TV Cop Dramas: An Enduring Genre

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Like the sitcom, the TV cop drama is one of the most enduring genres of American television. It is also an important element of contemporary popular culture. In this genre the plot generally follows members of the police force during one or more cases, as well as the interaction between them… which can be romantic/bromantic, conflicted or antagonistic, which is what makes great drama. This genre has also been quite successful in other markets like Europe and Latin America.

The cultural salience of cop dramas

The TV cop drama keeps being successful because it exteriorizes many of the fears and concerns of an era’s zeitgest. For example, ’60s and ’70s shows like Adam-12 based much of their content on the spread of urban violence, capitalizing on the general public’s anxiety as a backlash of the Cold War in the United States and the Western world in general. Shows that portray how citizens are being kept safe from danger will always resonate with the audiences, as scripts focus on issues that could affect them directly (which also explains why medical dramas like House M.D. and Grey’s Anatomy are so successful). Now in present day, the public’s obsession with the ‘war on terror’ has produced such shows as 24 and Homeland, in which security agencies scramble to keep the country safe from internal and external threats.

TV cop dramas also rely on plot-simplicity to engage with audiences; shows with consistently strong ratings since the early 2000s, like the CSI installments, have a general arch for their main characters, but also present a case per episode with a clear resolution. The catch: you can sit down and get your drama fix with no huge cliff-hangers (they don’t make you wait for six months to see who killed whom…ahem, Game of Thrones?)



Cop dramas have room for innovation

Even though the format might feel a bit tired, these shows continue to show strong ratings and networks are hesitant to pull the plug on them. This is not to say that the cop drama is a stale or monolithic genre. HBO’s hit 2014 series True Detective is an artistic exploration of the genre in which Woody Harrelson and Matthew McCanaughey play two detectives obsessed over a series of murders. Their investigation lasts 17 years. In the show, director Cary Fukunawa references classics from American gothic literature such as the works of H.P. Lovecraft to add depth to the genre.

There are some interesting cases in which the cop drama has been reframed as comedy. Golden Globe-winning show Brooklyn Nine-Nine, for example, builds from the conventions of cop dramas and offers a funny, almost carnival-esque look at law enforcement, drawing from both TV shows and movies like the Lethal Weapon series and, obviously, the ’80s Police Academy franchise.

The cop drama is an enduring genre that has extended into other forms of media, especially video games. In EA’s Battlefield Hardline, one of the most anticipated game releases of 2015, the user is immersed in an urban environment populated by hi-tech cops and rough cops. The game incorporates narrative tropes and visual cues from film and television and is just another step toward the merging of television and interactive storytelling.


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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.

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