By Kristen Baldwin
October 05, 2018 at 10:00 AM EDT

As a true crime junkie, I’ll watch anything about murder — whether it’s a prestige cable series about O.J. Simpson or 48 Hours Mystery, CBS’s long-running “Crimetime Saturday” news magazine. (The latter, my spouse jokes, may as well be called “Who Killed My Wife?” because let’s face it — the husband always did it.) But I had no idea how limited my view of “true crime TV” really was until I discovered the world of Live PD.

The premise of A&E’s docuseries — which premiered in 2016 and airs every Friday and Saturday night from 9 p.m. to midnight ET — is right there in the title: Each episode features live footage of cops on the beat in eight locations across the country, from Rhode Island to El Paso, Texas. Because it’s live, the show can’t just serve up cherry-picked selections of the most exciting moments, but Live PD turns that weakness into a strength. By tempering the car chases and bank robberies with the calmer, more workaday interactions a police officer experiences during his or her shift, the show presents a broader — but also oddly mesmerizing — view of law enforcement.

Live PD has followed a number of the same police departments over the past three seasons — including Salinas, Californa, and Richland County, South Carolina — a set-up that allows viewers to get attached to specific officers, much like we do with fictional TV characters. Sgt. John Curley of Warwick, Rhode Island — a strapping figure with a buzzcut and a booming voice — is a favorite of “Live PD Nation,” as the fandom is called. He looks kind of like a superhero, and while his ability to leap tall buildings has yet to be documented, he is able to diffuse a noisy dispute over a hotel bill with a single conversation. The officer I adore most, though, is Andrea Zendejas from El Paso, a young woman whose cheerful disposition belies the fact that she could clearly drop a perp like a 10-pound bag of cement if he tried anything funny. Officer Zendejas’s bun is severe, but her voice is bright and sunny, and there’s something soothing about her compassion as she talks a harmless weirdo into leaving a convenience store (“You gonna take us on vacation with you?” she joked, as he worked on a scratch-off lotto ticket), or the diplomatic way she mediates a domestic squabble that began when the wife (allegedly) clogged the toilet… again.

A+E

That isn’t to say Live PD doesn’t deliver the action. The show thrives on the kind of “you can’t make this up” surprises at the heart of all quality reality TV, as when a routine traffic stop turns into “I don’t know how that fully functional AK-47 wound up in my trunk, officer,” or when the cops respond to a robbery in progress, only to find the homeowner pounding the thief to a bloody pulp on his front lawn. “That guy keyed me in my eye for no reason!” wailed the suspect, to which an officer replied, “Okay, well, you shouldn’t be breaking into his house, man.” Just as often, though, the tension on Live PD takes a sudden left turn into innocuousness, and those are the interactions I love the most. A “suspect” who’s “evading police” in Greene County, Missouri, turns out to be clueless guy driving home from Little Caesars who simply didn’t notice the cop car, ablaze with lights and sirens, driving behind him. (“What kind of pizza did you get?” asked the deputy genially, once he realized the danger had passed.) Or when police in Calvert County, Maryland respond to reports of a fight in a parking lot, and it turns out it’s just a bunch of guys having a dance-off. The buzzword for Live PD producers is “transparency,” and while the show is not, of course, a complete look at the varied and fraught complexities surrounding the state of community-police relations in 2018, it does offer an unfiltered look at one facet of law enforcement: Decent cops doing their jobs.

Guiding us through the action is host Dan Abrams, who runs point from the “control center at A&E network headquarters in New York City,” along with crime reporter Tom Morris Jr., and the sternly handsome Sgt. Sean “Sticks” Larkin of the Tulsa PD Gang Unit. Throughout the night, Abrams toggles expertly between tones, adapting a Serious Newsman vibe for the more dangerous situations (“Brass knuckles found!”) or cocked-eyebrow bemusement for the less volatile cases. After an incredibly stoned individual in a Pink Floyd t-shirt assured a cop he was headed straight home to bed, Abrams deadpanned, “I guess that means he may be comfortably numb?”

As a viewer, it’s very comforting to know that at this very moment, as we’re safely ensconced on our couches at home, there are men and women out there keeping the peace — intervening in actual crimes, presiding over petty misunderstandings, and sometimes just listening to the people they’ve sworn to protect and serve. Recently, Sgt. Curley and a colleague pulled up to a darkened house in Warwick with the intention of serving an outstanding warrant. The guy they were looking for wasn’t there — but the homeowner was, and she was not about to let them leave without first unloading her tale of woe: “So my ex keeps calling children’s services on me for everything, because we’re going through a bad divorce…” In those instances, Live PD offers a humbling reminder that you never really know what anyone is dealing with in life — the only certainty is that all of us are dealing with something.

And yet the Live PD cops remain unfazed in the face of this never-ending onslaught of human drama. Consider the case of officer Juan Mercado from Mission, Texas, who spent part of his Saturday night assisting fellow officers in removing a writhing, vomiting drug user from a crashed vehicle. “I got a little puke in my mouth, I think,” he noted grimly, before shaking his head and heading back to the scene with a resolute, “Okay.” To Officer Mercado — and all the policemen and women offering viewers a small slice of order in these otherwise lawless days — Live PD Nation would like to say thank you for your service.

Live PD airs Fridays and Saturdays from 9-midnight ET on A&E.

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