Feb 17, 2011

Where the crime happens

This new breed of cop show -- Southland, Chicago Code, Detroit 187 -- is interesting in how it uses cities. Or how it tries to use them.

All of them are aspiring to do something different and more, to be a new kind of cop show. This is all in the wake of HBO's successes and part of the revolution of "TV for adults," and there are a number of identifiable things -- tropes, styles, moves, etc. -- that these shows use to try to communicate that they're "realistic" and "gritty" and more serious than the standard and generic cop shows that have dominated TV for so long. What I find intriguing, though, is that they each attempt to intertwine themselves with a city, to make that connection integral and significant. They all seek to establish themselves as deeply imbued with a sense of place.

In the end, though, I don't think it works. The cities they construct are still paper-thin.

Two of these new shows use the name of the city where they're set, foregrounding the connection, and the third makes use of a unofficial name for a region, which, presumably, would be recognized by the initiated.

The Detroit show's promotion made much of the fact it shot in the city, and several early episodes were built around specific, Detroit events. One episode, for example, was set against the backdrop of the '67 riots that were a turning point in the history of the city, and made prominent use of the song, "We Almost Lost Detroit." Motown music is used a lot in the show, making the soundtrack another connection to the sense of place. A recent episode made a point of making fun of outsiders who call Detroit "D-town," and the show also gives prominent placement to neighborhood names. The show suggests, several times, that the show is important because Detroit is important, because the city's story is markedly different than other cities'. Making the link to the city's history, the lieutenant says,homicide investigation might be the only assembly line Detroit has left.

The Chicago Code does the same thing, setting itself up as unique story with a unique connection to a unique city, putting out this idea that the experience of crime in Chicago is somehow different. There've only been two episodes of the show, so far, but the name of the show and the premise of the show imply that this is a story belongs to Chicago alone. References to neighborhoods, sports teams, and city history are all prominently placed, reminding the viewer repeatedly that this is not in just any city, but a very specific one. The creator of the show and at least one of the main actors have promoted their connection to the city as part of the point or the main point of the whole show (comments that go to lending authenticity to the show, but are said as if the intent was only to supplicate the speaker and the show to the city). Shawn Ryan, the show's creator, said "the show is set in Chicago," and, "it's about a very specific time and place." The first part of that is fairly obvious and the later fairly ambiguous -- neither are particularly sensible, really, except in the context of setting up this connection and "authenticity."

Southland does the same thing, though obviously it's harder to show you have that sense of place when the show is set in LA, the capital of TV-land. LA is such a hyper-medialized city, a city that really has such an independent existence in film footage and TV clips. Still, there's a rather rigorous effort to show this isn't generic LA, with references to the city's history (a specifically to the kind of history that's familiar to Californians but not so known to every TV viewer) and a lot of talk about the identities of various neighborhoods and so forth. The fact that the show downplays the actual name of the city also gives it the sense of being different than the generic LA so commonly seen. This show too builds certain episodes around regional realities, such as the Santa Ana winds.

This use of the city is more in-depth than your standard cable cop shows, but in the end it doesn't do much more. The city, in the end, is still pretty flat.

In your standard Law & Order or CSI, the city serves primarily for orientation shots, where the helicopter camera sweeps over the city during the intro or between scenes. While occasionally there will be a setting or a context that is city-specific -- the original CSI likes to send it's characters to the desert or into casinos with some regularity -- for the most part, the "city" serves simply as a stage, and has all the depth of scenery projected on the wall behind some actors in a warehouse on a studio lot.

Not that pointing out this one-dimensionalness is necessarily a valid aesthetic critique, either. The Denmark of Shakespeare's Hamlet, after all, is pretty much just a prop.

The thing I don't like about the cities presented in your standard cop shows is that they're not the cities people live in, but the tourists' cities. These are the cities of landmarks and iconic images, which exist really only in promotional materials. The Philadelphia of Cold Case is pretty much just a few shots of row houses, the statue of William Penn and the view from the top of the "Rocky steps." The Miami of CSI: Miami is three aerial shots, three wetlands shots, four beach shots and legs on a fashion runway. New York, as depicted in crime shows, is more or less a montage of classic, iconic images. Any of these cities could be constructed by a kid in Slovenia or Kansas City. Knowledge of these cities is irrelevant, and they're only markers meant to orient the viewer and by this orientation communicate to the viewer that this show is happening in the real world.

It's not that they're not "real," though. It's that the whole idea of the city is to make the show seem real, and to communicate that these stories exist somewhere, and aren't just generic, but then the cities don't do anything, and actually are really, really generic.

In this sense, the new shows do a little better in the way they use their various cities. They don't just use the scenic shots. They don't present the city the way a tourist board would. But, the city is still basically only a setting. There's nothing so intrinsic about the connection between the city and the story that they couldn't be interchanged. Detroit 187 could be Atlanta 187; Chicago Code could be Cleveland Code; Southland could be set in Phoenix. They're in-depth enough to require, say, at least one research assistant have some working knowledge of the urban area, and enough that there clearly a number of location scouts working on the respective productions.

None of these shows has gone so far as to make the cities feel like actual characters. That does appear to be what they want to do, as they all have aspirations to be The Wire. In fact, one of the thing that identifies a show as a member of this new sub-genre is the frequency with which critics compare it to The Wire. Invariably, that comparison leaves me feeling the critic didn't actually watch The Wire after the first episode, since that show clearly aspired to be more than a cop show, to be a show about a city, going, institution by institution, through the city, whereas all of these new shows are still wholly cop shows. There is that attempt, though, with these new shows, to make the city a character, even a main character, a central point or part of the show, in the way that The Wire did with Baltimore.

The difference is that these shows don't actually use the city except as a setting and a brand. They don't look at the institutions. They don't get into the systems of the city. They don't really have a city that functions or moves or does anything. They don't have, really, a sense of the way a city feels. They use talismanic objects or names in an attempt bestow their shows with "authenticity" and "reality." They do use their cities as more than settings, but don't develop or explore the city, don't attempt to build the city in any way or give viewers a feeling for what living in the city is like. The city is only a brand, in the end.

There are a lot of things I like about the new breed of cop show. I like that they're more in-depth than the formulaic procedural. I like that they want to be serious and that they want to tell more complicated and multi-layered stories. There is an attempt to be innovative, which should be applauded. Southland, for example, makes really interesting use of documentary style of cinematography. In one memorable shot, for example, which you'd never see on Law & Order, the camera man's shadow to fall across a murder scene. It's as if the cinematographer took lessons from Lee Friedlander.

The use of cities, though, and the attempts to establish a sense of place, ultimately fails. Perhaps it's because I find the whole project of "gritty" "authenticity" pretty problematic and suspect, but ultimately, it doesn't feel to me like these shows have the sense of place they promote themselves as having.