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The Ugly Schadenfreude of ‘Cops’

America’s long-running reality TV show has been canceled. What can we learn from its life and death?

Tori Leventhal Jun 17

I don’t often talk about my childhood, mainly because it was weird, a little sad, and generally hard to explain. 

I grew up in one of the numerous and indistinguishable small cities of the Rust Belt in upstate New York. I was raised by my mother, a school guidance counselor whose marriage to my dad was over when I was still in diapers. During an interlude in the nineties, spanning most of my elementary school years, my mother married a second time, this time to a car mechanic I’m going to call Jim. 

‘Cops’ laid the blueprints for what much of reality TV would ultimately become, a chance to laugh and jeer at the misfortunes of working and poor people.

Jim was born and raised in blue-collar Springfield, Ohio. When he met my mother, Jim had been living in a mobile home at the edge of our upstate town. He had barely completed high school back in Springfield and never made it to college. A family predisposition to heart disease and an intractable smoking addiction left him in poor health, despite being barely thirty. Jim was also a single father with sole custody of his two young daughters. He was an affable guy who loved snowmobiling, cheap beer and country music, and, despite their differences, my mom was smitten. 

Their marriage lasted about 5 years and was dominated by stress and precarity. Early on, Jim sustained a back injury while working as a bus mechanic. The chronic pain left him unemployed and he never really found his footing again. My mother kept our family of five afloat on her public school salary. We survived on bulk food from BJs and layaway clothes from JCPenney. At some point, it became clear that our blended family was never going to actually blend and my mom filed for divorce.

The last time we spoke to Jim and his daughters was the day they moved out of our house, their truck loaded with furniture, everyone avoiding eye contact. They were headed back to Springfield (a place described painfully in a 2010 Gallup poll as “the saddest city in America”). And that was it. As far as we know, they never came back to town.

When I think back on those years, what I mainly remember is Jim sitting on his recliner, watching reruns of Cops — the unscripted ride-along reality crime show that was recently canceled in light of the national uprisings against police brutality. 

Cops ran for more than 30 years — 25 of those years on Fox, until the civil rights group Color of Change pressured the network to drop the show. In 2013 it was picked up by Spike TV and the Paramount Network, but the premise of the show has remained more or less unchanged. 

In short, Cops depicted a heavily-edited reality in which almost-always white, paternalistic, clear-thinking police officers work to subdue and discipline the almost-always black, almost-always poor folks caught on camera. Through the show’s vignettes, viewers got the opportunity to see inside crack houses as uniformed officers laid siege and rounded up the alleged offenders. Viewers rode along as cops gave chase to drivers of stolen vehicles, responded to domestic violence calls or settled drug-addled disputes. 

For Jim and the 8 million other people who tuned into Cops in the nineties, watching was pure schadenfreude. As shitty as it might be to be a white, out-of-work, blue-collar laborer in upstate New York, it was objectively worse to be a black, out-of-work, blue-collar laborer in Philly or Houston with your pain memorialized via national broadcast. 

Guys like my stepfather, and a lot of the folks in my hometown, saw careers in law enforcement and or as prison guards as the ultimate advancement — a middle-class salary, benefits, retirement. It was intoxicating to buy into the dream of authority, of stability, of vanquishing the bad guys and preserving order. If you think life is a zero-sum game, you want to be the one with a badge and the gun. 

Cops laid the blueprints for what much of reality TV would ultimately become, a chance to laugh and jeer at the misfortunes and mental health woes of working and poor people. If you need convincing, just spend some time in front of the cable network TLC, where you have the opportunity to gaze in horror at serial hoarders, the severely obese, obsessive coupon clippers and women in abusive marriages. Cops may not have been quite as over-the-top as these later reality shows in its embrace of spectacle, but the world it depicted was a damaging lie. 

When I heard of Cops’ cancellation last week, I checked out the show’s YouTube channel, which has nearly 400,000 subscribers. One clip I watched, which aired last October, depicts a car chase in Pinellas County, Florida. In the clip, a young African American man is spotted speeding. A chase ensues and, after returning home to a housing complex, the young man presents himself for arrest — hands up, stony-faced, compliant. He is immediately pinned to the ground and handcuffed as an angry German Shepherd lunges and barks at him. 

Excessive force is par for the course on Cops

It turns out the young man fled because he was driving without a valid license. When the arresting officer asks the young man why he went inside his house, he explains, “I wanted to tell my grandma I’m sorry for what I’ve done.”

If this clip is heartbreaking, even poignant, others are downright depressing. Episodes from the last few years seem to feature more poor whites than earlier iterations of the show, as I remember it. There’s lots of meth-making and taking, family violence and booze-induced domestic disputes. The schadenfreude is still there, it just looks a little whiter.   

There’s a certain horrible moment at the end of every Cops vignette, in which the accused realize their lives are probably ruined, either from the prospect of actual criminal charges and thus entrapment in the justice system or because of the embarrassment and degradation of having all this misery filmed for millions to watch. Although Cops has alleged that it obtains consent from anyone who appears on the program, that seems a pretty dubious claim. Honestly, how many people would freely consent to their humiliation being broadcast? If you did happen to be charged and tried, how could you possibly receive a fair trial? 

Cops turned the pain of black and brown and poor people into spectacle. It normalized, even valorized, racial profiling and other forms of police violence. It’s certainly appropriate to lay the program to rest. My initial response to the news of its cancellation was how was it even still on? 

Predictably, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi’s liberal majority think these sorts of changes — ridding the networks of racist TV shows, removing Confederate monuments, elevating more black women to positions of power — will be sufficient to quell the demands of protesters seeking to abolish white supremacy. They shouldn’t. 

Don’t get me wrong, better racial representation across institutions, fewer violently racist images or language circulating in the popular consciousness — these are welcome developments. But in the broader socioeconomic context ignited by COVID-19 and the gruesome murders of unarmed African Americans, the tweaks we hear coming from mainstream liberal politicians sound weak and clueless. 

Black communities will still be vulnerable to state violence and rampant inequality, while the United States as a whole will face continued assaults on public health, safety and democracy. 

The policies that can transform and heal American society — universal healthcare and housing, a robust jobs program, vastly increased worker protections, affordable care across the birth-to-death lifespan — transcend race and class. With everyone’s essential needs met, the fiction that has sustained American capitalism for so long — the idea that the interests of working-class whites and blacks are necessarily opposed — must be exposed for the lie it is. 

Jim, his daughters and the rest of the white working-class have been scorned and largely ignored by the liberal Dems and swindled by the party of Trump. They’re hurting right now, too, as they face staggering unemployment, lack of access to quality healthcare and unprecedented levels of drug and alcohol abuse. Case in point: Kentucky has seen a 50 percent increase in drug fatalities during the COVID pandemic compared to the same period the previous year. Don’t be sure they won’t come out and vote for the incumbent. 

Until the American public agitates for — and wins — a dramatic divestment from police and prisons, and a reinvestment in the public health and well-being in communities across the nation, we’ll need to be out in the streets, demanding it.

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