Whenever I hear someone say “ Oh that would never happen in real life!” about something they have seen on a TV cop show or read in a cop/mystery novel, I want to grind my teeth. I also want to tell them, “ No, it wouldn’t happen in real life, but that isn’t real life you’re watching/reading. It’s fiction. And the point of fiction is to entertain.”
Real life is just not that entertaining. The day-to-day reality of the average police officer’s life is taken up with paperwork and court testimony, neither of which makes for giddy viewing. The rest, too, is often non-glamorous calls such a petty thefts, petty assaults, domestics, and traffic incidents. Spend an evening watching those fly-on-the-wall cop documentaries and you’ll see just how similar they all are. It doesn’t matter whether the cops are in LA or London, most often you will see them dragging recalcitrant drunken students into vans, separating drunken friends who’ve decided to fight over some woman, or arresting some drunken driver. Even raids in reality tend to proceed smoothly, carried out deliberately at dawn when the occupants of a house are bound to be asleep and possibly hung-over, unlikely anyway to put up any significant resistance. On TV the raid will take place at night, usually when its pouring rain for atmosphere, and inside the crack house will be a dozen tough-guy gang members, all busily cutting rock cocaine on the kitchen table, and every one of them will have a huge-ass nine-mil in front of him, so that bad guys and cops can enter a tense Mexican stand-off, all pointing guns and screaming at each other. On TV the cops are always pointing their guns and shooting bad guys, and everyone pats them on the back and tells them “ Atta boy/girl!” In reality the average cop may draw his service weapon less than a dozen times in a full twenty-year career, and he may fire it ( outwith the practice range ) once or twice at most. Many cops will never fire their service weapon in their entire career. Discharging your weapon in reality sets off the kind of landslide of paperwork and IA aggravation that no cop needs or wants.
Many ex-cops-turned-writers-or-advisors will praise a show such as Southland for its ‘realistic portrayal of police procedure’ and whilst this may be true in many respects, they are turning a blind eye to the less realistic aspects of the show. For instance, in reality a uniformed cop with an obvious substance abuse problem, discovered drunk, stoned, and handcuffed naked to a bed at a disreputable party, and all whilst on active duty, would likely be dismissed from the Force for conduct unbecoming. A detective would never have to shoot a bad guy breaking into her home to find a witness ( and do so with the 12-guage shotgun she handily keeps in the hallway closet ) because in reality that detective would never have been allowed to take a vital child witness into her own home. Even ‘realistic’ shows like Southland need to inject a little unreality to keep the viewers hooked.
One of my own favorite TV cops shows, Criminal Minds, bears only the most distant resemblance to FBI procedural reality. There is a Behavioral Analysis Unit at Quantico but their work is mostly consultancy done via email and telephone. There is no team of ridiculously good-looking agents who travel around the country on a private jet and help the local law enforcement to solve their crimes. There certainly is no Miss Penelope Garcia doing whizzy things with computers!
These days, it isn’t just the cops either who solve crimes in fiction. We all know that CSI’s don’t carry weapons, they don’t interview witnesses, they don’t make arrests, and they certainly do not solve the crimes all by themselves…except on TV. The streets of LA were surely safer back in the day when Quincy, ME was running around doing the LAPD’s job for it. Two of today’s most successful crime writers are James Patterson and Harlan Coben. Patterson’s runaway success ‘The Women’s Murder Club’ employs a cop, a journalist, an ME, and a lawyer as a crime-solving team of women friends. Coben has Myron Bolitar, a sports agent who inevitably winds up embroiled in dangerous mystery situations on behalf of his clients. We, as viewers and readers, don’t sit around questioning the qualifications of these characters to solve crime, we simply jump aboard and enjoy the ride that they take us on. Yes, every now and then a TV show or novel will jump the shark, stretching the viewer or reader’s willing suspension of disbelief to breaking point, but we accept this and we move on, usually with minimal rancor. We do so because we understand that fiction is allowed to take these kinds of liberties with reality. It is by this means that it entertains us.