TV has come a long way from the days of “Just the facts, ma’am”. While the structure and form of the TV police procedural hasn’t changed all that much from the early days of TV with shows like Dragnet , today’s cops are dealing with greater character complexity and thematic weight with each and every perp they’re busting on the street.
In the beginning there was Jack Webb
The police procedural really began with Dragnet. Created by Jack Webb, Dragnet first began life as a radio series with Webb starring as Sergeant Joe Friday alongside multiple actors who portrayed his various partners over the nine seasons that the show ran. The radio show was notable for highlighting the drudgery of police work as well as the moments of heroics.
In 1951, just two years after the radio show started, its TV series spin-off first aired. The TV show ran concurrently with the radio show, maintaining continuity between both with many of the same actors also performing in both series. Webb, like with the radio show, was also the series creator, executive producer, and star.
Dragnet served as the template for the TV police procedural, with much of its narrative structure adapted by cop shows ever since.
Grit, grime, and giggles
Inspired by Dragnet, the police procedural drama took off in a big way in the 60s, which carried over firmly into the 70s. Shows like The FBI, Dan August, CHiPs, and Adam-12 among the most notable.
While the 70s were rife with police and private detectives with shows like Cannon and Kojack, the medium began to evolve with the procedural shows taking on some of the grimier aesthetic of films in the cinema at the time. No one would ever confuse a cop show at the time with some of the darker crime films of the 70’s, but the influences could certainly be felt.
The Streets of San Francisco starred Karl Malden as a seasoned police detective solving crimes of the week alongside a young Michael Douglas. Running five seasons from 1972-77, the show took on a cinematic look with a lot of location shooting on, well, the streets of San Francisco.
More directly, we also saw the blaxploitation classic Shaft embraced by the small screen with a number of Shaft TV movies, with Richard Roundtree reprising the role. Can you dig it?
Police-focused comedies on TV are far and few between. Brutal murders, sexual crimes, and the general awfulness of humanity don’t lean so well towards laughs, it seems. 1974s Barney Miller was a traditional multi-camera sitcom starring Hal Linden as the titular police captain posted to a Greenwich Village police station. While the show ran for eight seasons with a two-season spin-off (1977s Fish), the show never generated much of a cultural footprint.
On the flip side is 1982s Police Squad. The 6-episode Leslie Nielsen comedy might have been consigned to the dustbin of history had it not been for creators David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker reviving the premise and many of the series best jokes for the Naked Gun series of films. The movies revived interest in the TV show, which is now widely regarded as a TV classic and paved the way for recent police comedies like Angie Tribeca and the UK’s A Touch of Cloth.
The 80s demanded we stay careful out there
No era of television has ever been lacking in police procedural dramas, but when it comes to the 80s, one series dwarfs all others for sheer influence: Hill Street Blues.
Television had never seen a series like it. Inspired by the theatrical documentary The Police Tapes, the producers of the series similarly sought to film Hill Street Blues with handheld Arriflex cameras. Absolutely revolutionary for the time, with series until then filmed generally with standard studio cameras. While its location was never revealed, the show had a laser focus on the impact of crime on an urban environment in a major US city. The shows debut season was awarded with eight Emmy awards – a feat only ever surpassed close to twenty years later by The West Wing.
Once the television industry saw what could be accomplished with a cop show by this series, the genre was never the same since.
Then in the 90s Sipowicz bared his arse
Picking up from Hill Street Blues, the 90s were a period of triumph for US network TV cop procedurals. While there were certainly a number of flaky cop shows on the air, three medium defining series came to air during the early 90s: Law & Order, NYPD Blue, and Homicide: Life on The Street.
Law & Order was a slow burn with audiences, building its viewership over the 90s, eventually becoming a TV powerhouse that saw multiple spin-offs. The most successful, Law & Order: SVU this year entered its 18th season – closing in on the motherships 20-season run.
While Law & Order was building its audience, the hot show in the first half of the decade was clearly NYPD Blue, which enlivened US broadcast TV with its edgy storylines and brief flashes of on-screen nudity. Most of the nudity was pretty tame compared to our modern day HBO-fueled TV, but for US TV it was seen as incredibly progressive. Today, the only nudity readily recalled from the series was untraditional heart-throb Dennis Franz revealing his bare behind in a steamy shower scene. Ooh la la.
The most influential cop drama of the 90s was the low-profile Homicide: Life on The Street. The show, based on a book by David Simon who would go on to write for the series in its later seasons before creating The Wire, took a different tact to most police dramas. The show was more about the conversations that took place during investigations rather than the investigations themselves. It worked hard to bring to the screen street-level humanity rather than the heightened theatrics often on display in police dramas.
While the show was never a hit, its influence can be felt right across almost every cop show that followed. They say that every person who saw The Velvet Underground went on to form a band. It seems like every TV writer who watched Homicide then went on to create their own cop show.
Then CSI ruined it for everyone. Until Sarah Lund saved it with her jumpers.
While TV in the 00s then delivered us, arguably, TV’s greatest police procedural The Wire, broadcast TV was then packed with spin-off procedurals based on existing series. It seemed as though TV schedules were nothing but Law & Order and CSI series and clones like Criminal Minds.
While The Wire and The Shield both did their part to keep the high quality US procedural alive, the more interesting police procedurals started coming from overseas. Certainly, throughout the 90s, in-particular, we saw great police procedurals like Prime Suspect come from the UK, the best ongoing serialized procedural series started coming from the most unlikely of places. In Australia we saw the fantastic East West 101 screen on SBS, showcasing a procedural against the backdrop of the racial tensions of Sydney’s western suburbs.
And then there was the rise of Scandi-noir.
Fuelled by Danish series Forbydelsen (Or as us westerners know it, The Killing), the three-season procedural brought considerable attention to Scandinavian drama, in particular its dark police dramas focused on the human cost of an investigation. The shows sparked a revolution that saw further procedurals like The Bridge follow it, but also a wave of international remakes like AMC’s The Killing, AMC’s The Bridge, and Sky TV’s The Tunnel amongst others. Its influence could also be felt in taut UK procedurals like The Fall and Happy Valley.
Down under Deep Water
Recent SBS drama Deep Water continues the evolution of the police procedural, but taking the best bits of each. It doesn’t quite wear its Scandi-noir influences on its sleeve like recent Aussie productions Secret City and The Kettering Incident did, but rather cherry picked its tonal influences. Scandi-noir can be felt in it, just as much as one could also feel the humanist procedure of Homicide in its DNA. But, as with every cop show in the genre, so much of Deep Water can also be traced back to Dragnet. Deep Water series star Yael Stone may as well be asking for “Just the facts, ma’am” even if the case she is investigating is darker than anything Jack Webb may have investigated.
Deep Water continues on SBS on Wednesday and Thursday at 8:30pm.
Missed the first episode? Watch it on SBS On Demand: