Whither realistic cops on TV and film?
May 29, 2007 5:56 AM   Subscribe

Which cinematographs or televisual serials most faithfully depict the operations of police or detectives?
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Wire on HBO, which is produced by a former crime reporter and a former police detective.
posted by sacre_bleu at 6:03 AM on May 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If one finds one must artificially increase the polysyllabic propensity of one's electronically-submitted queries, one should at the least make the effort to select the correct verbiage. I believe you will find that "cinematographs" refers to the device that creates or projects motion pictures, and not to the picture itself.

In any case, I've heard that Law & Order is pretty good about police procedure, relatively speaking. Seriously, no TV show or movie is going to be that realistic, because they would by necessity end up being boring for the viewer.
posted by cerebus19 at 6:06 AM on May 29, 2007

Best answer: HBO's The Wire (shortly to enter its fifth and final season) seems to be the consensus cops-on-TV pick. It captures boredom, endless protocol-wrangling, and constant compromise/failure in a way other cop shows have never been allowed to work. It's also a doggedly unromantic show - there are white knights, but they turn out to be fools or worse, and the show is hardest on them in a way. The cops-n-dealers plots are complicated endlessly by shifting political loyalties and nastily selfish motivations. Of course its sneaky secret is that it isn't really a cop show - it follows cops but is a dramatic analysis of interlocking social/legal/labour/media systems and the plight of the underclass. It's also one of the five or ten best dramas ever made for American TV so you should watch it anyhow.

There was much praise for the emotional realism and tone of NBC's Homicide in the 90's, but it's a network show and pre-Sopranos, and therefore whitewashed to a greater extent than The Wire (from much the same creative team).

NYPD Blue won praise for verisimilitude when it aired, though it makes far more than its share of compromises for the sake of dramatic intensity. Still, Milch/Clark were a good deal more aggressive about the sociopathy and sublimated need-for-fatherly-order common in law enforcement than their predecessors. The show is romanticized, no question, but it's more morally ambivalent than it's even given credit for.
posted by waxbanks at 6:07 AM on May 29, 2007

Note: television does better with procedurals (doctors, lawyers, cops, firemen) than film in general, for a whole host of reasons not worth listing; film is better at the telescoped intensity of one-off stories, hence (in part) the prevalence of private detectives on film.
posted by waxbanks at 6:10 AM on May 29, 2007

Best answer: Here is a recent piece discussing this. I like the inclusion of Barney Miller, and I have heard other cops mention it; something about the lower key atmosphere in the squad room being necessary to offset the many stresses of the job.
posted by dickyvibe at 6:17 AM on May 29, 2007

Best answer: Hill Street Blues
posted by kirkaracha at 6:19 AM on May 29, 2007

Barney Miller, no really, Barney Miller. All they do is paperwork.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:26 AM on May 29, 2007

The Bill
posted by MrMustard at 6:30 AM on May 29, 2007

The Bill

No. Possibly in earlier times, but not now. It manages to capture the plodding everyday dullness of reality, while mixing in wildly improbable (yet still dull) storylines.

I've read that The Shield is pretty realistic, if you stretch what happens over a much longer time. Unfortunately, I can't find the quote, which I'm sure was from an LA police officer.

The Vice, maybe? I haven't seen enough to be sure, though.
posted by liquidindian at 6:50 AM on May 29, 2007

I've heard The Wire as well.
posted by miss lynnster at 6:57 AM on May 29, 2007

Best answer: While it's still free ....
posted by blueshammer at 7:57 AM on May 29, 2007

My lawyer buddies say that Law & Order is so consistently incorrect that it's unwatchable to them.
posted by zebra3 at 8:04 AM on May 29, 2007

Best answer: In the world of novels, the 87th Precinct series (with Detectives Steve Carella & Meyer Meyer) written by Ed McBain, aka Evan Hunter, of 'Blackboard Jungle' fame are incredibly realistic in the day to day procedure of police work. Indeed, it inspired a couple of the shows cited above (eg: Hill Street Blues, which is pretty much universally considered a direct, albeit GREAT, rip-off of McBain).

But, you asked about film/TV. Several of these have been made into TV movies in the last few years. They're generally faithful to the novels -- mostly because the novels themselves are written in a short, clipped style that almost resembles a TV treatment.
posted by RavinDave at 8:14 AM on May 29, 2007

Best answer: Dragnet

The series, not the movie. The movie is something else.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 8:34 AM on May 29, 2007

Best answer: My best friend, an NYPD narcotics and intelligence detective (2nd grade) who has busted himself down to sergeant (in the South Bronx, even) has always said that Barney Miller was by far the most realistic TV cop show.

When he used to date a defense lawyer, they'd watch Law & Order together and he'd spend the first half pointing out ridiculous errors in the cop's behavior, and she'd spend the second half doing the same for the lawyers.
posted by nicwolff at 8:50 AM on May 29, 2007

I've had some cop friends say that the "background" of The Shield is fairly realistic, although not the main characters or plot. (Likewise, I've known prosecutors who have commented kindly on some of the procedural details of Law and Order but really hate the characterizations of lawyers and the actual courtroom dialog.)

Never seen The Wire though. I'm intrigued...
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:53 AM on May 29, 2007

Thirding The Wire. I might not know a lot about actual police procedure, but I think that seeing officials spend days going back and forth arguing about what district should take the homicide case of a body found floating in the river seems that much more believable than the kind of "gung-ho, let us solve a crime" routine that all the network cop shows seem to follow.
posted by mkn at 9:00 AM on May 29, 2007

posted by C17H19NO3 at 9:01 AM on May 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If by cinematographs you mean movies, you wouldn't be too amiss checking out Zodiac. It's told in multiple narratives (mostly from a journalist point of view) and is based on fact, so I'd imagine it is quite accurate in its portrayal of police work in the 70s. Well, in this one case at least.

I don't know how accurate it is, but French Connection captures some of the realities of police work rather nicely. Mainly the waiting and watching part.
posted by slimepuppy at 9:17 AM on May 29, 2007

Hate to sound like an echo, but The Wire and Homicide are the best -- I know you asked for movies and teevee shows (sort of), but if you want the real deal, try the book Homicide, the basis of the show, by David Simon.

The Shield is pretty far-fetched, more "gritty" than realistic (although I love love love it). I don't think Vic Mackey has filled out a single piece of paperwork throughout the show.

Obviously, the worst shows, from a realism standpoint, are the CSI shows and their spawn -- that's science fiction for people who don't know they like science fiction, and it's so bad that it's hurting real criminal justice.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:41 AM on May 29, 2007

Keystone Cops!
posted by SassHat at 11:17 AM on May 29, 2007

Best answer: I'd like to point out here that the police procedural is in fact a specific type of mystery fiction. I don't think there's any evidence that it automatically makes for better fiction. But it is written to appeal to a certain type of reader/viewer. Likely it reflects a change in historical practice, where forensic criminal investigations, initially conducted by highly educated gentlemen (Holmes/Wimsey/etc.) were transferred to trained policemen (often without a broader humanities education -- vs. the education of "the streets").

If you look at it as a genre choice, partly predicated on audience considerations, rather than a question of weighting for realism and accuracy per se, you can step back and evaluate the whole of the work. As cerebus19 said, Seriously, no TV show or movie is going to be that realistic, because they would by necessity end up being boring for the viewer. No matter how "realistic" something might get, they will always telescope certain things to move the story along, create composite characters, and with television especially, use the melodramatic tendency to offload character traits into broad bins of stock characterizations ("the nerd", "the nut", "the drunk", etc.). There's a knack to making a successful TV show, and it generally involves constantly balancing a bunch of different plates.
posted by dhartung at 11:58 AM on May 29, 2007

Best answer: It would be hard to find and even harder to understand for non-Australians, but the two series Janus and Phoenix were stunning in their level of realism in their depiction of both the police and the courts. Once, just for laughs, I pulled out a street directory during a car chase scene. Sure enough, the scene was filmed in real time, no editing tricks. I could follow the detectives all the way from the St Kilda Road Police Complex to their destination. Unfortunately, I don't think either has been released to DVD yet, which is criminal (pardon the pun)
posted by tim_in_oz at 3:15 PM on May 29, 2007

Best answer: The First 48
posted by puritycontrol at 6:10 PM on May 29, 2007

Best answer: Now that I remember it, my friend wrote this article for Slate a few years ago, about how realistic the cop characters in The Shield were.
posted by nicwolff at 10:54 PM on May 30, 2007

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