GOOD COP ... BAD COP
Police forces are often glorified on television shows, but more diverse writers’ rooms tell a different story
In the first season finale of Donald Glover’s critically acclaimed FX dramedy Atlanta, Glover’s character, Earn, witnesses a man get fatally shot by police. The brief but harrowing scene unfolds during a trip to retrieve a jacket he lost in an Uber following a night out. Earn, accompanied by his cousin and their friend, looks horrified as the Uber driver is shot repeatedly while attempting to run from a SWAT team.
The episode aired in 2016 in the wake of protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, and other Black men and women killed disproportionately by police.
Unlike the vast majority of shows that grappled with police violence that year, Atlanta didn’t make the shooting a focal point of the finale. “Did you-all really need all them bullets?” his cousin asks immediately after the shooting. Moments later, Earn approaches a detective to ask if they can check the pockets of his jacket, which the Uber driver had been wearing when he was killed.
Driving away, the men agree that what they observed was “crazy” and even “a little cool.” The incident is never mentioned again, but the message lingers: These young, Black men are accustomed to the threat and proximity of police violence. “The truth is that many of us have become just as inured to the stark reality of police-involved shootings,” Joshua Alston wrote for Vulture.
The episode “is so effective because it re-enacts one in front of our eyes, then shows us what a blithe response to such a thing actually looks like.”
Atlanta’s subtle approach hasn’t been the norm for TV shows that have grappled with police violence over the past few decades, with efforts often reduced to “Very Special Episodes” or brief story arcs that gloss over long-standing disparities.
For decades, studies have shown that pop culture’s prevailing depiction of police officers — as earnest heroes whose use of force is almost always justified — has led to warped views of the criminal justice system.
“One of the reasons why you’ve seen this glorification of police is because of the people telling the stories,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences and a professor of sociology and African-american studies at UCLA. “People who may be more sensitive to the impact of racial profiling and police brutality on bodies of colour usually aren’t in the room to help tell the story. And when they are in the room, generally the stories are different.”
The 1992 Los Angeles riots, spurred by the acquittal of four police officers in the brutal beating of Rodney King, prompted a number of TV shows to air one-off episodes dealing with various aspects of the unrest.
Season 6 of A Different World — the Cosby Show spinoff following students at the historically Black (and fictional) Hillman College — premièred that fall with a twopart episode in which newlyweds Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison) and Whitley (Jasmine Guy) try to register students to vote after being caught up in the riots while on their honeymoon. The show’s diverse group of writers and producers, including executive producer Susan Fales-hill and producer-director Debbie Allen, had felt a responsibility to their viewers to address the riots and what led to them.
A Different World had tackled inequality before. As protests recently erupted following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Allen shared a scene from a season 5 episode that “holds just as much weight as it did 28 years ago” in which Ron (Darryl M. Bell) and Dwayne Wayne confront a racist white student from a rival college.
Other ’90s-era sitcoms with diverse writers’ rooms also broached racial profiling in indelible scenes that have gone viral several times over in the decades since.
Nearly 30 years after King’s beating caused nationwide outrage, writers’ rooms remain overwhelmingly white. Hunt conducted a 2017 Color of Change study that analyzed the racial makeup and marginalization of Black writers in writers’ rooms across genres. Out of 234 shows with episodes considered for the study, two-thirds had no Black writers. Of the nine police procedurals included in the study, not one had a Black showrunner, and three had no Black writers at all.
The study cited Atlanta as an example of the compelling stories that can come out of writers’ rooms that include and elevate the voices of people of colour. The show’s first season set the tone for the finale’s blink-and-you-missed-it commentary on law enforcement as early as the pilot, in which Earn is arrested following a parking lot skirmish despite not having been involved. He spends a large portion of the subsequent episode awaiting bail alongside mostly Black and brown men, some of whom have obvious mental health issues.
Other sitcoms have navigated a similarly precarious balance between comedy and the harsh realities of racism and inequality.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recently said the league was wrong in its handling of those protests, which were intended to peacefully bring attention to the ongoing police violence against Black people.
Now, as the nation reels from more police killings, TV creators and networks have widely pledged their support for Black lives. No genre is more ripe for an overhaul than crime procedurals, Hunt added.
“There’s a huge amount of opportunity to rethink the way we tell police stories — without doing away with the stories or without necessarily doing away with police, but by complicating the premise ... so that we get a better sense of what some of the problems are with police work,” Hunt said. “I think to do that appropriately, you need to have people around the table who are more sensitive to those issues.” The Washington Post
The award-winning series Atlanta, which stars Brian Tyree Henry, left, and Donald Glover, takes a subtle approach that hasn’t been the norm for most small-screen programs that have grappled with the issue of police violence over the past several decades.