I remember a few years ago a network executive telling me that the traditional multi-camera situation comedy was dead. “It’s just not the moment for that kind of comedy,” he said. “The audience hungers for something more than just jokes.”
One of the reasons I remember the conversation so well is because that kind of show—the traditional multi-camera situation comedy—is pretty much the way I make my money. We were in his office on one of the upper floors of a building in Burbank, and his window looked out over the hills beyond, so as he spoke I saw a funeral procession snaking up one of the paths of the Forest Lawn Memorial Park. It was the perfect Hollywood way to learn that your career is over: pompous business jargon punctuated by a too-on-the-nose metaphor.
Hollywood loves a happy ending, of course, so it was barely a year later that I got a call from that same executive telling me that the traditional multi-camera comedy was back. “We really feel like the audience is ready to watch that kind of show again,” he said. “We really think that this is the moment for the traditional multi-cam situation comedy.”
For reference purposes, the call came a few months after the 2018 reboot of Roseanne premiered on ABC and got 20 million viewers.
This is not the moment for this show are the weasel words we use in Hollywood after we hear a pitch for a series that we are convinced is unfashionable or out of step with prevailing political currents. And this is the moment for this show are the weasel words we use when we’re convinced of the opposite.
These “moments,” as you may have guessed, are declared and undeclared by examining certain cultural indicators—the New York Times, public radio’s This American Life, contemporary novels on the senior-year reading list at expensive secondary schools—that rarely intersect with the tastes of the television audience, which has a wide and varied appetite. They like game shows and contests, magazine-y news shows, comedies, soaps, and every now and then something scary.
And they like cop shows. Take the Law & Order franchise, which has been broadcast and in continuous reruns for more than 30 years. Audiences love its dark and gritty realism, though it’s always made me laugh to see how civilians on the show act when homicide detectives interview them. If a hardboiled Law & Order cop interrogated me, I’d be nervous. I might even think, Hey, maybe I did it and just don’t remember. But on Law & Order, witnesses are always cool and hardboiled: I don’t know, detective, this is New York, I don’t keep track of all of the dead bodies I step over.
Cop shows are a very good business, so for the next few moments, pretend you’re sitting behind the desk at a network executive’s office, maybe even the one with the view of a famous Hollywood cemetery. In front of you is a friend of mine—a veteran writer and showrunner who has made a career out of writing police dramas. He pitches you a show called Desk Duty:
“When you work in a normal job and you mess up, you get fired. But when you’re a cop, it’s a little more complicated,” he says. “The policeman’s union is very clear: If you catch a cop in the act of breaking the law or acting improperly or can prove he or she has done some fireable offense, you can fire them. But if you can’t, then it’s going to be a long and expensive process with appeals and investigations and union trouble. So what the police department does is put bad cops—and in this show, these are bad cops—on ‘desk duty.’ They’re sent to a long-unused precinct house and told to sit. All day. Doing nothing. They must clock in, they must show up, and they must behave.
“The old precinct house is barely up to code. The department doesn’t cool it in the summer, doesn’t heat it in the winter, doesn’t clean it. The department’s strategy here is simple: Get these cops to quit. But they won’t. What they want is to reclaim their honor, do what it takes to restore their good names. So they investigate and solve crimes—sometimes working clandestinely for cops still on the job, sometimes on their own—and every week they try to get pulled off ‘desk duty’ and put back on the job they love.”
At this point in the pitch, you should lean back in your Aeron chair, maybe gaze thoughtfully across the busy 134 Freeway at the convoy of black limousines moving along the Lake of Reflection and say, I just don’t think this is the moment for this show.
Look, it may be a terrible idea for a cop show—who knows—but after three years of almost continuous national attention to the occupational hazards and violent temptations of law enforcement, about the only thing you can say for sure about Desk Duty is that this really is the moment.
But my friend who pitched this project did not make a sale. Cops, he was told, are problematic. People, he was told, don’t like cop shows because they no longer like cops. And no one wants to see a show about bad cops trying to go straight.
Which was an odd conclusion for those television executives to draw. From the Law & Order franchise (begun in 1990) to the CSI collection of hit police dramas on CBS (begun in 2000) to the successful reboots of S.W.A.T. (premiered 2017) and FBI (debuted 2018)—American audiences can’t seem to get enough of cops putting bad guys in jail. Blue Bloods, a popular and long-running drama on CBS about an NYPD family, has been a ratings workhorse since 2010. It rarely dips below 10 million viewers per episode. And don’t forget the two 911s on Fox and Chicago PD on NBC.
So why did my friend strike out all over town? Because he was pitching a new series, something fresh and original—well, not too fresh or original, it was basically The Dirty Dozen with cops—and it rattled the executives. It’s one thing to extend a franchise that already exists and that comes from a powerful producer—Dick Wolf at NBC, Jerry Bruckheimer at CBS— but it’s another to ask a network exec to lean back in his Aeron and take a chance on something, especially when all the cultural indicators he follows are sending the loud message that cops are radioactive.
And yet: The ratings for these shows in general have been steady-as-she-goes, even during 2020, the tumultuous year that saw protests, riots, and the defund-the-police movement take hold of American culture. Well, certain parts of American culture.
According to my rough math, based on weekly Nielsen ratings, about 75 million people watch police dramas every week. They may be out of step with the moment, but that’s a lot of people. Enough to make a difference in things that depend on getting a large group to agree with you, as in election results.
If the brain trust behind the Democratic Party would spend the next week watching prime time broadcast television, they’d be treated to the biggest and most popular shows on television that feature unfashionable and practically reactionary depictions of law-enforcement officials doing a pretty good job. They might rethink their party’s deeply held association with the idea that “defund the police” is a winning and popular strategy.
There are signs that they are coming around. Eric Adams, the newly elected mayor of New York City, coasted to victory promising his constituents more police, not fewer. And President Joe Biden tried to drive a stake through the heart of the idea in his State of the Union speech on March 1 by declaring “fund the police” in his signature rasp. They are learning—perhaps too late—that a lot of Americans watch Law & Order because a lot of Americans like law and order. They are learning what it feels like to miss the moment.
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