Then we saw, in one of numerous incidents, Seven reporter Amelia Brace and cameraman Tim Myers being hit with a truncheon and a riot shield respectively outside the White House.
The dissonance between the worst instances of America’s actual police and the varied fictional depictions of America’s police was extreme. Online there were iterations of a gag that asked if Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a joyously silly and inclusive workplace comedy set in a police station, could be rebooted with a less problematic setting. It was a gentle reflection, couched in fandom, of a deeper worry: if the shows you like don’t reflect the harsh reality, what are you saying by watching them?
There are, of course, so many shows focused on police that there’s a vast spectrum to take in. You can find examples of everything, including police malfeasance. There’s a telling moment, for example, early in the first season of The Wire, a masterful dissection of the modern American city where, during a police raid on a criminal crew’s drug operation, a black detective notices a white officer scuffling with a black youth. She sprints across to intervene, hammering the young man and reinforcing police control. The detective, you realise, is blue, not black.
It’s that tribalism, and the sense of exclusion it creates, which can seemingly lead to institutional racism and untenable violence that television can struggle to depict. Scripted bad cops are often classed as solitary “bad apples”, or their failing is corruption for financial gain.
We’ve long seen how the code of silence works to keep police ranks in lockstep – the arrival of Internal Affairs investigators is another cop-show cliche – but it’s harder to capture the culture and mindset behind it. That takes time, and a diagnostic approach. Television can’t always accommodate that.
Ten will debut Tommy, an American series where the always impressive Edie Falco plays the newly installed chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, on Wednesday night. Her job is defined by hot-button issues, albeit wheeled in and out, but the top-down approach is limiting.
We don’t see as many shows now, particularly in Australia, about uniformed police officers. The focus is often on detectives investigating a murder or organised crime, which is a narrow lens often accompanied by a readily defined guilty party in contrast to the police officers, no matter how conflicted they are on the anti-hero scale.
Fewer series, such as Hill Street Blues, Blue Heelers, The Bill or crucial episodes of Redfern Now, focus simply on dealing with the public and attempting to police a community. Such on-the-beat officers, not the detectives upstairs, don military-style fatigues and work riot squads (doesn’t that title have a dual meaning now?). And they, as one jarring clip after another has shown during this upheaval, sometimes do not recognise the line they have crossed.
How will television respond? As an industry, it will carry on. There will be public statements, some practical and others merely performative, and this moment will filter through showrunners and writers’ rooms. The reality we’re watching revealed a power imbalance, controlled by the police. But there’s a different one when it comes to cop shows because, there, the power is ultimately held by viewers deciding what they’re willing to watch.
Craig Mathieson is a TV, film and music writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.