I watch a lot of TV, probably too much, and as a professional writer am aware that "truths" are enhanced and/or skewed in the design of an episode for dramatic purposes. Obviously, most crimes are not solved as fast as depicted on the CSI and Law and Order shows. Even when it's demonstrated that a few days have actually passed, there's no way clues would add up as neatly as they do in almost all instances.
That's the fiction stuff, the poetic license that an audience has come to expect. The ingenious way Columbo always got his man or woman during the last few minutes of the one hour program.
However, what really bothers me is the way the police are often portrayed, and if the researchers and writers are doing an incredibly bang-up job in making the stories accurate it doesn't reassure me that our constitutional rights are often tossed out the window.
I watched "Unwritten Rules," the opening episode of the fourth season of CBS' Blue Bloods, a show I've seen many times, not because it's particularly well-written, but these days there isn't a helluva lot to tune in on Friday nights. The series stars Tom Selleck as Frank Reagan, a second-generation New York City Police Commissioner, whose father Henry, played by Len Cariou, earlier held the same position. As a matter of fact the whole family are cops, except for pretty Erin Reagan-Boyle, played by Bridget Moynahan, who didn't stray far from the household metier and is a prosecutor in the district attorney's office.
Her brother Jamie, played by Will Estes, had similar ambitions and graduated from Harvard Law School, after which he, to my mind unbelievably, gave up a high paying law firm job when his brother Joe was killed in action. He currently serves as a beat cop, often working alongside his detective brother Danny, played by Donnie Wahlberg.
Now, my beef is mostly with Danny. This guy should have been fired and/or institutionalized a long time ago if his father had the same scruples he often spouts in arch, overly formal speeches about the demands and duties of his commissioner job while gazing at the portrait of long ago commissioner (and former governor and president) Teddy Roosevelt.
Although Frank often takes the middle ground trying to see both points of view and occasionally surprises us with a sprinkling of colloquial dialogue and a sense of humor, he apparently has a blind spot when it comes to Danny. Or perhaps this otherwise all-knowing commissioner is somehow completely unaware that his son alternately slams suspects against the wall even after they are in handcuffs and in police custody, lies to them and doesn't give a whit about civil rights when he gets it into his head that a perp is guilty.
Now, this is mitigated by the fact that, thanks to the writers' generosity, the guy (and it's almost always a guy) is in fact culpable, as if to say that, assuming Danny Reagan is gifted with psychic abilities, it doesn't matter how he proves the person is guilty. It's no problem at all, even if he has to beat a confession out of him or coach an elderly unsure female witness how to pick the suspect out in a line-up, having first convinced her that the others present are innocent.
All this in the opening episode when a police officer is killed -- and a female one at that -- which further enrages Danny and the entire force, including most of the Reagan family. One by one they turn against prosecutor Erin who set the prime suspect free because, shudder, shudder, there wasn't any hard evidence. Evidence? What's that? Why should we care? We know he's guilty, because we've read the end of the script.
Even congenial grandpa Henry shows uncharacteristic scorn at Erin during the weekly family dinner, as if murder is more significant when it's a policeman than a lowly average citizen. Yes, the police put themselves in potential danger when they patrol the streets, but statistically are far less likely to be hurt than other professions, notably firemen, not to mention the fact that they volunteered for the position.
But this isn't an essay to dismiss the enmity felt towards the killer of anyone, whatever his/her job, but that men and women acting under the color of authority in TV shows get away with an awful lot, which, I believe, does discredit to the noble work they do.
Even Erin's supervisor at the DA's office is pissed with her, and that ultimately affects a collusion between Erin and brother Danny to trick the scumbag suspect into writing his confession on a legal pad by convincing the otherwise confident guy that a now-dead friend ratted him out before his demise. Erin offers this man a very generous deal which Danny decries in front of her, but only if he will set down his admission. Somehow they know the guy will ultimately not accept the sweetheart deal after the confession is signed when Danny smugly reveals that his deceased pal never said anything to them about him at all. Now, Erin, suddenly with a dose of Reagan testosterone pumping through her system, replaces the rejected deal with a charge of first degree murder
Like we are to believe that the guy, who has been portrayed during the hour as extremely cocky, is just going to sign a statement so easily, considering that even if the dead friend had given him up he can't take the stand, and even if he were alive it's his word against the other guy. Not to mention that if Danny can lie to him, why can't he say they frightened him into a confession that he now recants? We are living in a world of O.J. Simpson's lawyers convincing a jury that "If it doesn't fit, you must, acquit." So, the episode's depiction is nonsense, pure and simple.
But my concern is not about whether a plot works and is full of holes, but that we see such police brutality depicted all the time on many TV cop shows. Recently, on ABC's summer series Rookie Blue, a bipolar policewoman off her meds became enraged when she thought a previously convicted child molester had taken a missing boy. Even after it became clear he was innocent, she invaded his house, told his secret to a neighbor, who then beat him up, and, thanks to the writers, made the guy flip to the extent he started killing cops and thus deserved her crappy police work. Then, to make matters worse, two of her colleagues broke into police files to extricate evidence that might have implicated this rogue cop with wrong doing.
And of course, Detective Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue was not above knocking suspects around either.
Wouldn't it have been more interesting if on Blue Bloods Erin had been proven right in her decision not to charge the guy without evidence? Perhaps he was innocent of the crime. Just because a guy is an ex-convict with a lousy history doesn't mean he's a murderer or, at the least, was the murderer here. Wouldn't this have been a great lesson to Danny Reagan, if he were capable of learning anything, to moderate his police behavior, and if he were unable to do so force his father to take the necessary steps to suspend him -- or send him away for treatment?
The problem is that when these things happen with lead characters the network is reluctant to take them out of the picture, even though they could create an arc of six or seven episodes to show him or her being punished and/or in recovery.
I cannot and will not believe that the majority of our police behave as often shown on TV, and if they do, please, 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper on CNN or Chris Matthews on MSNBC, do a report to alert someone in the Department of Justice, which should then do something about it.
Michael Russnow's website is www.ramproductionsinternational.com