Posted: May 29, 2015
If you’ve been watching any of the trendy new programs on cable television, your first response to Blue Bloods, the CBS crime drama which recently ended its fifth season, will likely be: this is some old-fashioned TV! There’s no profanity, nudity, explicit sex, or extreme violence, and at the center of the series is an Irish Catholic family, the Reagans, who have worked in law enforcement for three generations.
The patriarch, Henry Reagan (Len Cariou), is a former beat cop who rose through the ranks to become police commissioner. His son, Frank (Tom Selleck), followed the same trajectory and now holds that office. Henry and Frank are both widowers, and one of Frank’s sons, Joe, was a police officer killed in the line of duty. Another son, Danny (Donnie Wahlberg), is a detective, devoted to his wife, Linda (Amy Carlson) and two young boys, Jack and Sean (Tony and Andrew Terraciano). Frank’s daughter, Erin (Bridget Moynahan), is an assistant district attorney who is divorced and raising a precocious teenage girl, Nicky (Sami Gayle). And Frank’s youngest son, Jamie (Will Estes), is a graduate of Harvard Law School who wasn’t planning on entering the “family business” but had a change of heart after Joe’s death.
By opening and closing one case per episode, Blue Bloods partakes of the classic TV genre, the “procedural drama.” The best known example is Law & Order, which ran on NBC for 20 seasons without once deviating from a scheme as strict as the rhymes in a limerick: the first half-hour traces the discovery of a homicide, followed by an investigation and arrest; the second shows a jury trial and verdict. Law & Order spawned four spin-offs and countless imitations, all offering a predictable—and idealized—portrait of the American criminal justice system.
I say idealized because every single Law & Order episode concludes with a jury trial. This can be dramatic and inspiring to watch, not only for Americans but also for viewers overseas, especially in countries where there is no such thing as due process. But it is also wildly—I’m tempted to say criminally—unrealistic. In America today, the jury trial is practically extinct; more than 95% of U.S. criminal convictions are by guilty pleas, typically the result of plea-bargains.
The Sunday Dinner Scene
On this score, Blue Bloods is more realistic. Jury trials are scarce, and most cases end up being pleaded out before Assistant District Attorney Erin Reagan. Yet this, too, can be dramatic and inspiring, because by the time Erin extracts just the right guilty plea and hands down just the right sentence, the case has been duly processed by several of her relatives. If Jamie didn’t make the collar, then Danny did. If Danny was too zealous in the investigation, then Erin or Frank stepped in to correct him. If the case raised political hackles, then it landed on Frank’s desk.
Not only that, but every week the most important cases also land on the senior Reagans’ dining-room table, where the family gathers for dinner every Sunday. Executive producer Leonard Goldberg calls this Sunday dinner scene “the hallmark of our show.” It, too, follows a formula. Although the Reagans have a rule against “shop talk,” their attention inevitably turns to whoever appears to have had the worst week. Noting that one Reagan is moping, irritable, or preoccupied, another will say, “Please pass the potatoes—what’s wrong?” And the floodgates will open, as all four generations weigh in with questions, advice, reminiscences, and differences of opinion—some quite heated.
Not surprisingly, these scenes contain some of the best and worst moments in the show. The best occur when the cast interacts in a way that feels spontaneous and real. Not evident to the audience but important to the actors is the need for the whole ensemble to meet on a regular basis, in order to film these scenes. As Selleck explained in an interview, these meetings foster camaraderie; “in some shows you can go months without ever working with or seeing your costars.” Especially fine are the moments when one of Danny’s sons asks some elephant-in-the-room question, and the elders struggle to come up with a truthful but age-appropriate answer.
As for the worst moments, they occur when the writers editorialize. The original writer-producers, Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess, were veterans of the HBO series The Sopranos, so when Blue Bloods premiered in 2010, they told the press:
We did the anti-hero for all those years…. But every great character you see on TV right now is dark…. We wanted to rediscover the hero.
Green and Burgess left after the first season, but Blue Bloods still focuses on heroism. Its overall message, as unapologetic and visible as a silver shield on a blue shirt, is that every hour of the day and night, thousands of hard-working, dutiful cops are out there battling the misery, depravity, and sheer evil that inhabit the great city of New York.
At the same time, Blue Bloods can be quite critical of the NYPD. For example, while affirming the virtues of loyalty and solidarity, the Reagans condemn the tendency of police to raise a “blue wall of silence” around corruption, misconduct, and brutality. A central theme of the show is how much honesty, accountability, and openness are possible in an organization whose responsibilities include protecting officers and witnesses from criminal reprisals, not to mention preventing terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, these topics are frequently treated in a manner more didactic than dramatic—especially during those Sunday dinner scenes, when the cast’s normally fluid acting stiffens into a set-piece debate, followed by a mini-lecture by one of the patriarchs, usually Frank.
Different Genres, Different Audiences
This editorializing may be the result of combining two very different genres: the procedural, in which the characters’ private lives are mere background to their public roles; and the family-centered show, in which the opposite is true. To the extent that Blue Bloods is modeled on another successful CBS series, The Good Wife (about a high-priced defense attorney whose estranged husband is a well-connected Chicago politician), it strives to foreground both the private and the public. But in the case of Blue Bloods, this requires considerable artifice. In particular, it asks the viewer to believe that in New York it is normal for hundreds of criminal cases to pass through the hands of not just one or two members of the same family, but up to six (counting Linda the nurse).
It is, of course, true that the NYPD has a tradition of multigenerational service, especially among Irish Catholics. It is also true that the best way to get something done in a large urban bureaucracy is to trade in personal connections, including those of family, neighborhood, and faith. But Blue Bloods beggars belief when it portrays Jamie working a beat that covers all five boroughs; or Danny pursuing cases from lofts to liquor stores, boutiques to bodegas, penthouses to crack houses. The naïve viewer might well get the impression that New York is a small island nation, like Singapore or Bahrain, ruled by a single powerful clan.
Reinforcing this impression are the “money shots”—glorious aerial views of New York—which illuminate the screen every few minutes (and also, it must be said, justify the existence of high-definition TV). These stunning panoramas add an extra layer of meaning to the many times when Frank is besieged by bad guys, smooth operators, or just plain fools, and he hunkers down and growls something to the effect of, “This is my city, and I’m not going to let you mess with it.”
When Blue Bloods was first launched, there was a dispute between the higher-ups at CBS, who wanted it to be a straight procedural drama; and some of the creative types involved, notably Selleck, who wanted it to be more family-centered. The media blamed the dispute on “creative differences,” but it was more than that. It was a disagreement about a question that now looms large in every corner of the U.S. entertainment industry: which audience is more important, the domestic American one, or the increasingly lucrative global one? As the Wall Street Journal explains, the two have different priorities:
[P]rocedurals are more popular overseas than serialized programs and are easier to sell. That is, in large part, because individual episodes stand on their own and don’t have to be viewed as part of a bigger story. That helps procedural shows do better in repeats than serialized dramas. Plus, the simple plots in procedurals tend to travel better than the often over-the-top, American-centric story lines that dominate prime-time soaps.
Occasionally referred to as the “prime-time soap” because it was pioneered in the 1980s with Dallas and Dynasty, the serialized drama reached maturity with shows like The Sopranos and is now the most sophisticated genre in American television. Linguistically sophisticated, culturally nuanced, weaving multiple storylines together over multiple seasons, the serialized drama is often compared to the novel. And like the novel, it is best consumed in large chunks. Thus, many Americans now “binge watch” serialized dramas, on either DVD or streaming video. But this pattern of viewing has yet to take hold overseas, where people still tune in weekly to their favorite shows, a pattern that favors the self-contained, interchangeable episodes of the procedural. Hence executive producer Goldberg’s wry observation that, rather than green-light anything original, the networks ask, “Why not do CSI Tel Aviv?… Or, you know, Law & Order Pittsburgh”?
As this comment suggests, procedurals travel well because they follow the same formula regardless of setting. The same is true of other globally successful American entertainment: along with being generic and predictable, it requires no particular linguistic or cultural understanding. Put another way, such entertainment is not “too American” to be shown overseas—or to be imitated by foreign entertainment industries, including those in authoritarian countries where all the media are effectively controlled by the state. Interestingly, this cannot really be said of the procedural. Whether legal or medical, this genre is about doing things the right way, according to the proper procedure. In the legal procedural, this means judging every case according to a very American understanding of due process. Hence, the hidden virtue of a program like Law & Order is that it teaches viewers in China, Russia, Iran, and other repressive countries what it means to have rights under the rule of law. No one is seriously pitching a show called Law & Order Moscow.
There’s a similar hidden virtue in Blue Bloods. The device of making New York appear a Reagan fiefdom speaks to a salient problem in the post-Cold War world. Despite widespread cynicism, democracy is still the form of government aspired to by most of the world’s people. But to realize that aspiration, it is necessary to transcend the loyalties of family, kinship, and tribe. That aspiration is reinforced every time a foreign viewer hears one Reagan say to another, “I know you want me to bend the rules for you, but I can’t do that. I’ve got to do my job.”
The Current Crisis
It is all the more disappointing, then, to see Blue Bloods do such a poor job of illuminating the current crisis of law enforcement in America. This crisis’s most glaring indicator is the rate of incarceration. As of June 2014, the United States had the second highest in the world (behind the tiny island nation of Seychelles), with 716 inmates per 100,000 population, far higher than Russia’s rate of 490. America also has the largest absolute number of inmates: 2.2 million, far more than China’s 1.6 million.
Painful to report, the main reason why this issue has not been on the political front burner is that 40% of incarcerated persons in the United States are black, even though African Americans make up only 13% of the total U.S. population. A huge number were sentenced for drug-related offenses, such as trafficking and possession. But instead of diminishing the nation’s drug problem, current drug laws and modes of enforcement have hollowed out entire neighborhoods and placed the drug trade at the center of local economies.
The good news (there isn’t much) is that this crisis seems to be one of the few that can conceivably draw liberals and conservatives together. In recent years there has emerged an imperfect but potentially effective consensus on the need to reduce the alarming cost, both fiscal and human, of so much incarceration. There is also broad agreement on the need for more and better policing, guided by a recognition of certain hard facts, including racial bias and the “blue wall of silence” among police; and the grotesquely high murder rates among low-income blacks. (According to FBI crime statistics, African Americans now account for 25.5% of New York City’s population, 70% of its shooting arrests, and 73.9% of its shooting victims.)
The best TV treatment of this national crisis is still The Wire, a serialized drama created for HBO back in 2002 by Baltimore crime reporter David Simon. During its first season, Simon’s show offered a stark, naturalistic portrait of the ravages of the drug trade in that city. It also boasted a rich array of three-dimensional black characters: reluctant gang leader D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard, Jr.), entrepreneurial hit man Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), former addict and police informer Bubbles (Andre Royo), lesbian detective Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), tightly wound deputy police commissioner Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), and, most poignantly, sweet-natured 16-year-old dealer Wallace (Michael B. Jordan), whose violent death serves as the season’s tragic denouement.
Unfortunately, The Wire is so rich in black characters, and so relentless in its probing of the connection between crime in low places and corruption in high places (including the Baltimore political establishment), it never attracted a huge domestic audience, much less a foreign one. One of the most highly acclaimed serialized dramas, it has a robust following in secondary U.S. markets (DVD and streaming video). But to make it to these secondary markets, a program must first succeed in the primary one. And as Simon commented recently, “I’m not sure The Wire could survive now. The stakes are higher for HBO.”
Whitewashed for Export?
If by “higher stakes” Simon means the global TV market, then this is dispiriting news for American popular culture and its ability to grapple with American problems. Much as we might admire Blue Bloods for reminding us what good policing looks like, its conformity to the procedural formula hampers its ability to connect that vision of good policing to the harsh realities of the underlying crisis.
Here’s an example: Season 4 of Blue Bloods includes an episode about an angry husband being arrested during a domestic dispute, then dying from an illegal chokehold while in custody. Used for many years by American police, the chokehold has a racially charged history. In 1982, after a high proportion of African Americans had died during police chokeholds in Los Angeles, that city’s police chief, Daryl Gates, ordered a study of whether this “valuable tool” was more harmful to blacks than to whites. That might have been tolerated—indeed, some black leaders had been making that very claim. But then Chief Gates put his foot in it, suggesting to the media that when the chokehold is applied to “some blacks,…the veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people” (emphasis added).
It’s hard to imagine that the Blue Bloods writers didn’t know this history. But if they didn’t, they had ample opportunity to learn about it when, three months after their episode aired, a resident of Staten Island named Eric Garner met a similar death at the hands of police who had stopped him for selling non-taxed cigarettes. Yet consider the differences between the Eric Garner case and the way Blue Bloods dealt with the issue: Garner was black, and the officer accused of choking him, Daniel Pantaleo, was white; and although Pantaleo had been sued several times for misconduct, he was not indicted for Garner’s death. In Blue Bloods, the victim of the chokehold is white, and although the white cop who chokes him is not indicted either, justice is nonetheless served—because two Reagans, Erin and Frank, intervene to expose the cop’s violent past and make sure he gets fired.
I mentioned that the classic procedural, Law & Order, is unrealistic in concluding every homicide case with a full-blown jury trial. Related to this is another unrealistic aspect, namely, that the vast majority of characters convicted of murder on this classic procedural are white, and sufficiently wealthy to be able to afford good defense lawyers. Given the huge popularity of Law & Order in foreign markets, are we to assume that to succeed overseas it is not enough to be a procedural—that a program must also avoid having too many black characters, or delve too deeply into the fraught subject of race?
During the first four seasons of Blue Bloods, the only black faces to appear for more than a brief cameo are Mayor Carter Poole (David Ramsey), a Yale grad whose liberal views don’t mesh with Frank’s conservative instincts; and the Reverend Darnell Potter (Ato Essandoh), an opportunist and demagogue clearly modeled on Al Sharpton. To those of us who have grown weary of Sharpton-style “leadership,” it is gratifying to see Frank go mano à mano with Potter and win. But given the depth of hostility now existing between police and low-income African Americans, it is not enough to have Frank score debating points against Potter whenever the latter rants about the NYPD being “an occupying army” and himself the leader of the “resistance.” The language may be ill chosen, but the reality is not so easily dismissed. If liberals and conservatives agree on anything, it is that policing goes from bad to worse when there is not even a modicum of trust between officers and law-abiding residents.
The obvious way to dramatize this need would be to have Jamie and his female partner, the attractive, feisty Eddie Janko (Vanessa Ray), stop bouncing from borough to borough and start seriously patrolling a single tough neighborhood. But this isn’t likely to happen, because the space allotted to Jamie and Eddie is largely taken up with a cute cop-meets-cop flirtation that, in keeping with the most clichéd of all TV formulas, is designed to keep us guessing, Will they or won’t they?
Quick and Easy Resolutions
In the recently ended season 5, there were some attempts at greater realism. In one episode, a black suspect is seriously injured during a stop-and-frisk. The officer in question is wearing a body camera, but because it quits at the crucial moment, he is accused of turning it off. As it happens, the incident is captured on video by a local woman, watching from the window of her beauty parlor. There’s a powerful scene in which Frank meets with the woman, and she confronts him with the objections many black New Yorkers have to stop-and-frisk: “My law-abiding sons feel falsely accused every time they walk down the street!”
But here, too, Blue Bloods is evasive. As Frank reminds the woman, the officer in question is a black man like her sons, and like them, he grew up in that neighborhood with a clean record and respect for the law. Not only that, but in the end, the woman’s video exonerates the officer. A nice resolution, but what about all the officers, white and black, who are not exonerated by a video? What about all the young people who do not have a clean record or much respect for the law, but who do not deserve to be manhandled by police? And what about all the incidents in which someone is hurt or killed, but there is no dispositive evidence to stop the bitter accusations and counter-accusations?
If Blue Bloods is renewed for a sixth season (and the betting is that it will be), then perhaps it can summon the confidence to tackle these questions. I hope so, if only because of the solid instincts it has brought to bear on the questions it does tackle. But to move in this direction, the writers will have to introduce some longer story lines—and that means moving away from the procedural and toward the serialized drama.
The point is borne out by two examples from Season 5: the episode in which Danny is required to mentor a black teenage girl with major attitude; and the two-part season finale, in which a beloved senior officer and his wife—both African Americans devoted to helping troubled youth—are gunned down by a stone-hearted gang leader. Both of these storylines are promising, but in keeping with the iron law of the procedural, they are resolved far too quickly. The teenager’s attitude is transformed in one episode, which strains credulity. And the gang murder is resolved in two episodes, which is not enough time for us care about it either way.
Of course, none of this matters if American popular culture is just a widget manufactured to make money at home and abroad. But perhaps we ought to think twice before allowing it to be so cheapened.