What cop TV can teach us about trust

Monday, March 30, 2020 - 5:45pm

NOSELL

Wikimedia Commons

Over spring break, I spent the day at my grandparents’ house watching old shows from the 1960’s. I hadn’t seen many of them before and was excited to laugh at the fun fashion and the era’s simplistic, slapstick comedy. After a few episodes of “Bewitched” and “Green Acres,” the channel transitioned into that night’s marathon of “The Andy Griffith Show.” 

While I wasn’t as familiar with other shows, I knew the basics of this one. Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith, “Matlock”) protects and serves the small town of Mayberry while raising his young son, Opie (Ron Howard, “Arrested Development”). After the first episode about the town’s beauty pageant ended, I felt I got the gist. Sheriff Andy and the people of Mayberry are sweet and kind, with a tendency toward endearing eccentrism. 

The next episode was about two old ladies secretly running a moonshine business while turning in their competition to the sheriff so they’d get more customers. It was an adorable story to be sure, but one particular moment caught me off guard. When arresting one of the moonshine producers, Sheriff Andy doesn’t read him his rights. It took me a moment to remember Miranda warnings weren’t implemented in arrests until 1966, five years after the episode aired.

Police procedurals have been a staple of American TV since the mid-1950s with shows like “Dragnet” and “The Untouchables” but the more modern, slightly grittier version of cop shows came later with 1980s classics “Hill Street Blues” and “Miami Vice.” These programs popularized the format while amping up the stakes for an audience now keyed in to crime thanks to the 24 hour news cycle. Perhaps the most influential police procedural of all time, “Law and Order,” is the best example of how crime-themed TV reflected (and affected) the American public.

“Law and Order,” and its successful spin-off “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” each have upwards of 20 seasons and are known for their hallmark style of including stories “ripped from the headlines.” With more serious storylines and a loyal audience, these series could explore more difficult and controversial topics than “The Andy Griffith Show” could ever dream of. The comfort of small-town justice is entirely absent in modern police procedurals which tend to examine the most frightening aspects of our society and deeply flawed legal system.

As I sat in my grandparents’ house, wondering how there was ever a time before Miranda rights, I wondered if there was something deeper at play in Mayberry. In the past few years, one particular scene circulated the Internet in which Sheriff Andy remarks, “When a man carries a gun all the time, the respect he thinks he's getting might really be fear… I don’t carry a gun, because I don’t want the people of Mayberry to fear a gun. I’d rather they respect me.” The quote garnered much attention from gun control advocates who lauded his nonviolent sentiment, but in the context of the arrest scene I watched, that positive message is complicated.

The people of Mayberry trust Sheriff Andy. But, the world of Mayberry is not as complicated as the worlds depicted in “Hill Street Blues” or “Law and Order.” The world of “The Andy Griffith Show” doesn’t exist anymore, and in fact, it never existed at all. There was no idyllic, peaceful small-town America. At least, not one that wasn’t plagued with other issues of racial discrimination or the oppression of marginalized groups. The trust citizens of Mayberry had for their sheriff was partly because of the town’s lack of serious crime but also because he looked and acted like them.

This mutual respect and admiration, while most obvious in early examples, is a common thread throughout American police procedurals. “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” often challenges this assumption by addressing issues that affect disadvantaged communities and emphasize the fallibility of law enforcement. But for all the empathy Olivia Benson and her team elicit, they’re still cops. They sometimes arrest the wrong guy or harass suspects. In one episode, one of the SVU detectives shoots an unarmed, Black teenager and, though he regrets his actions, he is still considered the protagonist of the show. 

Therein lies the conundrum of police-themed TV. Do we frame cops as trustworthy heroes because we trust the police or because we wish we did? In a time when police brutality and lack of accountability are daily news stories, our cultural obsession with crime-related entertainment presents a distinct juxtaposition between how we feel and how we want to feel. In “The Andy Griffith Show,” the suspects trust the sheriff to respect them without a statement of their rights. But that’s not how things work. We need civil rights, we need to be innocent until proven guilty, we need protection from abuses of the law. 

As we continue to watch shows that idealize our relationship with law enforcement, as a country we need to consider why we need the scripted format of TV to comfort us in this way. Do we just like the mystery and entertainment of crime stories and cops are the incidental protagonists? Or are we less interested in the lives of people in Mayberry and more invested in heroes like Sheriff Andy? And if the latter is true, what does that say about us? If we continue to glorify the ideal while ignoring the reality of our justice system, change will remain on screen, just beyond our reach.