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TV UK, 16 January

There's more to good cop shows than shaky camera work.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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I know I’ve mentioned cop shows in the past five columns or so, but with the return of NYPD Blue to Channel 4 this week, I can’t really avoid doing it again. Steven Bochco’s masterpiece has been credited with inspiring every cop show since, and even (incredibly) with spawning the likes of Holby City (1).

In fact, most British cop shows are nowhere near as good as NYPD Blue, and the best recent British cop show, The Cops, is nothing like NYPD Blue. Yes, there is shaky camera-work, much shakier in fact, but the geriatrics who complain about that sort of thing seem blind to what really makes each programme work. Both are firmly rooted in their locations, and there is little danger of confusing New York with the fictional, but unmistakably northern, Stanton.

And while The Cops, naturalistic to the core, is dominated by inarticulate gloom, NYPD Blue features a sublimely peculiar police vernacular that somehow gives voice to voicelessness. Sipowicz’s laconic wisecracks are beautifully complemented by the clunking articulation of Sorenson, who is absolutely (his favourite word) incapable of talking to his equally awkward girlfriend Mary Franco. Last season’s morning exchange: ‘Should I make coffee?’, followed by a suspicious ‘You wanna use my coffee-maker?’, captured something profound about contemporary relationships. Please don’t ask me what.

Almost inevitably Sorenson has turned his affections to the widowed Diane Russell, and in this week’s opener he let his body do the talking in one of NYPD Blue’s notorious butt-scenes. But the best piece of dialogue came from Sipowicz, who stole the show with a deliberately incomprehensible ‘wrong number’ act while tracking a suspect on the phone. NYPD Blue offers the best treatment of contemporary language on TV, and it is sad that Channel 4 has consigned the programme to a crappy slot (Tuesdays at 11.35pm).

To be charitable, this is partly because Channel 4 has a commitment to developing its own new drama. (To be less charitable, it is clogging up much of its schedule with genuine crap.) NYPD Blue is preceded at 10.30pm by Buried, the new prison drama from Tony Garnett and the makers of The Cops (as well as This Life). Buried is suitably impressive, and being almost as naturalistic as The Cops, it has little in common with Oz, the equally impressive but quasi-science fiction American prison drama.

The opening episode established the nervous tension of the prison, as the protagonist Lee Kingsley was shown the ropes. Lee is a self-made businessman. He shot (not fatally) the man who raped his sister, but his insistence on pleading not guilty on moral grounds, combined with his gangster brother’s reputation with the police, meant that the system didn’t do him any favours. He is in for 10 years.

Lee’s bloody-mindedness is important, because it means that he isn’t exactly likeable. He isn’t an everyman thrown into prison so that we can empathise with his predicament. He’s black, but he’s neither a stereotypical black man nor an ‘invisible white’ who just happens to have black skin. In short, he is a genuine character with a complicated history and motives, and we cannot yet be sure how he will react to circumstances.

This is what TV drama should be like. For all the talk of ‘successful formats’, it is not the format that makes a programme succeed or fail, but the specific qualities of the writing, the direction and the performances. The makers of Holby City can use all the shaky cameras and multi-strand narratives they like, but as long as they neglect little things like language and character, the prognosis is not good.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Why TV cops are looking old, Mark Lawson, Guardian, 13 January

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