TV UK, 13 March

The American cop show is much better than the White House at asserting global hegemony.

Dolan Cummings

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Topics Politics

There is actually a lot of good stuff on TV just now. Channel 4 has got round to screening both The Sopranos and The West Wing, so finally I am able to pick up where I left off when the secret police took my satellite dish.

Channel 4 also has NYPD Blue, and the BBC is showing the second season of 24 (this time the title seems to refer to the number of blondes in the show). Meanwhile Channel 5 has Law and Order, CSI and CSI Miami, and the impressive new cop show Boomtown.

If America really is committed to taking over the world, perhaps it should stick to TV, where it is infinitely more self-assured than it is in geopolitics. There are two presidents in the clutch of programmes named above, neither of whom resembles George W Bush in the slightest. Both are strong, decisive and committed. They personify virtues that Americans hold dear, and yet which are conspicuously absent from American public life.

This paradox is recognised in the dramas. 24’s black President Palmer is the target of some sort of right-wing conspiracy (I’m guessing, but don’t tell me, American amigos), while the campaign against the liberal President Bartlet has spilled over into the real world, with some viewers objecting to actor Martin Sheen’s anti-war stance. The war is supposed to be about upholding American values, but if American TV tells us anything, it’s that those values are controversial, and especially in practice.

A Russian mobster complained the other week on Boomtown that Americans glamorise the mafia on TV, and then get morally outraged when they see one in real life. Meanwhile James Gandolfini, the actor who plays Tony Soprano, is in the midst of a legal battle with the programme’s production company over his salary, litigation being the moral reverse of gangsterism: culturally derided but embraced in practice.

Americans and British satellite viewers will no doubt fondly remember the Columbus Day episode of The Sopranos, which is about to hit Channel 4. The crew takes offence at a native American campaign portraying Columbus as a genocidal imperialist, and protests in turn that this is anti-Italian racism. (The only dissident is Furio, an actual Italian who, coming from Napoli, doesn’t think so much of the Genovese show-off.)

It is testament to America’s greatness that it is able to take its own cultural uncertainty, turn it into a cultural product, and export it to the world. (It’s when they turn the same cultural uncertainty into politics that things go wrong.) The skill of American drama-producers is paradoxically evident in Crime and Punishment (Channel 5, Tuesdays at 8pm), in which the cameras follow real-life criminal cases in San Diego.

The series was created by Dick Wolf, who is also responsible for the drama Law and Order, and if nothing else, Crime and Punishment shows what an achievement it is of Law and Order to make prosecutors seem sympathetic. These real-life ADAs are impossible to like. As a juror I’d be inclined to let any villain go rather than give these people the satisfaction of a conviction.

One thing that is clear from the current crop is that the cop show has held on to its televisual hegemony with impressive tenacity, forming strategic alliances with other crime-related dramas where appropriate, but firmly retaining its own values. Whatever happens in the real world, the primacy of the cop show looks to be unchallengable for some time to come.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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