We gave it an A-
On TV, one man’s reality is another man’s you-gotta-be-kidding. I confess a total inability to fathom the pleasures of America’s Most Wanted, which offers a weekly dose of grisly crimes replayed in lurid detail, or Sightings, which lets you peek at murky, mushroom-shaped UFOs that look an awful lot like that flashlight-on-the-bedsheet trick they used to do on The Brady Bunch. And let’s not even discuss Rescue: 911, which presents the stunning spectacle of everyday people reenacting their heart attacks and accidents in order to get on prime-time television; call it You Bet Your Life-Changing Experience. Of the whole prime-time array of ”reality” shows, only one keeps me coming back week after week: Fox’s low-tech, low-key Cops (Saturdays, 8-9 p.m.).
Now entering its sixth season, Cops, in which a video crew simply follows police patrols on their daily rounds, does what no other reality series dares: It shuts up and listens. No narrator, no intro: Just cops, crooks, and a lot of people at the end of their ropes. The results can be hilarious (last season’s domestic food fight is already the stuff of word-of-mouth legend) or incredibly moving. Cops doesn’t flinch from the rage, tears, and desperation that often follow a call to 911.
Although Cops moves to a new city about every two months, the show’s unstated premise is that crime everywhere is pretty much the same, and as Cops‘ venture into America’s underbelly has proceeded through the years, its familiarity has become extremely compelling. As it turns out, drunken guys with bad mustaches who get in bar brawls look the same in Philadelphia as they do in San Francisco. Chain-smoking women in housecoats raging through a domestic dispute (the show’s strong suit) are a single breed, speaking in the same voice of fed-up fury from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters. All the bad guys in Cops wear the same glazed look when blood is running down their foreheads, the same sheepish you-got-me expression when they’re being handcuffed, and the same furtive, sinking face when they try to improvise on the spot. ”All’s I know is, I hit her in the leg with an ashtray,” offered one lug recently, trying unsuccessfully to look puppyish, ”and I feel really bad about it.” And here’s a signpost of the video age-absolutely nobody on Cops seems surprised to be on TV. Am I the only one who’d be somewhat rattled if officers and filmmakers came knocking in the middle of the night?
Cops offers rich lessons-by-example in everything from criminal psychology to regional variations in profanity; most of the bad guys, though not masters of elocution, are near poets when it comes to their censored but thoroughly lip-readable stream of curses. But where the show performs its greatest public service is in its portrayal of the men and women in blue. Cops is, in an important sense, nonpartisan: Its police aren’t the plaster saints of prime-time entertainment or the brutalizing vigilantes known to us from the evening news. Most of the cops on Cops are ordinary people-some with kind streaks, some with mean streaks. Often, they seem slightly bewildered by the unending wave of thoughtless cruelty that crosses their windshields every day. Most of them seem genuinely eager to help the people they meet; some are immensely skilled at it and some are inept. All the while, Cops‘ cameras keep a blessedly level gaze; a TV show that doesn’t look up to cops or down on them is rare indeed.
Of course, the mere presence of those cameras tends to bend reality, and that’s the premise of an extremely adept send-up of Cops that’s currently enjoying a six-week run. In ABC’s Arresting Behavior (Wednesdays, 9:30-10 p.m.), cameras record the professional lives of three policemen—a gruff family man (Leo Burmester), a young straight arrow (True Love‘s Ron Eldard), and a psychopathic club wielder (Chris Mulkey). But here, the felons are more media-savvy; ”What’s this, another (bleep)in’ reality show?” says one slimebucket when the cops come calling. Behavior spoofs Cops‘ most beloved conventions-the shaky camera work (at one point, the cameraman actually outruns the cops during a chase), the mangled homilies delivered by the officers, and the way that every single cop tries not to look at the camera while driving the squad car. A clever satire is often a sign that the mocked genre is running out of steam; in fact, this fall two new Fox comedies, The Ben Stiller Show and The Edge, will satirize Cops as well. But Arresting Behavior‘s affectionate, sharp comic writing only underscores how much of an institution Cops has be-come. Now entering five-nights-a-week syndication in many cities, Cops just keeps walking the beat, and the show’s awkward stars, wobbly pictures, and muddy sound are as addictive as anything on television.
Arresting Behavior: B+