Monday, January 02, 2017


Sgt. Esterhaus (Michael Conrad)

Television police procedurals have been of interest to me since “Hill Street Blues” struck me as so much like Multnomah County Animal Control from 1973 to 1978, where I was the first female officer at an “interesting time” for Portland, OR.  Of course, there have been a lot of “interesting times” before and after that one, but it was rather distinct.  The stories are in the little book I call “Dog-Catching in America,” an attempt to explain how democracy works when you’re dealing with animals.  (Those would be the humans.)  Anyway, Burgwin (my boss) always seemed to me like Esterhaus, the big sergeant who always admonished “be careful out there.”

There are three levels of order-keeping in cities.  The top one is the formal platform of the leaders.  Goldschmidt was our mayor and he turned out to have the usual flaw just below the belt line.  We dealt with his dog.  In fact, we dealt with the dogs of all the main politicians.  I can’t remember who the top county man was, which is typical of counties.  The top Sheriff was named Brown but he was "black".

The second level is official written laws and the charge to street officers to enforce them.  People think of animal control as a shelter, because that’s something they see, but the real action is out in the neighborhoods and it can vary from the zany and trivial to major tragic suffering.  The courts sort of trail behind, with most judges dismally uninformed about reality.  

The third level might be described as the best judgment of the officers as they confront reality.  Just like any police, they vary in their skills and strengths and we discovered that this was a good thing.  Some of them should never have been hired.

Since Bochco created a new mold for cop tales, they have become the frame for outstanding social criticism like “The Wire.”  Others have been standouts.  A new “form” has developed which is international, but each country has its own flavor.  The Scandinavians and Irish have a particularly tough and stark attitude, always near the sea.  The English are more inclined to elegant settings like Oxford or picturesque villages and content that is both more vicious (the Robson Green/Val Diarmid series)  and more humorous.  

But the new form I want to mention is that of the ten to twelve “hours” (quotes because when advertising is subtracted, what’s left is something like a counselling “hour”).  This form when streamed or on discs is friendly to “marathon” viewing which is also new.  Instead of watching a weekly television pre-scheduled show, one streams as many episodes as one’s butt and eyes can withstand at a sitting.  I’m usually good for half the episodes, partly because after a day of writing I’m not productive anymore and I resist housework.

American Crime” is the most recent title I’ve been following, but I want to talk first about the one I watched just before it, which was Belgian, “The Break,” featuring the usual tough but flawed detective.   The story deals with the perennial phenomenon of how elusive the truth can be.  This tough and determined guy, who is confronted — rather mysteriously — by a female shrink, seems in each episode to have found his murder suspect and goes down a list that includes himself because memory loss prevents an explanation for him having bloody hands.  He’s still not right.  The victim is a young black man imported from Africa to be a star athlete but drawn into Belgian lives.  He appears in dream sequences.

American Crime” is more along the lines of the acclaimed “The Wire”.  Four troubled families struggle to save their grown children, who are both “people of color” with all the politics and white with all their doomed attempts at control.  They are so determined and yet so trapped that it’s sometimes hard to watch.  The machinery of justice is only the context, the enforcers are distant and anonymous.

What intrigued me the most about “American Crime” was the strongest narrative thread which is about a mixed race couple, a young black man whose instinct is to protect and comfort women and his girl-friend, a young woman with a near psychotic but culturally pervasive fixation on the advertising trope that shows ecstatic racially mixed couples playing on a beach Eden.  She feels this must be real since it’s photographed, so she tears the gorgeous depictions out of magazines and saves them.  We see which magazines promote them.  Emotionally twisted in other ways, she depends on the usual addictions, but mostly that of being close to her lover.

This video is the work of John Ridley, writer and director, a prolific creator choosing and guiding a remarkable cast including Timothy Hutton as well as remarkable “actors of color.”  Caitlin Gerard is terrifyingly recognizable as the psychotic young lover.  In the second series year everyone is re-cast in a new story about male rape and elitist education.  I’ve only started watching.  “American Crime” streams on Netflix.

In my opinion these stories, whether from individual writers like Ridley or from writing teams like the creators of “The Break” which was written by Benjamin d’Aoust, Matthieu Donck, and Stephane Bergmans and directed by Donck, are the real and valuable meat of narrative interpretation of modern life.  They have distinctly moral centers that address the heart of what makes democracy work or fail, and address the schisms of race, greed, gender, and the human hunger for prestige and control.  Yet they do not pass judgment and are remarkably informed and modern about psychology.  I’m not sure that people realize how much influence such videos can have on society, or what vivid analyses they are in a society that is staggered by its own changes.

The thread in the first year of “American Crime” about the protective black man and his damaged white lover made me think about a story briefly mentioned in Cat Urbigkit’s book about sheep-guarding dogs.  Way out on the fringes of grazing country, the formidable big dog formed a pair bond with a wolf and left the sheep.  It’s not that unusual for wild canines to mate with domestic dogs, but not for them to become a bonded pair that travel together.  It’s strange enough to be interesting but still recognizable to humans.

It’s the strange relationships among people that cross the abyss of violent hate we should know more about.  How do they figure out which rules to go by?  What does it mean when their offspring form pairs?  The main thing we can predict is that the parents will fight for their children as hard as they can, possibly destroying themselves.  If they don’t, the cubs die.  That’s crime.

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