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Do the Police Need to Advertise Too?

"Cops" Melodramas Induce a Dangerous Dependence on Law Enforcement

By Molly Hennessy-fiske

As a former TV addict, at school I stick firmly by the 12-step method and try to take each day at a time. But in a rare moment of weakness over spring break, my resolve melted like nacho Velveeta cheese spread in the warm glow of the magic box, and I was sucked in once again to the wondrous world of "Extreme Sports," "MTV News" and "Scooby Doo" reruns. I felt almost sinful as I settled into my hypnotic televised trance. Equipped with an incredibly responsive remote, I swiftly became King Midas as every channel I clicked revealed yet another golden televised treat for my very own viewing pleasure.

But the honeymoon proved to be short-lived. I had just abandoned "The Facts of Life" during a commercial break in hopes of discovering some "Dr. Who" reruns when, after a brief stint channel-surfing, I found myself in the midst of a prostitution sting operation somewhere in southern Florida. Narration was unnecessary as I instantly recognized the genre of the program: it was a "Cops"-type show styled after "NYPD Blue" in a sick rendition of art imitating art imitating life. As usual, the setting was seedy and the cast of characters--from pot-bellied sheriffs to pouty chainsmoking whores--left me wriggling uneasily in my La-Z-Boy recliner, eager to switch my mood along with the channel back to sitcom simplicity.

But I stuck with the show, not so much out of interest as sheer curiosity. Brother shot illegitimate brother, children stabbed wild-eyed parents and family pets went berserk in a mad freakshow frolic before my very eyes. Forget Barnum & Bailey, I thought, southern Florida is where it's at: a world where suspects get "Mirandized" and the camera never stops rolling, even when characters appear wounded or in various states of undress.

I was hooked and sat through a good half-hour of bloodshed, including a "scenes from the next" sequence, even after my supply of jalapeno nachos ran out. As the screen dimmed and the theme for "Rescue 911" cued up, I switched the channel and rose to refill my plate, idly locking the front door and checking the yard for would-be felons on my way to the kitchen.

Which is when I stopped to contemplate the impact all that random violence--wrapped up neatly in a southern Florida package and sealed with the official state police stamp of approval--had on me in my cozy home in upstate New York. Why was I suddenly checking the window locks and drawing the curtains flush with window frames? Why did the rustling of trees against the back door make me stand at attention? Is this the response shows like "Cops" really hope to elicit out here in sleepy TV land?

In truth, much of the violence on the show had been exaggerated, with drug raids filmed from every possible angle and car chases replayed in slow motion. Yet I still got the feeling the ad-hoc directors and producers--many of whom are police officers themselves--want to make a statement with these shows. "America isn't safe anymore," they seem to say, "so lock your doors, throw another chicken pot pie in the microwave and tune into 'Cops' to hear about the real state of the union.

While the show's message is clear, the public response is questionable. The country certainly doesn't live in fear because "Cops" showed a few too many sordid details about life in southern Florida, and an argument could be made that the show simply serves as an extension for the increasingly violent soundbites distributed throughout the country during the nightly news. But one thing is for sure: the sense of paranoia and dependence on law enforcement the shows induce is riveting, contagious and a cause for alarm.

Molly Hennessy-Fiske, a sophomore living in Eliot, is a Crimson editor.

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