Thursday, October 10, 2013

"The Changing Face Of 'Protection'"

Remember The Rockford Files (NBC, 1974-1980)?

That’s just one example from a long-popular genre of entertainment, known as the “Private Detective” program. 

The “Private Detective” murder mystery has a proud and extended resume, going back to the great radio detectives, like Nick Carter, Boston Blackie, Bulldog Drummond, and Yours Truly Johnny Dollar.  Old movies brought us Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, Lew Harper, and The Thin Man.

They had to wait till it was invented, but once it was, TV followed in their footsteps with the likes of Peter Gunn, Richard Diamond, Joe Mannix, and Jim Rockford.  The characters varied in their specifics – The Thin Man was an alcoholic, Frank Cannon was overweight, Rockford drove a beat up Pontiac, and Burke’s Law’s Amos Burke drove a Rolls Royce, which, on second thought, he did not even drive himself. 

At their core, however, all P.D.s were fundamentally the same – outsiders bucking the system who invariably come out on top, while the fuming and fumbling constabulary arrest the wrong people and arrive to the rescue just after the nick of time.

In the entertainment universe at least, from the 1930’s to the late 1970’s, not a single fictional murderer would have been apprehended if things had been left to the officials whose sworn duty it was to enforce the law and protect the populace.  As crime fighters, had these coppers been ballplayers, they’d have had an overall batting average of zero.  Which is really, really bad.

Though the police were continually shown up by these for-hire “Freelancers for Justice”, truth be told, their only contribution to the process was handcuffing the perpetrators and escorting them to the calaboose.  (By the way, wait…this should probably have its own paragraph.)

By the way, the persona of the “lone-wolf” battler against evil emerged directly from the earlier tradition of the cowboy.  Cowboy heroes (Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, Zorro) invariably performed outside the law, delivering the “bad guys” to the authorities after punching them into submission or shooting them in the hand. 

Private Detectives were substantially cowboys in modern dress, the only difference being that at the end, the cowboy hero rode off into the sunset on a horse who had a name (“Trigger”, “Topper”, “Diablo”, “Toronado”), while the detective drove away in his car (the exception being Harry Orwell, whose car was often in the shop, which meant that he would frequently leave the scene of the action via public transportation.) 

(NOTE:  There are always exceptions to my carefully considered generalizations.  While “Private Eye” shows flourished, there was still Dragnet and later The FBI, where the protagonists worked determinedly within the system.  But these follicularly-manicured crime fighters never matched the popularity of the Private Detective, possibly because they were boring, and possibly because they represented the less romantic, “by-the-bookness” of the Law, or both, and other reasons that do not presently come to mind.

This leads us to “The Turnaround.”  Which is the message of this exercise.

A superficial exploration dates the “transformation” in question back to Hill Street Blues, which debuted on NBC in 1981.  Instead of, square, goody-goody cops, Hill Street­ ­– the only police show I ever followed – presented flawed law enforcement personnel doing the best they could in an impossible situation, both bureaucratically, and because there was an overwhelming amount of crime.

For reasons, I cannot explain – and would happily entertain hypotheses from readers like yourself – police employees, once plot-device buffoons, were transformed into sympathetic, albeit defective, Guardians of our Safety.  And the erstwhile “Unofficial Defenders of Justice” – the shamus, the gumshoe, the Private Dick – virtually completely disappeared from view.  (Or became disreputable bit players, temporarily protecting their clients’ identify before inevitably wimping out.)

(The movie counterpart to television’s “cops superseding detectives” revolution is most likely Dirty Harry (1971) and The French Connection (also 1971), though they could be merely the products of an anti-hippie backlash, a winning scenario promoted concomitantly by Richard Nixon’s “Law and Order” presidential campaign.

Speaking of Law & Order – the TV series, not the conservative ticket to two decades of presidential election success – not to mention its estimable spinoffs, and its higher tech copycats (The CSI’s and the NCIS’s), the “Your institutions will protect you” juggernaut has long dominated the airwaves, while the “We are barely bringing in enough money to keep the lights on” private detective racket has gone almost entirely out of business.  (Kept alive by certain cable series featuring mismatched partners and cheesy storylines.)

By the way, a similar point can also be made about lawyer shows.  Perry Mason is a memory, the heroes today being Assistant District Attorneys who take on the likes of the Russian Mafia and wind up chopped up in the trunk of a car for their heroic efforts.  Remember The Defenders (1961)?  (Okay, that was a long time ago, so you’d have to be old.)  Now it’s The Prosecutors. 

Why the role model “one-eighty” from “The Underdog Outsider” to “The Man”?  Hard to say.  Maybe people started resenting the habitual, knee-jerk disrespect for authority.  Or maybe they lost faith in those “loose-cannon” independents with their abominable taste in sports jackets. 

Or maybe they simply wanted something different in their entertainment, so they dumped the anti-establishment iconoclasts, seeking comfort instead in imperfect but honorable civil servants.

The most resonating answer probably lies in some sea change in the culture, though I cannot personally pinpoint what that was.  I do, however, know this.

I really miss Rockford.

How ‘bout you?


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think it's difficult to talk about TV/movies without tracing detectives back to their literary precursors. The obvious template is Sherlock Holmes, who I see reflected in so many of today's shows about flawed/or isolated geniuses who see things others do not: HOMELAND's Carrie, PERSON OF INTEREST's Harold Finch, and of course ELEMENTARY; before these MONK, NUMB3RS, COLUMBO, etc. Holmes had little to do with women (with a brief exception for Irene Adler) and used cocaine to fill the long, dull spaces between cases. As such, I'd argue he and his Watson are the template for almost everything that followed.

The reinvention of police as popular saviors may have to do with the uncertainty of our times: a lot of people want to believe that the people in charge are the good guys (nowhere more obviously than in the fantasy sugar candy that was THE WEST WING) and they *will* protect us. (24 created a number of issues around people's expectations of what torture can do!) It seems to me of a piece with the new wave of superheroes.

I think there's also an element, particularly in the HILL STREET BLUES time period, of a desire for more realistic stories. The fact is that *most* tough cases are solved by trained police investigators. I challenge anyone here to name *one* famous private detective or turn up *one* media story about one solving a tough case that had police stumped. The police call in experts, yes (and sometime non-experts such as "psychics") but as assistants, not as supremos.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

P.S. Topper wasn't a cowboy!


Keith said...

One cop that flourished in the early 70's was Columbo. However, he may just as well have been a private detective. The secret of that show was different than regular cop shows, though. Regular cop shows showed malcontents being wrangled in by defenders of justice. Columbo showed arrogant, egotistical criminals being outsmarted by the common man, who's a lot smarter than they realize. (I think they could have gotten away with Jack Cassidy playing a different bad guy every week) I don't think any cop shows have had such a strong theme and template as that show did. Yet, it was tremendously popular even though Peter Falk rarely made an appearance before the 30-minute mark.

Regarding the hypothesis of the article, though:
Detective shows mostly appeal to a viewer's desire for independence. Cop shows mostly appeal to a viewer's desire for justice.

PALGOLAK said...

I liked the Rockford Files as a kid because Rocky and Angel were such good sources of exasperation for Jim.

Anonymous said...

This Topper was Hoppy's horse!

BillV said...

Perhaps it was a change in the overall psychedelic experience of watching a TV show that changed with the times. Ideas of entertainment and the changing ethics of the previous rock'em sock'em manly duke'em ups of the 50's and 60's and on to the high water mark of the early 70's when those shows started to take a turn. Especially when cop shows started to take a lesson from the popular melodrama of "Barney Miller" in how the routine of the working cop's day was opened up, in a humorous way in the show, but fundamentally in the minds of the audience who were now accessible to their local police (a.k.a New York's Finest a.k.a The Everyman Cops in America) as human beings with problems just like everyone else just trying to make it through one more day. "Hill Street Blues", as was pointed out in an earlier comment, also changed the genre to what we have come to understand as the pioneer of the so-called "reality" based shows. So that nowadays, the scripted plays of yesterday with their predictable but satisfying outcomes are replaced with the edgy shaky camera exciting "its happening right now in our town" dramas we see today. Sure, the shows are also reasonably scripted as well, but the trick is to make them look like they are happening as you watch, which gives the audience today something to stimulate them since we are now a populace overly stimulated by everything on TV. There is more everything to watch then there ever was in the 50's, 60's and 70's. It takes a bit more to keep the peepers a peep'in.

Death Panel Truck said...

Rockford drove a "beat up Pontiac"? Have you ever actually seen the show? He drove a series of new model Firebird Esprits that were always up-to-date to the year of each season.