Why does every TV cop solve crimes using PowerPoint presentations?
Cop shows are extremely unrealistic. In real life — and in shows produced by David Simon — criminal investigations usually last for weeks or months. There are no cathartic gunfights. Heck, most detectives never even fire their guns. And I’m sure there are sexy lady detectives, but I’m betting they don’t all wear expensive leather jackets to bloody crime scenes. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a little fantasy. The procedural genre gets a bad rap, but shows like Justified and Fringe follow the essential structure of the cop drama but make the format feel vibrant and distinctive. (The essential structure: “Cool, attractive, well-dressed law enforcement agent investigates colorful crime committed by eccentric guest-star criminal, and said crime somehow reflects thematically on the well-dressed law enforcement agent’s emotional journey.”) But there is one ridiculous trend in the modern cop drama that is unforgivable, partially because of its pure doofus impossibility, but mainly because it’s become an acceptable crutch for lazy writing. I am talking about the Cop Drama PowerPoint Presentation.
You all know what I’m talking about. It’s the moment, usually in the middle of a cop-show episode, when the gang of policemen gather in their lavish command center. Said command center is always overstuffed with plasma screens, which makes it look like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise reconfigured as the sports bar you snuck into when you were a sophomore in college. Usually, one character is magically controlling all the plasma screens with a laptop. (Hawaii Five-0 added the twist of letting Daniel Dae Kim use an iPad, because Hawaii Five-0 takes place in the same universe as Super Bowl advertisements.)
The screens magically show every fact relating to the case, usually involving some kind of elaborate Fake Google Maps display. Maybe one plasma screen shows a 3-D display of the murder victim’s body for some reason, or maybe it’s just rapidly spinning through the Incredibly Accurate FBI Fingerprint Database. Near the end of the scene, one of the characters will say, “Hey, Technician, can you [do something stupid on one of the plasma screens]?” The technician will, and the character will say, “By George, I just figured out [something inane about the perpetrator that will lead us right to his hideout]!”
In the second hour of last night’s season premiere of Alcatraz — a show which I actually kind of enjoyed, and whose creative team is smart enough to know better — there was an extended scene where star Sarah Jones and guru Jorge Garcia were staring at their own plasma screen. Then Sam Neill came in and stared with them. So much staring! Then Sarah Jones said, “Okay, take this picture of San Francisco today, and then remove all the buildings that wouldn’t have been there fifty years ago.” Garcia hit a button, and the screen showed a series of photos of San Francisco throughout the last five decades, finally settling on a photo taken from an identical location in the early ’60s. Oh, well that’s easy! Thanks, Magic Fake Google Images!
In olden times, procedurals were actually about, well, procedure. Cops investigate crime scenes, and interrogated witnesses, and occasionally just talked about the case. This wasn’t rocket science, but it was interesting, and the best cop shows made the lo-fi nature of the proceeding part of the appeal. Andy Sipowicz didn’t spend his afternoons in a replica of Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room. He was out on the street. He was getting up in suspect’s faces. He was detecting. Can you imagine Andy Sipowicz sitting in a room with a bunch of CSI: Miamis, listening to a model-pretty scientist give the group a guided tour of the victim’s esophagus? No, you can’t, because Andy Sipowicz seemed like an actual cop, and most modern TV cops seem like wealthy management consultants living in a perpetual Casual Friday.
And yet, by and large, this is where most broadcast TV cops do most of their investigating. There are two ways of looking at this trend: 1) All broadcast TV shows are actually set in the future, which means that if you’re a fan of NCIS: LA or CSI: NY, then you’re actually a total nerd, you nerds. 2) The cop drama — a genre that used to value traditional All-American ideals of intelligence, perseverance, and teamwork — has now become a genre which mostly values the modern All-American ideals of “looking attractive” and “making PowerPoint presentations.” We deserve better TV cops. Or maybe we don’t.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich