We live in a world of shit.
When you watch COPS, you see just how bad things are, day in, day out. No romanticism about the valiant police officer. None of this insipid morality playing like Rescue 911, TOP COPS or America's Most Wanted.
That is what makes COPS the best hour on television. It is an "hour on television," not a "TV series." Each hour is divided in half, with each half focusing on an individual police or sheriff's department. You can call the halves "episodes," but they are not defined by a narrative with convenient beginning, middle and end, (the classic cop-drama form; no arrest comes with that Dragnet feeling of social vengeance against the wrong-doer).
Instead, each episode introduces us to normal people who have become police officers because Dad was, or because they saw the old neighborhood going to hell. They tell us that they want to do what good they can, and, depending on how long they've been on "the force," just how ineffective they feel.
We follow them as they begin their beats. It is real-life police work, filmed, and edited to remove some of the endless patrolling, but not edited into "TV." They arrest somebody, they pull somebody over, they hurry to assist another officer. We stay with them, not knowing what will happen next, if anything will.
The cops who emerge aren't heroes, but they're not villains either. They are people put in positions that place impossible demands on their abilities. Watch COPS once, and you realize exactly why cops have incredibly high alcoholism rates, why their marriages collapse, and why sometimes, for seemingly no reason, they lose it. Watch COPS again, and even the spasms of action that punctuate the overpowering monotony, become routine.
Finally, at the end of each half hour, they show is done. The show--your little filmed version of their lives--stops. But they go on. You know they do.
The violence goes on as well. Domestic violence, drug-related violence, muggings, stabbing, shootings. You've seen the unexciting, brutal underside to our national biography. America without end, Amen.