Reality Bites

Reality Bites: COPS

There are a million reality shows on the naked television. We're going to watch them all, one at a time.

Wait, did you feel that? It's the eerie calm before the storm of the autumnal wave of reality programming floods our precious airwaves like a tropical storm stalled out over a water treatment plant.

Fine, if we're being honest the new season is already upon us, and I'm already behind on my DVR'd episodes of American Bible Challenge. But thanks to a variety of factors (a back-ordered Lexapro prescription chief among them), I decided to take a pause and pay homage to the show that started us on down this dark path so many years ago when it invited us to join "the men and women of law enforcement" on their quest to clean out the trailer parks of this great nation. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you COPS.

COPS is 23 years old, a fact which should elicit surprise but really doesn't. It's been on the air over half of my life, and became a central part of my youth shortly after it debuted. I was going to school in Austin, and a typical Saturday in the early '90s consisted of working an eight-hour shift at the grocery store, getting dinner at Thundercloud Subs, watching COPS, then going to the Crown and Anchor or Hole in the Wall. Pretty damn exciting, I know. But in retrospect, watching a half hour's worth of police beatdowns prior to hitting the bars probably implanted a subconscious suggestion to keep my nose clean. Or at the very least, not to resist arrest when a K9 unit is around. Thanks for that, John Langley and Malcolm Barbour.

The show has traveled across the United States and to a handful of international locations (Hong Kong and London among them), but except for different uniforms and the establishing skyline/landmark shots, you'd never have a clue where a particular show was set as one low-rent neighborhood tends to look like any other, regional architectural variations aside.

Similarly, the action changes little over the course of two-plus decades: the cops are either answering a call in/cruising through a low-rent area, they come upon a fight/domestic disturbance or pull somebody over for suspicious behavior, a scuffle/chase ensues, and the cops emerge victorious. The only thing that changes are the makes of the automobiles and the sizes of the cell phones. You could develop a reasonably entertaining drinking game based on randomly selecting an episode off G4 or TruTV and trying to guess the year.

The show's also been around long enough to generate several specialized collections (the "Bad Girls/Caught in the Act/Shots Fired" compilation is rather popular on Amazon) as well as its own YouTube channel, which should satisfy most of your bikini traffic stop needs:

"Maybe she supports law enforcement." That guy rules.

Does the show focus excessively on those in lower income brackets? Of course it does. But much as we'd like to see a show consisting of nothing but Goldman-Sachs guys getting frog marched into the paddy wagon, we all know that's not going to happen in post-TARP American. And Fox, when not playing things up for laughs, does a pretty good job editing its footage to make sure we're exposed to only the absolute worst elements available in any given community.

I must admit, I still love watching the occasional episode or three. Is it because I'm a terrible human being who revels in the misfortune of others, or am I merely a diligent student of entertainment history? Please don't answer that. In return I'll leave you with this selection of parody clips in the hopes it will make up for my personal failings.

"I want you to take this: the dust, the sirens, the coppers, the handcuffs, the hillbillyness, the breathalyzing, the excruciating arrestedness of it all and I want you to put it inside your piano!" Oh, if only.

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar