COPS creator John Langley wasn’t the first person to bring cinema vérité to network TV when his gritty crime series debuted on March 11, 1989, but he was the first to popularize it. Sure, he has his fallback line now — “People say I’m the father of reality TV; I refuse to take credit for some of the bastards that followed” — but he’s happy with his legacy. In its 23rd season, COPS is still averaging 5.1 million viewers on Saturday night. For all the copycat ride-along shows that have followed, and all the cheesy competition series that mutated in the reality TV boom, there have also been shows for which he’d like to think he paved the way. Reno 911! is the first one that comes to his mind. (Stars Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon were on hand when Langley got his star on the Hollywood walk of Fame last month.) But also something like Deadliest Catch, the reigning champ of the dangerous job sub genre.
Even after all these years, Langley thinks some people who only know the theme song are harboring misconceptions about the series: “I think some people think it’s exploitative,” he says. “Not really. It’s documentary. It is what happened. It’s a show about real people, real crimes, real issues in our society, and if you watch the show, you cannot help but notice these things. Yes, it’s there for entertainment, meaning that it has to be on TV and get advertising and entertain an audience. But it’s also very informative.”
“I’ll give you a classic example of the critiques of COPS,” he continues. “‘Oh, well, they never do anything with white-collar crime.’ Give me a break. What do they expect me to do with white-collar crime? You want me to follow Ken Lay around and look over his shoulder as he goes into his computer and manipulates Wall Street? I mean, it’s just not practical. It’s not real. It’s not even a consideration. I would follow any crime I can. And we’ve had white-collar criminals on COPS, by the way, as well as pedophiles and everything you can possibly think of. Drunks, druggies, all kinds of things. But more importantly from my standpoint is what does it show about America? What are the issues at stake? And those are legal issues, and sociological issues, and psychological issues, and it tells you something about our laws: Which laws work and which laws maybe don’t work, why crime exists in certain areas. Watch it with an open mind and say, ‘Okay, this is not a fictional treatment of this subject. This is real. This is what really happens.’ If you don’t like reality, I get it. If you don’t want to confront reality or look upon it honestly, great. Go watch fiction. Go entertain yourself. But I think you can learn a lot from the documentary form, and I think COPS is, at heart, a documentary.”
That’s why the show has never paid anyone to be on it. “We don’t pay people to be themselves,” Langley says. “If you pay them, then you’re affecting they’re behavior. You’re either rewarding them or getting them to do something the way you want them to do it. It’s as pure as I can make it in the documentary universe. Yes, the mere fact that you point a camera in one direction is an editorial decision, and yes, it is an edited show and I don’t show the hundreds or thousands of hours of paperwork that attend all police activity. But I do show you what happens, and if you don’t like what’s going on in your society, well, do something about it. I’m not telling you what to think about it. I’m just showing what happens.”