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It is, of course, possible to use crime stories to take a deeper look into human motives and conditions; that's the difference between NBC's Law & Order and Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. But cop shows that do that--like complex, character-based dramas generally--are on cable. FX's The Shield--about politics, corruption and nobility in a dangerous L.A. precinct--has its share of grisly, surprise-twist murder investigations, but above all, it's a multifaceted story about how we want (as opposed to how we claim we want) police to use power at a time of anxiety. Last season's story line about a male police captain who is raped on the job--and deals with his shame and rage afterward--was more intriguing than any network story arc last year, and would have been impossible to tell in 44 neat minutes on a procedural, even if it had made it past the network censors.
On HBO, meanwhile, the best cop drama--the best drama, period--now on TV, The Wire (currently airing its third season) is essentially the anti-CSI. Each season--set in the drug-flooded inner city of Baltimore, Md.--deals with a single investigation, solved or unsolved, not with technical wizardry but through stakeouts, wiretaps and paperwork. It ties together a staggering array of characters--jaded detectives, career-climbing captains, ambitious city councilmen, aimless corner kids, junkies, union bosses, drug lords--all with distinctive voices, humanity and dignity. Executive producer David Simon, a former Baltimore crime reporter, says the series is only nominally a cop show but rather a story about "how the working class has been betrayed" and how institutions--from companies to police departments to gangs--fail the little guy. "I wanted to make a show," he says, "where in the beginning people wonder if the cops will catch the bad guy but by the end of a season start to wonder what a bad guy is and whether it matters at all whether you catch him or not."
It's also one of only a few TV dramas with numerous intriguing, well-fleshed-out black and poor characters. "One of the problems with the American cop show is that we have demonized the underclass and made them out to be subhuman," says Simon.
The Wire is more explicitly political than one could fairly expect a mainstream network show, which needs a bigger audience, to be. The current season questions, among other things, whether enforcing drug laws does any good. But cop shows--which, coincidentally or not, multiplied after 9/11--inevitably play off the anxieties of the day. L&O creator Wolf has said that his series benefited from more conservative attitudes toward crime--the very title recalls Nixon's '68 campaign. Then again, in an L&O episode last season, Orbach and Jesse L. Martin traded cracks about the war in Iraq, with Martin's character saying Bush had "lied to us."