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When TV Cop Dramas Re-Invent the Headlines

08/02/2013 05:43 EDT | Updated 10/02/2013 05:12 EDT

TV series sometimes draw upon news stories for fictional plots. In U.S. series like Law & Order and The Good Wife it allows them to wrestle with relevant issues (more frivolously, series might employ resonance by casting a real life sports star as a fictional sports star). And it provides a fictionalized record of the real world, so that you can look back at reruns years later and say: "Ah -- so that's what was going on at that time."

However equally it can be tactless exploitation. The comedy duo, Wayne & Shuster, were once asked if there were things they wouldn't consider grist for satire, and they responded they wouldn't make fun of real suffering because their job was to entertain, not to hurt.

Over the years, Canadian TV series have drawn upon Canadian events and issues for fictional stories. The Eleventh Hour did an episode echoing the Maher Arar case. Wojeck in the 1960s claimed its hero was modelled after a real Toronto coroner.

Recent examples of "celebrity resonance" include The Listener casting singer Fefe Dobson as a singer, or The Murdoch Mysteries casting opera diva Measha Brueggergosman as an opera diva. To more serious, headline echoing stuff. Cracked did an episode about a psychiatric patient (guest star Carlo Rota) who had cannibalized a bystander in a public street, conjuring up the horrific bus murder committed by Vince Li. While Saving Hope featured a plot line reminiscent of the Rehtaeh Parsons tragedy.

But are lines crossed? How would the families of those involved feel, sitting down for an evening's entertainment and being confronted by their worst nightmares? In Cracked, the audience was asked to be sympathetic to the killer who, in the context of the fictional story, now had his psychosis under control. Inappropriate? Or courageously challenging us to look beyond the horrifying headlines? While Saving Hope's teen bullying plot seemed in danger of trivializing it, I think they gave more dialogue to the guy worried his wife would name their son "Jedi" than they did to the bullied teen (played by Less Than Kind's Brooke Palsson).

And when dramas fictionalize events to provide a buffer between them and the reality (and to avoid being sued!) they reshape the events, sometimes deliberately to make whatever "point" they want to make.

A number of Canadian cop dramas have enjoyed the participation of real life police officers. Night Heat, the seminal 1980s Canadian-made cop drama, was co-executive produced by Sonny Grosso, a real life New York detective turned film and TV producer (Roy Scheider played Grosso in The French Connection). While more recent series like The Bridge and the current CBC drama Cracked were created, or co-created, by police veterans.

This can lend these series an air of legitimacy, but they can also reflect biases and agendas.

Night Heat sometimes touched on social issues from a liberal POV, surprising for a cop show in an era of Hunter and TJ Hooker. Yet when it came to police and policing, there was no doubt where the series' loyalty lay -- and where it wanted the audience's loyalty to lie. Recurring Internal Affairs cops were depicted almost like vampires -- it bordered on unintentional camp!

And I'm not sure it gels with the reality. Real life reports of police investigating police can reveal toothless departments, or a tendency to investigate the civilian complainant rather than the accused officer.

It could be argued such TV cliches reflect a particular POV -- cop dramas telling stories exclusively from the police perspective.

The Bridge was a rare example of a Canadian series stirring up controversy for its seeming echoes of real life -- at least among the Toronto press. About the head of a police union (played by Aaron Douglas) it was created by Craig Bromell, himself a former Toronto police union head. But some commentators recollected Bromell's tenure as a scary time when the police seemed an unchecked power onto itself. And now, they complained, he was being given a weekly forum to glorify himself? Of course, whether or not Bromell intended the series as a paean to him and his fellow cops, others involved in the making of The Bridge likened it to the U.S. mob drama, The Sopranos!

Stories that echo headlines, and police dramas with agendas, came together in an episode of Cracked. Not an episode drawn from a specific headline, but resonating with a few -- including a recent news story that occurred months after the episode was filmed.

Cracked has a bit of a liberal heart -- like Flashpoint, or King (in the latter the heroes were unimpeachable, but that couldn't be said for all the police). Cracked focuses on a fictional "psych crimes" unit -- a premise ironically arising out of news stories about police shootings involving the mentally ill and officers ill-trained for such encounters

I say "ironically" because the series' central hero is Det. Black (David Sutcliffe) who had been involved in a police shooting. That case becomes central to an episode that focuses on the inquest into the incident. And the liberal gloves come off and the "thin blue line" blinders come on. Black is a martyr and the other side is comprised of snivelling psychiatrists who, if they had mustaches, would be twiddling them and a crown attorney (played by Inga Cadranel) who if she stole somebody's little dog and flew away on a broom it couldn't be any less subtle. At one point in the episode a (good) character accuses a (bad) character of being unable to see any point of view but his own -- but that sums up the episode itself! Another character superficially dismisses concerns about police shootings as simply "people need somebody to blame."

The message? Anyone who would question a cop -- well, there's something wrong with them.

The incident in question had our hero confronting a knife wielding psycho holding a bus load of children hostage. Black shot to save the kids, and one of the kids is knifed by the psycho in the process. The narrative is clear: a hard working cop saves a bus load of children and yet is pilloried by civilians who refuse to understand.

But in real life, outrage over police shootings rarely involve something as dramatically clear cut as a bus load of innocent children, and a single precision shot.

Sometimes the buses are empty, and the bullets many.

But headlines like that don't necessarily serve the agenda of the makers of TV cop dramas.

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