furtively cover up some wrong-doing. It concerns the rhetoric of the streets and the way we communicate with each other and how some miscreants stealthily dole out disinformation. It exemplifies the clever use of language between those trying to avoid arrest and the authorities justifying that arrest. It is the ultimate documentary coming at us directly into our homes each and every week.
Often times the paradigm was patternistic: The police officer would get out of their pursuing squad and cautiously approach the stopped vehicle in question. Brief formalities would be exchanged between driver and soon-to-be interrogator. Both knew what was on the docket. But the stage was set for the stage itself. Someone trying to find out, the other trying to evade, both doing their jobs to the best of their ability at the given moment. Rarely was it a draw but sometimes it was, for occasionally the skirmish with words was entertaining enough. Yet, in most cases, the cuffs came out providing a finite conclusion.
“Cops” takes us into homes and situations we otherwise never had access to before. When the series began it was a unique premise and it caught on readily with audiences. And many people, not living the white-collar dream, saw their own people up on the screen for the first time, people that they could relate to, characters and circumstances they may have encountered in their own backyard, driving down the street or fixing a car in a back alley. On-screen it was everyday people pushed from the sidelines into the momentary spotlight of the camera. There they finally were, people we knew, in our living rooms, finally for all to see and experience.