Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, in for Tanzina Vega. Look around you. Depictions of police are ubiquitous in American TV and film, ratings grabbing reality shows like Cops, scripted juggernauts like the Law and Order franchise blockbuster films featuring megastars like Will Smith, and, yes, even children's cartoons. Have you seen pop patrol? All reproduce core beliefs that surveillance, policing, interrogation, and incarceration serve the public good.
The video evidence of officer Derek Chauvin, the lethal cruelty towards George Floyd called into question these deeply embedded assumptions really forced Hollywood to reevaluate how it depicts police and policing. Reality shows including Cops and Live PD were canceled. Writers for scripted shows centered around policing, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and SWAT, said they were rethinking how they depict police officers on their shows.
The uprisings also led to a number of long-overdue changes. Multiple white actors announced they would no longer be voicing characters of color on animated shows. The bachelor announced its first Black lead. Now, one year since George Floyd's murder, a number of scripted television shows have attempted to incorporate the racial justice uprisings directly into their plots with mixed results, like in the recent episode of the ABC drama, A Million Little Things.
Male Speaker 1: Hey, everything okay?
Male Speaker 2: No.
Female Speaker 2: What's going on?
Male Speaker 2: Kiki sent me this video. His name was George Floyd.
Melissa Harris-Perry: With me now, to talk about this year of race and change in Hollywood, is Eric Deggans, the television critic for NPR. Nice to talk with you, Eric.
Eric Deggans: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Absolutely. How big of a deal was it when both Cops and Live PD were canceled last summer?
Eric Deggans: That was a huge deal because Cops was a franchise, it had been around for something like 30 years, and Live PD was the A&E channel's highest-rated show. It wasn't a case of the industry turning its back on a little-known show, or a show that people didn't know, or show that wasn't making money. Critics, like me, have been complaining about these shows for a very long time. I have been critiquing Cops since at least the early 2000s. The other big problem with it is the way that it trivializes a lot of the issues that these cops are dealing with.
The police have a tremendous amount of control over the footage. There's a sense that because there are these roving bands of camera people traveling with the cops that it encourages the police officers to over-perform and over-police and try to make something happen for the cameras. The footage just becomes this litany of people who are caught in terrible circumstances, but you really see their point of view, it is, people struggling with addiction, people making terrible choices, people at the worst moments of their lives.
It's all from the perspective of the police officer. Of course, there's a message that it sends about people of color and poor people. I was overjoyed to see both of these shows go away. I hope that we don't see them return anytime soon.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, presumably, scripted police procedural would give the opportunity for writers to give us some of that other perspective that you're talking about to tell us this story from a view that we don't get on those reality shows, but that doesn't seem to be what happens. The officers are still consistently the heroes.
Eric Deggans: That's an interesting point. I was talking with David Simon, the creator of The Wire, about this not too long ago. He made a great point, which is that on most of these shows the camera, and therefore the perspective of the audience, is always with the police officer so that it's the police officer who's humanized, and the show was focused on them. A show like Cops, or like SWAT, or FBI, or Law and Order, it's always about the perspective of the police officers or the prosecutors.
You're encouraged to sympathize with them, identify with them and see every story from their perspective. When you're trying to talk about something like systemic prejudice or racism in policing against people of color, the place where you place the camera is not with the cops. That's why it's so hard for these shows, because the problem that people are trying to articulate about how people of color are being policed is that it's a system that every cop that's a part of it.
Even though police officers, there are a lot of great people who are police officers who want to do the right thing, the question is whether the system forces them into situations where they end up doing not great things. If the name of your show was FBI, or if the name of your show is SWAT, that can't be a message that the show can be comfortable transmitting.
It's always got to be number one. It's the thin blue line, courageous cops are the protectors of society against terrible criminals. Also, individual cops can be heroic and rise above whatever terrible decisions about policing produce incidents, like what happened to George Floyd. Both of those ideas are things that society wants to believe, but not necessarily what happens in real life.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let me ask this tough piece then, now that we're a year in, can this moment be in fact transformational, given the systemic realities that you've just pointed out? Is it possible for us to see real meaningful change in Hollywood?
Eric Deggans: I think it is possible for us to see different kinds of stories, but I don't think we're going to see those kinds of stories from your typical police procedurals on broadcast television, because, as I said, the whole framework of the narrative that they're telling just makes it impossible to do that. Also, this takes time. I remember when 9/11 happened, and there were TV shows that tried, right away, to tell stories that were related, to 9/11.
They were clunky and they were awkward, because it takes time to process something that monumental, and then create a piece of television that really speaks to it. I think part of the problem, too, is that the industry has shut down over the summer. You had all these writers rooms that were meeting by Zoom, George Floyd was killed in May, and so all these writers were starting up again.
You had all these writers that wanted to try and tackle this, but the impact was fresh. They were working in these very narrow constraints, the shows that were already established, that already had their heroes and villains plotted out. What I'm expecting to see is new products that will be configured from the ground up to tell these stories in a way that makes sense and that gets at some of the structural inequalities and the systemic racism. That's what I'm waiting for, and that takes time.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In that sense, I suppose change and policing, change in Hollywood is much like democracy itself. We got to process it, and it takes time to build something new. Eric Deggans, television critic for NPR. Thank you for joining us today.
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