Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Cops: “Watcha gonna do?”

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Not long after starting high school, my family moved to a not so new, rather familiar, indeed depressing town. But in those first six months of school before the move I made an excellent friend, his name is Wayne. Wayne and his family were the essence of modern multicultural Australia, one of six (seven?) kids he lived with his Aboriginal father and Jehova’s Witness mother. They had left the suburbs and gone bush. As the family home was being built, they lived in a rustic and equally awesome improvised dwelling made up of two caravans, corrugated iron, wood and nails. The whole thing was powered by generator and the time we spent playing video games at night was limited and therefore precious. I stayed at Wayne’s house many times over the next few years, taking the slow, XPT down through the no-man’s land between Casino and Grafton. One of my strongest memories (aside from the chicken we had to kill one day) is of watching TV in his older brother’s caravan: American football, David Letterman and Cops.

About a year ago, I jumped back on Cops to discover that while brand names and car models had changed, the desperation, fear, humour and duty remained constant. What can be learned about life from Cops cannot be underestimated. Aside from repeatedly showing the viewer how not to act in an encounter with police, it also humanises police, allowing them very brief and admittedly tightly limited opportunities to speak of the how, why, when and where of police work. Further, the featured police officers often express deep affection for the places, communities in which they work.

However, what I love most about Cops is the frequent subtle and overt ruptures of the fourth wall. The shadow of the boom microphone on a late afternoon concrete wall, the reflection of the camera light and camera operator in the window of the patrol car and the rare but exciting instances when a scene of arrest and pursuit scales out of control of the individual officer and results in intervention by the production crew.

Cops is not an easy program to watch, nor is it perfect. It frequently crosses the very fine line between documentary and exploitation. The same kinds of people (poor, mostly black, frequently white drug addicts and prostitutes) feature regularly and combined with the stereotypes surrounding them provide a certain kind of voyeuristic entertainment. What it does well, though, is showing in a not so flattering light the reality of poor, high crime neighbourhoods and the horror unleashed on communities that is crystal meth.

Now in its twenty-fourth season, Cops is going strong. Twenty-four seasons later though, and one would think that the perps would know enough to shut their mouths when placed under arrest!
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