Articles Modest Proposals Television

Caught in the Act – Reality TV

Thursday, September 18, 1997

You switch on the TV to see a camera follow a policeman as he chases down a corridor and kicks in a door.

‘LAPD! Stay where you are!’ he bellows, as the flashlights play around the room.

Is this real drama or is this drama real? It’s hard to tell, until you see that the suspect’s face is pixellated out – it must be real.

I’ve had lots of detailed comments from readers on the subject of tv cop shows of both a fictional and a real-life nature, and so this week, I’ll leave most of the talking to you all.

The almost anonymous ‘rlittler’ from the UK gives us the British perspective on the shift from fiction through re-enactment of real crimes, to the showing of real police work:

‘Crimewatch UK was one of the first shows to smudge the boundary between fact and fiction with its reenactments of real life crimes – in my mind an insane cocktail for a nation of television watchers who write to characters in Coronation Street, unable to distinguish between character and actor. (An actor friend of mine who appeared in a Crimewatch reconstruction as a rapist was beaten in the street after one broadcast.)

‘Now, with Murder Squad and Police, Stop! et al we have spurned the reenactment for the actual crime itself.

‘Of course, the relevant production companies will deny any charges that their programmes are intended to either amuse or shock with gratuity. .  . [but] whatever the intention of the programmers . . . can the ultimate question be pointed only at ourselves?

‘Are we enraptured by seeing a police chase through the streets? Are we glued to the screen when the graphic account of a murder is outlined?’

This question of our own complicity is very valid. Why do we watch this stuff, and what might we be getting out of this voyeuristic experience?  Teddi Dempner from Lincoln, California has some blunt ideas:

‘. . . these “real life” shows indicate to me that America is growing numb to the “pretend violence” of movies and TV shows and they want to see REAL violence. I feel like we’re moving towards shows that will be the modern version of the ancient Roman gladiators – people must REALLY be dying before our eyes before our bloodlust is satisfied – these actors pretending to die just isn’t enough.’

Jennifer McAllister from South Carolina raises some interesting questions on our expectations of the police as a result of this confusion of fact and fiction:

‘As the adult daughter of a policeman, let me join all of the other families of the men and women who actually are law enforcement officers in crying out:  “Please, no more cop shows.”

‘. . . Despite the fact that society tries to teach children that police are our friends and are trying to protect us, it’s hard to convince anyone that real police are not always the hard drinking, hard loving, trash-talking bullies portrayed on tv.

‘My 3 year-old nephew expressed it best.  Due to even his overexposure to TV law enforcement, he just can’t be made to believe that his granddaddy is a policeman. After all, how can he be a real policeman if he didn’t shoot anyone at work last night?

It might be argued that the real life cop shows redress the balance, showing us how the police really are. But what we’re given is carefully-edited highlights and excitement (chases and nocturnal raids) rather than balanced journalism.

There’s always been a certain celebrity to being on either side of the glamorous cops vs robbers divide, it’s just that now you don’t have to wait to be played by Warren Beatty – you can be caught in the act yourself (so to speak).

Maybe, as a result, we won’t need the fiction any more. But with real crims and cops knowing they’re going to be on TV, the fiction must have an influence on the fact. Picture policemen practice in front of mirrors, saying ‘Go ahead, make my day,’ and hoods rehearsing their Oscar acceptance speeches.

On the one hand, this is classic postmodernity – it hasn’t happened until it’s been on tv, and we’re consumers before we’re citizens.

But while real life is dished up as entertainment, and entertainment affects the way we see real life, the result could be criminal.

How a country polices itself is a valuable marker of its maturity and well-being, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get a clear picture of what’s actually happening – the truth is being pixellated out. 

(First published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 18th September 1997)