Can cop shows be reformed? They’re television’s most popular and durable genre – and most problematic. Months before George Floyd was murdered and anti-Black-racism, anti-police-brutality protests erupted around the world, a comprehensive study called “Normalizing Injustice” was circulating among every TV writer, producer and network executive in North America. Published in January by Color of Change Hollywood, the study (the abridged version is 38 pages) describes in detail how police procedural series not only paint cops as heroes and justify violence, but also “exclude writers of colour, miseducate people about the criminal justice system and make racial injustice acceptable.”
Since then, the urgency for Hollywood to re-examine how it depicts cops has only increased. The creators and cast of the precinct comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine shredded the first eight scripts of their next season to do a reset, and donated US$100,000 to the National Bail Fund Network. The series Cops and Live PD were cancelled. The actor Hartley Sawyer was fired from The Flash for racist tweets.
But what about here, in Hollywood North? Canadians tell ourselves there are crucial differences between our country and the U.S. We believe our TV cops are less cowboy, more collaborative; less Tough Guys with Guns, more Serve and Protect. Yet we consume U.S. police series avidly: In a week I chose at random, April 27 to May 3, 2020, 11 out of the 20 most-watched shows in English Canada were procedurals, including 911, SWAT and FBI’s Most Wanted. That makes us just as likely to absorb and further their hero-cop narratives and institutionalized racism.
“The narratives that the media has been telling us about Black and Indigenous people predates all our existences,” Sudz Sutherland, the producer/writer/director whose work includes the miniseries Guns and the series Shoot the Messenger, told me. “White people have caught up to it lately, I guess. Via a snuff film.”
If his reference to Floyd’s death sounds blunt, Sutherland is not apologizing. “I’m done having dishonest conversations with people about race,” he continued. “I don’t care about your white fragility, your sense of propriety.” In that spirit, I asked a handful of Canadian writers, producers and executives what could and should be done with police procedurals.
Challenge the concept
While cop shows on cable and streaming services tend to be more nuanced, viewers tune into network police procedurals to relax into their familiar binary: good versus evil. The stakes are high but simple. Perhaps the plot is ripped from the headlines, so it feels relevant. Solving the crime makes us feel smart. And when the hour is up, the dragon is slain, and the world is safe. For that to work, viewers have to accept that the cop is the hero, and the villain deserves punishment.
“The networks are running a business, and the market shows them that the hero narrative is what people want,” Marsha Greene, a writer/producer whose credits include Mary Kills People and Private Eyes, said in an interview. “As writers, we’re asked to create a cop who is great at his or her job, period.”
Issues of race and corruption, Greene continued, are relegated to one-off, standalone episodes. “Your white hero can say, ‘Get rid of those bad white cops,’ and that solves that. But to really address racism?” She sighed. “Racism is a downer. These shows are supposed to be your escape.”
Worse, said Noelle Carbone, a writer/producer who’s worked on Rookie Blue, Cardinal and Coroner, when cops do step outside legal bounds, that’s also painted as heroic: “We tell the audience that it’s okay when cops break the rules. They’re contravening the Police Services Act in the name of justice.”
Further exacerbating the problem, procedurals rely on consultants for their accuracy, and in Canada those consultants typically have been white ex-police, some of whom are even nostalgic about the bad old days when coppers were free to bust heads. Nuanced discussions of race do not occur.
Craig Bromell has been one of those white consultants, and he, too, believes that procedurals need to change. President of the Toronto Police Association from 1997 to 2003, he created the CTV series The Bridge, which ran for one season in 2010. “In the last week, I’ve been getting calls about The Bridge again,” he told me. “It was ahead of its time. We did shows about cops getting videotaped during an arrest, about city hall stuff. This is where law enforcement shows have to go. I have to team up with people of colour on both sides of the law and do a show where the copper on the street is just as human as the person committing the crime.”
“We are having this conversation daily, both internally and externally with our producer partners,” Trish Williams, the executive director for scripted content at CBC, said in an interview. “We’re looking for a different lens on the police procedural. There needs to be more awareness brought to our decisions. Both to storytelling in current shows, and what to put into production and development. We have to ask, ‘Do the stories challenge the status quo or keep it in place?’ Not to perseverate on past mistakes. But to be aware that what once was okay isn’t okay any more.”
Williams was the only network exec who agreed to speak to me. Bell Media declined, and Troy Reeb, executive VP, Broadcast Networks, at Corus Entertainment, sent a statement that reads in part, “We do not dictate to producers their storylines. … We have confidence in our production partners to continue to evolve their storytelling beyond traditional narratives and reflect the complex realities of the justice system.”
Lady Dicks, the upcoming female-buddy-cop comedy from showrunner Tassie Cameron (Rookie Blue, Ten Days in the Valley), is an unintended test case for what that evolution might look like. Conceived two years ago as an honest, irreverent look at women cops – one white, one Black – in the midst of the #MeToo era, the show was about to go to camera when COVID-19 arrived, followed by the Black Lives Matter resurgence.
Cameron, co-showrunner Sherry White and their writing staff – four Black women, three white women and one white man – “were already having conversations about race and racism, but we weren’t completely addressing the policing issues,” Cameron wrote in a e-mail. “We’ve had to re-examine the ‘action hero’ aspect to our detectives because, in reality, this action hero stuff [who work on the vice squad] is a big part of the problem.”
She admits to feeling both terrified and honoured by the responsibility. “But it’s very important to us to include the current conversations around policing in our series,” she wrote. “Honestly, it’s making the show feel more relevant and more entertaining.”
Diversify the creators
Inside television writing rooms, diversity is moving in the right direction. Carbone, who identifies as a lesbian, has gone from an all-white writing staff on Rookie Blue to Coroner, the most diverse room she’s ever worked in, where her colleagues are Black, Cree/Métis and Trini-Chinese. Adrienne Mitchell, Coroner’s executive producer, directs some episodes; the others are directed by Gloria Kim and Charles Officer.
As for Greene, she was the only non-white writer in most of her workplaces, and most characters were written as “colour-blind” – a character would become a person of colour only after the fact, in casting. In theory, that seemed like a liberal idea; in practice, it meant “whatever that person’s true job experience was wouldn’t be reflected,” Greene said. “If you’re a racialized person, it radically affects your lived experience. When we did end up writing those specificities, it was in their personal lives, not their jobs.”
Greene worked overtime, going to plays to discover more Canadian actors of colour, so she could write characters for them. But when it came time to cast, “it got complicated,” she said. Casting agents have a roster of actors they feel confident recommending. For a principle role, they were reluctant to take a risk on someone new. So for a colour-blind character, 10 white actors would be suggested, and one or two people of colour. That’s changed. Now Greene writes characters as Black, and casting directors send Black candidates.
“Five years ago, networks would say to me, ‘Don’t let your casts be too diverse – we can’t sell that,’” Mitchell concurred. “Now all our conversations are about how to be more representational. Our stories have to reflect the multicultural nature of Toronto. And we can tell them because we have people in our writers’ room who have lived it.” Coroner has been exported to France, Italy and the U.K.; in the United States, the CW will air it in August.
Meanwhile the vast majority of the Canadian entertainment industry remains uniformly white. At one point in his career, Sutherland said his boss asked him to run a check on a Black character’s dialogue to ensure it was authentic. When he calmly explained why that was racist, the boss cried. At another point, he recalled, a network executive requested that he excise most of the Black subplots from his miniseries because he felt that the majority of Canadians didn’t want to see stories about Black culture. Today, he’s fielding calls from white producers who’d love to include his name on their projects “because they need a POC on it.” (He declined.)
“Everything is an issue of power,” Greene said. “A writer in a room only has so much power. I have the power to write a character as a POC, but a lot of other people beyond me need to take that up. And in Canada, most senior writers, showrunners, producers and network executives are not POC.” So, the final step has to be:
Redistribute the power
Institutionalized racism in the Canadian entertainment business is being acknowledged and challenged. On June 12, an anonymous former staffer at the Writers Guild of Canada tweeted accusations that the guild’s executives and council were too white. On June 30, Bell Media announced it was partnering with BIPOC TV & Film to launch the portal HireBIPOC, a list of BIPOC crew and creatives, later this summer. The CBC has made a commitment that one-fifth of the key roles in its continuing series will be BIPOC by 2025. “But diversity without power is window dressing,” Sutherland said. “It’s for annual reports and to put pictures on your website. It means nothing.”
Sure, “maybe some creators of colour are getting better opportunities now. Maybe,” Sutherland went on. “But how the industry works in this country, a network executive calls their friend the producer – ‘We need a cop show for Wednesdays at 10 p.m.’ How many producers of colour do you think get those calls? You can count them on one hand.
“And when you actually talk about sharing power?” He snorted. “An executive will have an intern in their office, or maybe a junior executive of colour. But if they don’t groom them for the top job, nothing new is going to happen.”
“The biggest challenge isn’t in the cast or writers or directors,” Mitchell agreed. “The challenge is to hire, train and promote more BIPOC and LGBTQ people at the producer level, and then even higher, at the network level.”
In the meantime, procedurals will still be made – “when the dust settles, even more shows than before,” Bromell said. “People want to know what’s going on behind the scenes. Television can help with this issue. If you tell the truth.”
“As creators, it’s our job to tell responsible stories about law enforcement,” Carbone said. “Not dip our toe into what police can do better, but really dig in.”
If Greene were making a cop show now, “I’d start by the lead being Black, with a consultant who was Black, and I’d ask the questions we’ve never asked before,” she said. “Canadians think, ‘We’re not the U.S. We don’t have as many series, we can’t take risks.’ But we have to challenge ourselves to risk more. Look at This is Us. They reinvented structure, made flashbacks a narrative thread. Now is the time to reinvent cop shows. Especially network cop shows. They’re watched by broader audiences, so they’re a better place to effect social change.”
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