‘Shield’s’ exit alters cop dramas

Female viewers influencing genre's evolution

Changing demographics are taking aim at the down-and-dirty dynamics of the copshow.

There are more series than ever dealing with crime-fighting — shows like Dick Wolf’s long-running “Law and Order” franchise, forensics-oriented “CSI,” quirky character-based “Dexter” and “Monk” and cops-with-a-twist “The Mentalist,” “Saving Grace” and the sci-fi tinged “Life on Mars.” But those shows don’t often touch on the violent and dirty underworld inhabited by HBO’s brilliant-but-underloved “The Wire” and FX’s “The Shield,” which airs its last episode Nov. 25, and may well take with it the common criminals of the street and the beat cops who bash them.

Viewers are left, then, with a panoply of series all dealing with law enforcement, which represent such a broad evolution (devolution?) from the genre’s foundation that the center’s been hollowed out; there’s a lot less cop in today’s cop drama.

“All these newer shows are cross-generic,” says Kevin Sandler, assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State U. “In people’s mind, ‘copshow’ suggests something old, something male.”

Indeed for over the past 10 years, straight policiers have been a tough sell, with shows like Steven Bochco’s “Brooklyn South,” UPN’s “The Beat” and Fox’s “K-Ville” all failing to find an audience.

Another reason for the drift is the networks’ doting on female viewers, who tend to shy away from rough language and shoot-’em-ups. “Blow it up for the men, and make it a mystery with a little bit of humanity in it for the women,” cracks TV historian Tim Brooks. “You still have your heroic crimesolvers, your Gil Grissoms, but they’re using their box of tricks rather than their muscle.”

CBS Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler agrees: “Women love the way a mystery unfolds, the way a case is solved, the way a character thinks and analyzes and so on. They love to solve puzzles.”

Clearly, one way to attract those viewers is to put more women on the screen. Although the female-led crime drama is far from a new phenom — Angie Dickinson’s Pepper Anderson was a feminist icon in the Peacock’s ’70s staple “Police Woman,” and CBS’ “Cagney and Lacey” was a Nielsen champ and Emmy magnet during the ’80s — their ranks have exploded in recent years.

TNT has flourished with the Kyra Sedgwick starrer “The Closer” and Holly Hunter’s showcase, “Saving Grace,” the audience for both of which is 65% female. Says the net’s programming chief, Michael Wright, “A lot of hour drama is discovered by female viewers, so it almost seems silly that there wouldn’t be a preponderance of female leads.”

But if women are preponderant on modern law-enforcement dramas, the urban underclass — a fixture in boilerplate copshows like “The Shield” and “The Wire” — is fairly invisible. Today’s gumshoes pore over corpses in environs more akin to “The Hills” than “Hill Street Blues” and are outfitted with clothing budgets that would make Sarah Palin blush.

“These days, everybody’s looking for the missing tiara, nobody’s interested in looking at real life,” notes Tom Fontana, an executive producer of “Homicide” and creator of HBO’s prison drama “Oz.” “You’ve got these stories where the key to the case is in a fingernail examined under a microscope with the lab bathed in blue light.”

Tassler acknowledges a cerebralization of the copshow but offers a defense: “Do we not have to look at not only the evolution of the genre but the evolution of police work as well? With more technical tools and techniques, doesn’t that have to be incorporated in the process?”

Unfortunately, that often has the effect of obscuring reality. “There’s plenty of blood on something like ‘CSI,’ ” Fontana observes, “but we don’t see the violence and the damage that’s behind these crimes.”

Bochco, whose “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue” were watershed creations that introduced flawed heroes set against a warts-and-all urban backdrop, agrees, noting that with technical advancement comes a sense of detachment. “It’s like you’re watching television with an eyepatch,” he says.

CBS is mulling a revival ’70s stalwarts “Hawaii 5-0” and “The Streets of San Francisco, but it seems driven more by a desire to pander to Baby Boomer nostalgia than a taste for urban-crime verite.

A number of factors would seem to complicate a return to more action-driven cop hours.

  • Such hours tend to have an older median age, which puts off advertisers.

  • Legions of potential male viewers are getting their fix of urban mayhem from vidgames like “Grand Theft Auto” (a reported half-billion dollars in sales).

  • And times are tough for a network to mount envelope-pushing, action-driven primetime fare.

“It just gets more and more expensive to do these things in a fracturing marketplace when ratings are down,” Bochco says.

But with FX developing “Staten Island,” a drama about a police chief in Gotham’s forgotten borough, and HBO recently wrapping production on David Milch’s “Last of the Ninth,” a 1970s-era skein about corruption in the NYPD, it’s clear that not every part of the TV landscape is willing to close the book on the harder side of the cop genre.

“The real gritty, cutting-edge police dramas are going to pick up where ‘The Shield’ left off,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “And that will be on either basic or pay cable.”

Somewhere, Vic Mackey is smiling.

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