Mark Harris on What He Learned from Re-Watching Old Cop Shows

Posted on September 8, 2020 at 12:01 pm

One of my favorite cultural critics, Mark Harris, has an uncharacteristically personal take on the cop shows he watched, some as a way to connect to his father, when he was growing up, from “Adam-12” to “The Mod Squad” to “Kojak.” He talks about his own experience and perspective as well as what, looking at them now, he sees about the way law enforcement has been portrayed in the media and how it has shaped our ideas.  It’s one of the most illuminating pieces of cultural criticism of the year.

And then, at night, the TV would go on and I would be transfixed by the cops I saw there, the men who seized a piece of my consciousness when it was at its most impressionable, captured my imagination, and made me believe in their effectiveness….I needed a better connection to my father than I had, and the one I found was Adam-12, a series that was, in a way, designed with almost insidious perfection as My First Police Show — a smooth transition from kids’ TV into the grown-up world. For one thing, it was only 30 minutes; for another, that half-hour was usually divided among two or three bite-size, easy-to-follow, often amazingly uneventful stories of two white cops on the beat in Los Angeles (a city as exotic as Mars to a child who had never been west of New Jersey)….

In an era when all TV shows have age-suitability ratings and content guides, the vigor with which adult cop shows of the 1970s were marketed to children seems shocking. But in fact, immense energy was invested in embedding those series in the collective consciousness of children. Dell published 15-cent Mod Squad comic books, and Topps sold Mod Squad chewing gum. You could get a wheel of Hawaii Five-0 Viewmaster slides and click through color pictures of unsmiling, black-suited Steve McGarrett arresting Honolulu’s miscreants, or buy Milton Bradley board games based on Columbo, Starsky & Hutch, or Kojak (“Be a part of thrilling police action on the city streets”), which allowed young players to use informants to track down a suspect hiding in a building. I coveted the Adam-12 lunchbox, which had an illustration of Malloy and Reed helping a little boy on one side and on the other the two of them crouching with their pistols drawn, ready to fire on an unseen suspect. The images were two halves of the same coin.

The Mod Squad was largely goodhearted, but in a way that made clear that the parameters of what constitutes a good heart were defined entirely by its white writers and producers. If the show were on now, it would be in sympathy with the Black Lives Matter protests, but it would single out those who lit fires and threw bricks as people who don’t truly believe that Black lives matter, and it would definitely not endorse defunding the police, because without the police, who would be able to explain all of this to the young people? Cops knew everything, could solve everything, could protect everyone … if you would just let them do their work.

Not all cops” was the baseline ethic of shows like Kojak; they would occasionally critique a policeman, but not policing. These series were “knowing,” they were savvy, and their cynicism seemed to spread in all directions at once. The vibe was, We’re not gonna pretend that some criminals aren’t Black, and we’re not gonna pretend that some cops aren’t racist, and most of all, we’re not gonna pretend that this is a nice place to live or that anything about it can be fixed.

Highly recommended.

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Critics GLBTQ and Diversity Race and Diversity Television Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Interview: Michael Cudlitz of ‘Southland’

Posted on January 8, 2010 at 3:00 pm

john-cooper-photo.jpg

Actor Michael Cudlitz was in Washington today to talk about his television series about LA cops, “Southland,” now on TNT. He and I sat in the “America’s Most Wanted” studio at DC’s National Museum of Crime and Punishment and talked about acting, Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford, and home-schooling.

You seem to get a lot of uniform roles — you’ve played a WWII soldier, a customs officer, and now an LA cop.

Interestingly enough, my more high-profile things are in uniform. But if you look at my full body of work there’s a lot of stuff that’s not in uniform. But I do a lot of stuff in the service and I think that’s just how I’m built physically. It just serves the roles. There’s an energy as well to it. And I’m fine with it.

I understand you have done a lot of research for this role. What was that like and what have you learned?

We did firearms training, we did cuffing techniques, we did these things called situation simulations, sit-sims, where they’ll basically put you in a situation with very little information, have you walk into that situation and try to find out what’s going on. We jump into that situation, we do what we think we would do as a police officer, and then we get critiqued on how many ways to Sunday we got ourselves killed, everything we did wrong. Having physically partaken in this event, you remember it way more viscerally than you ever would by reading about it. They say, “Make sure you know where someone’s hands are. You can never get that close.” There are these things you need to be aware of as an officer.

Everything sort of culminated in these ride-alongs. They were more important than anything else we did because we got to see all these different officers all doing the same job and all doing it differently. It’s all based on the same standards of technique in their training but each of them is different and we saw that there isn’t only one way to do something. It helps wash away stereotypes in your way of developing the characters. Once you get the training and know what you are supposed to do, you can sit back and rest on the training. It’s like when the boots come out of the academy. They have all this training that they want to handle. I deal with this in the pilot — you have to get him out of his head. It’s a very zen concept. You’re not going to do it by thinking about how to do it. Get him think about what he’s seeing in the present.

Your character is more than just a cop on the job. You have other things to deal with like some physical problems and other issues.

All of these Southland characters are so multi-dimensional. And Ann Biderman has it all in her head. She has done an amazing job of avoiding cliches. She has created a group of very strong individuals with weaknesses and nobody’s supercop or knows everything or has all the answers but they are good people trying to get through life like everybody.

Did you watch cop shows when you were growing up?

Of course! Everything. Starting from “The Blue Knight,” “Baretta,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “Police Story,” “Police Woman,” “Rockford Files,” “NYPD Blue,” “Third Watch,” just love them. I’ve been watching a lot of TNT lately and been re-introduced to these old “Law and Order” shows. Jerry Orbach is just phenomenal. He is genius, so present.

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Actors Interview Television

Pride and Glory

Posted on January 27, 2009 at 8:00 am

A big-name cast and some big-time issues are not enough to make up for a small-time script that adds absolutely nothing new to the too-often-told tale of police corruption and family betrayal. It is as generic as its title.

Four police officers are killed in an ambush, devastating a family of cops. Francis Tierney, Sr. (John Voight) is a department official. His oldest son, Francis Jr. (Noah Emmerich) is the police chief and his son-in-law Jimmy (Colin Farrell) is a colleague of the men who were slain. Francis presses his other son, Ray (Edward Norton) to leave his desk job, where he’s been hiding out since a conflict, and take over the investigation, not knowing that it will lead him to his own family.

Norton and Farrell are excellent, as always, as are supporting performances from Rick Gonzalez as a drug dealer and Jennifer Ehle as Francis, Jr.’s sick wife. But it makes an enormous and ultimately exhausting effort to hide the lightweight and predictable nature of the script with (1) non-stop bad language, (2) a lot of very graphic violence, including a horrifying torture scene, police harassment, murder, and suicide, (3) ramped-up emotions based on having every one of the main characters related to each other. It is weighed down further with over-used clichés like a slow-motion funeral procession in the snow and over-used dialogue like “Don’t talk to me about the truth. You got no idea what it takes to do what we do” and “I was a good man once.” Now that’s a crime.

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Crime Drama

Street Kings

Posted on April 9, 2008 at 6:00 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence and pervasive language.
Profanity: Constant extremely strong language, racist epithets and insults
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug use, drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Extreme, intense, graphic violence, characters injured and killed, explicit and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 11, 2008

“Street Kings” is a like a Cliff’s Notes version of Training Day not that Training Day was any special challenge to the mental muscle. Corruption is bad, we get it.

At least that movie had a sizzling performance and an intriguing premise, a young cop’s introduction to the seamy underworld. This one has neither. It is big, dumb, loud, generic, and, worst of all, pretentious.

Keanu Reeves plays Tom Ludlow, and we meet him in what appears to be his daily waking ritual — grab gun, barf, and stop at the liquor store, as the bass line bangs away portentously. Then he and some gangstas try to out-tough each other with threats and insults over some deal. To no one’s surprise except the gangstas, he turns out to be a cop. He goes into the bad guys’ house, guns blazing, and takes everyone down all by himself, for no reason whatsoever except showing off.

Detective Washington, Tom’s former partner (Terry Crews) has been telling Internal Affairs about some of the ways that Tom and his colleagues under Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker) cut corners. Let’s just say that they are not exactly scrupulous about due process. When Washington is killed, Tom is the likely suspect. Investigating that crime exposes the vast reaches of corruption and betrayal. And it provides the opportunity for many, many shoot-outs and other violent confrontations.

It is all supposed to be very tough and meaningful, but even an exceptionally strong cast can’t save dialog like, “This is your mess and I’m cleaning it up,” “It’s time to turn the page and close the book,” and “I gotta watch my own back these days.” Anyone who has ever seen a movie will be able to guess the twist within the first 10 minutes. After that, it’s just waiting for Tom to catch up to you.

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