As I write this column, it is Sunday afternoon and I am staring at the recorded contents of the digital cable box shared by my roommates and I. It is 85 percent full. Among the programs saved for eventual viewing: Veep, HBO’s great new political satire helmed by the brilliant writer-director Armando Iannucci; Frozen Planet, the latest nature-doc series from the makers of Planet Earth, featuring the hilariously gruff narration of Alec Baldwin; and a handful of random edited-for-TV action movies starring Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and Jean-Claude Van Damme. (We are nothing if not a House of Dudes.) Taking up more space than anything else, however, is a folder containing about two-dozen episodes of COPS.
Yes, that COPS. You might know it as the show “filmed on location with the men and women of laaaaawwwww enforcement.” It premiered in 1989, long before the term “reality television” had any meaning and predating, by four years, the debut of The Real World, largely considered the first modern reality TV show. You probably had no idea it was still on the air, or that anyone still watched it at all, let alone cared enough to set up a Series Record for it on their DVR.
Our friends are a bit puzzled by our house’s COPS obsession. They see the show as aggrandizing America’s police force, conveniently sidestepping the pervasive issues of brutality and corruption, and exploiting drug addicts and the desperately impoverished for entertainment.
All those arguments are valid. None of them matter, though.
Look, I’m no police booster. I agree that cops are in a position of great authority and need to be observed with the same scrutiny as politicians, and that COPS is akin to having a verité series on elected officials that only shows the handshaking and baby-kissing. But after 20-plus years, a show folds into the fabric of the TV landscape, and its existence just is. Like The Simpsons or Saturday Night Live, COPS is basically sheltered against criticism at this point, and I watch with total detachment. It isn’t necessarily good or bad entertainment, it’s just entertainment. Lowest common denominator entertainment, maybe, but what else do you want from the TV on a hungover Sunday?
And there’s something oddly comforting about a show that hasn’t changed in more than two decades, even if that show regularly tases its subjects. Other than switching to shooting on high-def digital video, COPS looks exactly the same as it did when it premiered: same logo, same voiceover, same legendary theme song. Heck, even the cities it’s filmed in hardly appear different, which says something about America’s flyover country. With the fleeting nature of network programming lineups, to know that you can always count on one show to be airing somewhere in the world is an incredibly secure feeling. Proving that point, rumors spread this week of an upcoming housecleaning at NBC that’ll purge the network of critically beloved, criminally low-rated comedies 30 Rock, Community and Parks and Rec. Television is ephemeral. COPS is forever.
I Need Media is a biweekly media column. Matthew Singer watches everything from PBS documentaries to Community and Showtime’s Gigolos, but mostly he’s just filling the void until Breaking Bad starts again. Follow him on Twitter @mpsinger.