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Copaganda and why ‘Private Eye’ needs to make a comeback

Copaganda and why ‘Private Eye’ needs to make a comeback

Copaganda and why ‘Private Eye’ needs to make a comeback
July 27
12:45 2020

In Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 postmodern hardboiled detective novel, “Inherent Vice,” the protagonist “Doc” Sportello takes a moment to lament with a friend over the declining dominance of the private eye in popular culture in favor of police officers.

“‘Cause PIs are doomed, man,” Doc continuing his earlier thought, “you could’ve seen it coming for years, in the movies, on the tube. Once there was all these great old PIs – Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, the shamus of shamus Johnny Staccato, always smarter and more professional than the cops, always end up solving the crime while the cops are following the wrong leads and getting in the way […] But, nowadays the tube is saturated with[…] cop shows, just being regular guys, only trying to do their job, folks, no more threat to nobody’s freedom than some dad in a sitcom. Right. Get the viewer population so cop-happy they’re begging to be run-in. Good-bye Johnny Staccato, welcome and while you’re at it please kick my door down, Steve McGarrett. Meantime out here in the real world, most of us private flatfoots can’t even make rent.”

“Vice” is set in 1970, and in the half-century since then, cop dramas have oversaturated television, film, literature and just about every other medium in the entertainment landscape. “Law & Order,” “Criminal Minds,” “CSI,” the list goes on, and then there’s the long-running solo series like “Blue Bloods.” Law & Order” in particular has threads and characters overlapping across so many other shows not even under the franchise branding, like “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “FBI” and “Chicago PD.”

We’ve overdosed on cop shows and while it’s been a problem for a long time, people have taken notice of the deluge in the wake of George Floyd’s death and hundreds upon hundreds of recorded acts of police brutality against protestors, in spite of so-called “reforms.” And in the case of reality shows like “Live PD,” the police are able to look over footage and request any footage of them committing unjustified violence destroyed.

Many have come to recognize cop dramas as part of “copaganda,” which is used to instill sympathetic perceptions of the police in the public, regardless of the reality at large.

With so much entertainment dedicated to the viewpoints and lionization of institutions shown to be quick to resort to violence, it’s time to rethink the modern crime drama and rehire the forebears of crime dramas – the private eye.

Instead of abusive, cowboy cops like Elliot Stabler from “SVU” or Danny Reagan from “Blue Bloods,” gumshoes like Philip Marlowe or Easy Rawlins deserve more screentime. Detectives with cynical personalities who try to find whatever forms of justice and closure they can for innocents burdened by an uncaring, often corrupt police department.

When it comes to more disturbing or socially conscious stories, the private eye enjoys a major advantage over the police – they’re not apart of an institution often responsible for enforcing the issue that exists in the first place. In the case of Easy Rawlins, his perspective as a working-class Black private investigator puts him at odds with not only the LAPD but other social and government institutions, such as the FBI, recontextualizing them through their historical role in oppression and surveillance of Black communities. While Marlowe often clashed and spoke with the police, he implicitly didn’t trust them and often rightfully so – he often encountered brutality and harassment from both the LAPD and the fictional Bay City Police Department.

Both examples have been adapted with success – Philip Marlowe has been adapted for nearly a dozen films and two tv shows to mostly acclaim, while Denzel Washington stepped into Rawlins’s shoes for the 1995 adaptation of “Devil in a Blue Dress.” Recent examples include HBO’s “Perry Mason” origin miniseries starring Matthew Rhys and the cozy-subversion “Knives Out” from last year.

Social issues have played a large role in some of the best private eye stories.  Shows like “Veronica Mars” and “Jessica Jones” both touch on misogyny and surviving assault in an apathetic society, “The Alienist” takes on class warfare and gender identity and “Gone Baby Gone” confronts societal taboos regarding parenting and abused children. In most of these, cops are even involved in the coverups and perpetration of the injustices in the first place.

While some cop shows, such as the great “Bosch,” the walking zombie “SVU” and the godfather of all crime procedurals, “Dragnet,” have touched on social issues, to varying success. While “Bosch” pays lip-service to Black Lives Matter and handling sexual harassment, it often centers these as antagonistic forces, and while “SVU” deals with sexual assault, there has been criticism from YouTubers such as “amandabb” regarding the show’s politics, post-Fergurson.

In the case of “Dragnet,” Joe Friday’s moralistic rants ring hollow nowadays in the face of evidence showing his department abusing protestors. It’s hard to effectively examine society when you come at it from the view of those enforcing the status-quo.

Another advantage is storytelling – due to most PIs obviously not having the same resources as a police department, they need to pull in favors from friends and acquaintances. Fingerprints need to be sent to someone with the actual resources, background checks often require going through more people and the protagonist often needs to employ more pragmatism to get around obstacles. The lengths an investigator must go without the backing of the local police are far greater and even contribute to world-building with the cadre of contacts the investigator builds.

The private eye is adaptable to nearly every single genre and subgenre imaginable – horror, romance, comedy, drama, etc. It can be episodic and goofy, such as both incarnations of “Magnum: P.I.” or more serialized and stone-faced as with the Liam Neeson-starring “A Walk Among the Tombstones.”

The private eye a one-solution solves all character, of course – there are reactionary characters like Mike Hammer and a lot of early characters have some pretty homophobic and racist tendencies. Still, it’s not like these characters can be updated, or the archetype of the private eye can’t be stretched, updated or reworked.

With criticism of police sharply on the rise, the private eye seems all the more punk-rock – rebellious, socially conscious and anti-authority. That’s all the reason to employ more of them in our entertainment.

Besides, the cop drama should’ve been pensioned after “The Wire” ended.

Featured Illustration: Ali Jones

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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