Critics' Conversation: Is TV Afraid to Tackle Police Brutality or Just Unable to Do It Well?

As protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd continue around the country, THR's Daniel Fienberg and Inkoo Kang reflect on the small screen's struggle to depict police violence and community responses.
Courtesy of Photofest

DANIEL FIENBERG: A few weeks ago, staring down months of reduced programming, we decided to make our second "Critics Rewatch" column — My So-Called Life was the first — on HBO's The Wire, the least controversial pick as the best TV show ever made. 

My own rewatching of The Wire ground to a halt a little over a week ago with the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Like so many people, I've been glued to my TV, and when I've desperately needed to escape CNN — take "CNN" as a sort of synecdoche for whatever news source you favor — a nuanced exploration of the calculatedly problematic actions of a group of Baltimore's finest hasn't been the thing I've sought out.

As little interest as I've felt in watching Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and company seek an edge on Baltimore's criminal element — manipulating politicians, the press and the legal system at various points — I've been curious to go back to Sonja Sohn's documentary directing debut, Baltimore Rising. It's not ironic that the actress who played Detective Kima Greggs found herself passionately invested in community activism in response to police violence, a topic that simply wasn't a clear focus on The Wire. Many of the show's stars already were or have become activists in Baltimore and around the country.

Baltimore Rising is a passionate and efficient look at how individual voices can fight against systemic oppression, a conversation piece tied to all the themes of The Wire, but a reminder that even the smartest shows about policing sometimes require supplemental texts. 

As we talk about what TV does well, or maybe fails to do well, when it comes to the topic on all of our minds these days, I'm inclined to start by asking how the events of the real world have affected your rewatching of The Wire. And the inverse: Has a fresh look at the show shaped how you're absorbing the grim news these days?

INKOO KANG: By many accounts, The Wire isn't just the best TV show ever made, but also the most nuanced TV show ever made about the (largely bureaucratic) difficulties of law enforcement. The protests across the country against George Floyd's murder, the historical and current violence against black Americans, the undue force by police against protesters angry about undue force by police (captured over and over again in viral videos) and the continued divisions and provocations sown by the White House — infuriating and dismaying on their own — also made me, as a TV critic, question my own entertainment choices, as well as what the industry and the country consider entertainment at large. 

In the first season of The Wire, just about every on-the-ground cop participates in police brutality — often as a kind of professional prerogative. Their violence is meant to add darker streaks to the characters' otherwise heroic gloss, but it also has the effect of normalizing police brutality as a part, even a perk, of the job. In one scene, two of the most upright officers, Kima and Lieutenant Daniels (Lance Reddick), join McNulty in beating up a young black handcuffed suspect, and we're not supposed to think any less of them, because the suspect is a mouthy jerk. Suffice to say, I haven't resumed my rewatching either. 

On Monday, Vulture critic Kathryn VanArendonk published an urgent piece in response to the protests titled "Cops Are Always the Main Characters," which argued that we are inundated by television programming that encourages us to look at the criminal justice system from the police's point of view. (In an extensive five-part 2016 series, Washington Post opinion writer Alyssa Rosenberg demonstrated that Hollywood's pro-police slant goes back to television's earliest days and continues today.) Those pieces brought to the fore my impression that television lags behind other media (such as film) when it comes to tackling police brutality and protests against law-enforcement aggression. Where's the TV version of Queen & Slim, The Hate U Give, Blindspotting, Fruitvale Station and If Beale Street Could Talk? Is this a scarcity issue, or a failure-to-capture-the-zeitgeist issue? And what shows, if any, have furthered your understanding of police brutality? 

FIENBERG: What's more disturbing to me about how police violence is depicted on The Wire is how often it's treated as a piece of the character arc for the officers involved and not anything related to the victims, the community or the profession. Officer Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost) blinds a kid in an act so heinous that even Herc and Carver (Domenick Lombardozzi and Seth Gilliam), always happy to pound on Bodie (J.D. Williams) or anybody else from the projects, are horrified. It's an awful thing he does, and it's presented as a low point that sets up a multi-season redemption arc for Prez, culminating in his becoming first a good cop and eventually even a good man. The kid he blinds and its ripples, on the other hand, are barely afterthoughts. 

And here's the thing: I love the Prez character arc on The Wire, just as I love how all of these flawed cops evolve over the series. But you'd feel better about the world of the show if Prez didn't basically get away with it (and later actual homicide) — and David Simon doesn't want you feeling "better" about the world of the show. Social media has been a constant reminder that the expression about "bad apples" ends with it spoiling the barrel. Simon never lets you forget that America's cities are one barrel of spoiled apples after another and that it's the good apples who end up getting infected more often than not.

I'm going to argue that TV hasn't been as negligent as you're suggesting, but that all too frequently police brutality is a thing TV deals with best (and by "best" I mean "most comfortably") in one-off episodic storylines. Those episodes let our main characters confront brutality and protest in ways that allow them to appear noble, dedicated and able to move along to something completely different the following week.

The Good Wife (and The Good Fight) are as good as it gets when it comes to topicality, but in a season six episode written by creators Robert King and Michelle King, a threat of a police-violence protest mostly becomes something for our heroes — Alicia (Julianna Margulies), Peter (Chris Noth) and Eli (Alan Cumming) — to white knight in a tertiary story. Scandal did much better with its Ferguson-adjacent one-off "The Lawn Chair," but even in that context, with a black female protagonist leading the way, police violence becomes just another thing for Olivia Pope to fix — like if one Olivia could get sent to every city in America, our curfew problem would be over and Olivia could move on to a novel coronavirus vaccine next. 

But there have been shows that have tried to actually build full arcs around the ramifications of police violence and community responses. Netflix's Seven Seconds, CBS' The Red Line and Fox's Shots Fired are all imperfect shows that have aspired to use police-community conflicts as points of discussion, and all three shows hail at least in part, and probably not coincidentally, from women of color (Veena Sud, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Ava DuVernay). All three (and several others) failed to make much of a zeitgeist ripple, I'm afraid.

KANG: I do want to briefly note the many documentaries that have spotlighted police brutality that are easily accessible on streaming platforms. But as for fictional treatments, I wonder if it's TV's serialized nature that makes it difficult to tackle the issue, which is simultaneously grim and explosive. With a two-hour movie, you're practically promised a resolution, even if it's a dispiriting one like the ending of If Beale Street Could Talk. But with TV, audiences tuning in to shows about police violence would be signing up to sit with hours upon hours of tension and anger about one of the most intractable issues of our age. Even in this era of Homework TV, that's a big ask. 

In 2018, New York Times opinion writer Aisha Harris praised series like Queen Sugar, Insecure and The Chi for realistically portraying how even the specter of police violence can be devastating for characters we've gotten to know well. (Perhaps not coincidentally, those shows are also created and overseen by black artists.) Part of the insidious nature of police violence that's been made clearer and clearer by the police killings captured on viral videos is that the violence can happen at any time, at an event as ostensibly mundane as a traffic stop. Using the episodic nature of television to illustrate how, for example, Insecure's Lawrence (Jay Ellis) can spend one Sunday afternoon cringing through an unexpected run-in with his ex at an art show and the next fearing for his life because a cop has pulled him over, cuts to the terrifying unpredictability of police violence in many black people's lives. 

Earlier this year, the civil rights advocacy organization Color of Change published a study that found that "the crime genre [on TV] glorifies, justifies and normalizes the systematic violence and injustice meted out by police [such as shoving a suspect against a wall as part of an unlawful search], making heroes out of police and prosecutors who engage in abuse, particularly against people of color." Even a show like The Shield, which was inspired by the LAPD's 2000 Rampart scandal and never made any qualms about its cop protagonist's villainy, sensationalized Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and his crew's aggression while frequently contextualizing their violence as part of some larger effort — and therefore of strategic necessity (even if there was never any doubt that their schemes were to enrich themselves and continue terrorizing L.A.'s criminals with impunity).

Unfortunately, I don't see much changing after these protests when it comes to the portrayal of police in meat-and-potato crime procedurals, in which trust in and sympathy for law enforcement is baked into the formula. We'll have to wait and see if the trope of roughing up suspects and even witnesses to add grit to cops' characterizations in police-centric prestige shows gets reconsidered. That would be a reflection of whether we take police brutality any more seriously now. I can't say I'm hopeful. 

FIENBERG: The "formula" is unquestionably the villain here, or at least the stumbling block. Police shows are a staple of broadcast schedules and broadcast schedules have to be filled by shows that reach the largest audience possible. These shows are also designed to reach a "satisfying" conclusion at the end of every episode. They're designed for comfort and, in that light, you can see how "the good guys save the day and the bad guys are punished" is what's comforting. 

Cable, in contrast, has become the domain of antiheroes, muddying the waters of who is "good" and who is "bad." So with somebody like The Shield's Vic Mackey, it's supposed to be a push and pull for viewers as to whether we're willing to accept an ends-justifies-the-means approach; is Vic's success in stopping killers, wife-beaters and pedophiles enough to excuse the things he does to get there? Even if the end of The Shield leaves absolutely no ambiguity at all that Vic is a character doomed to, at the very least, a metaphorical hell for his actions, you can't stop viewers from having their own interpretations. 

The problem is that broadcast TV does even worse when it comes to offering alternatives. Take CBS' truly atrocious Wisdom of the Crowd and its inane ideas about crowdsourcing justice. In fact, take it far, far away from me. Or look at Fox's APB, which was almost the same show, only less tainted by Jeremy Piven. Or don't look at it. Nobody did when it came out. 

I agree that documentaries are where TV does best in giving context and letting viewers understand the roots and consequences of police brutality and community upheaval. We keep mentioning things associated with Ava DuVernay, and there's a good reason for that. Check out Netflix's 13th to see how criminal justice in much of the country became a literal extension of slavery. Watch Lynn Novick's College Behind Bars for a deeper understanding of how prisons can offer rehabilitation. Check out Sarah Burns and Dave McMahon's East Lake Meadows to see how urban planning, segregation, crime and policing became inextricably linked.

And for more a specific understanding of protests and uprisings, go back a couple years to the run of documentaries tied to the 25th anniversary of the L.A. Riots, namely Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin's LA 92 and John Ridley's Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992. And, as ever, you should always watch Ezra Edelman's OJ: Made in America, a documentary about … everything. 

None of it is easy to watch. Nor should it be.