Police and Thieves: Assessing the Cultural Impact of 26 Years of COPS

Never a dull moment with the men and women of law enforcement.
Never a dull moment with the men and women of law enforcement.
Photo courtesy of Spike TV

You may not have been aware of it at the time, but on this very day 26 years ago, a historic event that would shake the foundation of Western civilization took place. On March 11, 1989, the very first episode of COPS aired on FOX.

I was in college when the show debuted, and from the beginning, I developed something of an unhealthy fascination with it (I wasn't alone in that regard, but more on that later). It aired early enough on Saturday evenings I could watch it while eating dinner and getting ready to meet friends for social interaction. And by "meet friends" I mean "drink beer on my couch." And by "social interaction" I mean "until I passed out."

COPS has filmed in some 140 U.S. cities, plus a handful of international locations like the UK and Russia, because of course. It ran for 25 years on Fox, and then was picked up in 2013 by Spike TV. They're 27 seasons in, and the good news is, as long as wages remain stagnant relevant to cost of living increases, there'll be no shortage of poor people for the police to oppress for our amusement.

There have been several "Best of" compilations, including COPS: Too Hot for TV and COPS: Greatest Pantless Hijinx (or so I assume), but I'd like to focus more on the larger societal impact of the program. Because it was one of the very first reality shows, COPS has had an outsized influence on pop culture. I haven't tracked down every movie or TV show that's riffed on the concept, but these are few of the highlights.

The Ben Stiller Show - "COPS in Ancient Egypt"/"COPS in Salem, Mass."/"COPS in Medieval Times": Ben Stiller's short-lived FOX sketch comedy show hasn't aged all that well, at least not for Stiller (watch it again and tell me Bob Odenkirk wasn't the brains behind it). One thing it did first, however, was spoof a certain relatively new reality program. Many, many times.

The Simpsons - "Homer's Triple Bypass": It didn't take long for Fox's other hit show to take a jab at one of its network mates (as it had already done with Married... with Children. The COPS in Springfield is a throwaway bit, introducing Homer's nigh lethal heart condition and further confirming Wiggum's incompetence.

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Mr. Show - "Drunk Cops"/FUZZ: The Musical": If you're pressed for time -- say, because you've just been shot in the stomach -- well, I'd just watch the "FUZZ" segment. "Drunk Cops" is more broad parody, and not as inspired as "FUZZ," which introduced the semi-notorious Ronnie Dobbs and features one of the best musical numbers in recent history.

And then you should probably get to a hospital. Gut shot? Didn't you see Reservoir Dogs?


Reno 911!: This is pretty easy. After all, the entire show is a send-up of the original. It was developed for FOX, but actually picked up by Comedy Central. And like COPS, the show was pretty much made up as it went along. Lt. Dangle and company never garnered much more than a cult following, but it was consistently pretty damn hilarious.

Bill Hicks - "Confession Time" Rant in E Minor: This is what I meant about "kindred spirits." Hicks hits the nail on the head with regard to the terrible guilt all habitual COPS watchers feel. And while this bit doesn't touch so much upon it, later in the album he gets in some pretty cogent analysis about the show's larger agenda:

I'll tell you who the threat to freedom ... no, no, not to freedom. I'll tell you who the threat to the status quo is in this country: it's us. That's why they show you shows like fucking COPS. So you know that state power will win and we'll bust your house down and we'll fuckin' bust you anytime we want. That's the message.

TROOPS: So obvious it's hard to believe nobody did this before 1996, but there you go. Kevin Rubio's short film was so well-received it was recognized by Lucasfilm as well as being included as a special feature on the 20th anniversary COPS DVD. Personally, I'm just happy to get the truth about what happened to Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.

The X-Files - "X-Cops": Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan is another fan of COPS, so it shouldn't come as a surprise to find out he wrote this episode, in which L.A. County Sheriff's deputies follow Mulder and Scully while they hunt down a monster that appears to its victims as the thing they fear the most (werewolf, Freddy Krueger, President Rick Perry, etc.).

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