One of the more fascinating and influential shows on television is Cops, filmed on location in cities around the United States showing the activities of cops on the beat. For twenty-three years the show has dealt with low-level crime on a consistent week-in, week-out basis. Given that this is one of the more quirky and distinctive shows on television, it would be worthwhile to discuss a few elements of its distinctiveness–its music, its locations, its perspective on criminal behavior, and its influence in reality television.
The theme song for Cops is “Bad Boys” from the Jamaican reggae group Inner Circle, a song released in 1987, the biggest US hit for the group (a top 10 single), and one of a handful of singles in this band’s lengthy career that has extended from 1968 to today and even included a duet with contemporary rapper Flo Rida  (one of my personal favorites–check out the video for “Right Round” to find out why). As the song is one of the few bits of sound editing for the show as a whole, which has a very “live” feel to it, hopefully Inner Circle has received plenty of royalties for the use of this most excellent and appropriate theme song.
Cops is filmed in a variety of locations, as it started with Broward County (Florida), Portland, Oregon, and Tacoma, Washington. However, despite the fact that the series has been popular with the police departments of many areas (including Hillsborough County, Florida), there are some cities that apparently are not as fond of the show. According to wikipedia, the police departments of Austin, Texas, Chicago, Illinois, Louisville, Kentucky, St. Louis, Missouri, Detroit, Michigan, Orlando, Florida, Honolulu, Hawaii, San Jose, California, and Fairfax County, Virginia have all refused to let the show televise their police departments .
A Controversial Perspective
Despite the immense appeal of Cops, its perspective on low-level crime and the beat has drawn criticism. The crimes and criminals dealt with in the show are usually low-rent sort of issues like causing a public disturbance in a Sonny’s Pit Bar-B-Que restaurant, or domestic violence, soliciting a prostitute, or drug busts. Some people have complained that the show tends to trivialize white collar crime and provide a skewed perspective of crime as a low-income phenomenon. Others have exploited the foolish nature of many of the criminals for their own entertainment purposes, like Comedy Central’s Reno 911! show . Nonetheless, despite the controversy the show has remained popular for over twenty years and almost 1000 episodes, and has remained on Fox longer than even The Simpsons.
If there were a Hall of Fame for television shows, this show would be well deserving of a spot. Cops is one of the pioneers of reality television, starting before the genre became “cool,” and providing a way for an unscripted program to develop a large and consistent audience at minimal cost to the network. The presence of a writer’s strike at the beginning of its run helped it be accepted, and the rise of unscripted television (the bane of many a television writer’s existence) can be based at least in part on this television show and its success, which has inspired many imitators and has even served to help educate major players in television, from MTV President Brian Graden to Amazing Race co-creator Bertram Van Munster .
All in all, Cops has proven to be an enduring, influential, and popular television show, despite (or maybe because of) its kitschy elements. Cops has proven influential in setting a path for unscripted reality television and has also provided a ground-level view of cops on the beat and downmarket criminal behavior that is rather cringe-inducing. As long as this show is on television, criminals all over the United States have reason to fear the loss of their dignity and freedom, for the low price of ten minutes of notoriety.