It isn’t unusual for television programs, of any genre, to include episodes that reflect on current events. In fact, it might be the medium that addresses them the most often — in part because tackling a divisive, real-life issue can result in a spike in ratings or social media mentions. Some series are practically built for these “ripped from the headlines” narratives; Law & Order: SVU, which this season has fictionalized the stories of Robert Durst and Josh Duggar, heavily promotes these episodes.
But when the topic at hand is an especially controversial or sensitive one, like the growing number of unarmed black men and women who are killed by the police, and the Black Lives Matter movement that has arisen in response to this crisis, how does a fictional TV show accurately depict the issue without trivializing or offending? And what role does TV play in educating and prompting debate?
When it comes to this particular topic, there are two other questions that are tough to answer: Does fictionalizing it bring more harm than good to the movement? And is there a “correct” way to handle police brutality in a light television show? Of course, there are no right answers to either, but it’s worth considering the many episodes that have addressed this topic recently, representing a number of different approaches — and varied successes.
While a procedural like Law & Order: SVU is no stranger to depicting sensitive subjects, it’s hardly the only series — and procedural is hardly the only genre of TV — that has taken on police violence against black people. This particular plot has crept up in several programs over the last year or so, whether explicitly portrayed or just casually mentioned. Empire shouted out Black Lives Matter in its first season and has sprinkled more and more references throughout. Scandal told the story of a father’s grief as he sat in a chair above his dead son’s body, fiercely protecting the corpse from further harm. The Good Wife took a misstep by centering an episode around a grand jury’s decision, to much outcry from fans and critics. The Carmichael Show did an entire half-hour in front of a studio audience that found a family discussing police brutality and the futility of protesting. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (in an episode that was perhaps overdue, considering the series is set at an NYPD precinct) snuck in a C-story about the public’s perception of the police. And during the weeks that I was working on this story, CSI: Cyber and Blue Bloods each aired their own similar episodes, followed shortly after by South Park. Television’s depictions of police brutality have become as ongoing as the real-life violence.
Needless to say, the episodes have ranged in quality, in what they were aiming to say, and in the kinds of reactions they’ve provoked from viewers. Still, some wider trends have emerged. For the most part, and somewhat surprisingly, comedies tend to do better with the material than dramas. Most tend to deal with wish fulfillment type endings (cops getting prosecuted, the father meeting the president in Scandal) instead of harsh reality. And the quality often depends on the show’s diversity — both in its cast and behind the scenes.
When it comes to writing an episode that centers on an officer (or officers) killing (or otherwise excessively harming) a black man or woman, the writers are always stuck in a Catch-22. Eric Haywood, a writer and producer for Fox’s Empire, elaborates:
What happens any time any show tries to touch on anything that is both current and controversial, [is that] the response from the audience is immediate and also completely varied. I have literally seen, both in the case of Empire and other shows like Scandal, whenever someone goes to touch on anything related to these topics, I will see immediate responses from the audience, and they’re almost always split right down the middle. Half of the audience says, “I’m so glad that this show that I love is taking on this topic, because it needs to be discussed.” The other half immediately says that, “I really don’t tune in to my favorite show to see these grim topics. I can watch the news if I wanted that. I just want to be entertained.” And so it leaves you in a position of, well, what do you do? Do you completely ignore what’s going on in the world so you don’t ruffle people’s feathers and risk being accused of being either out of touch or ignoring the most important topics of the day? Or, do you try to address them and risk being accused of pandering, or do you risk turning off the segment of the audience who openly admit they just want to turn their brain off and be entertained? So there’s really no one right answer.
Television is a form of entertainment above all else. It can be used to educate, to enlighten, to prompt discussion, and so on, but the majority of Americans view TV as a way to relax at the end of a work day, to get sucked into someone’s fictional drama or comedic mishaps. While these episodes can certainly remain entertaining — Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one of the funniest shows on television, The Carmichael Show packed more laughs per minute into an episode about police brutality than its summer NBC counterpart Mr. Robinson had in an entire season, and no drama is faster-paced than Scandal — some viewers may still find them off-putting and a departure from what they’re used to watching. But what’s worse is that when the episodes come off pandering or even offensive.
Last season, The Good Wife‘s “The Debate” had trouble struggling to join the conversation. The episode begins with a title card that explained it was “written and filmed prior to the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island,” and then shows cell phone footage of a man who died at the hands of police officers. It gets worse from there, the awful centerpiece being a conversation in which Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and Frank Prady (David Hyde Pierce) talk about race and brutality while the only people of color around are the kitchen staff. It is literally a scene of two white people discussing race in the presence of the help, unnamed characters of color who are nothing more than a plot device shoved in because the rest of the screen looked too white. The episode was gross, for lack of a better word, and it didn’t add anything to the discussion. As David Sims of The Atlantic succinctly put it, “It felt patronizing, to say the very least, and like the show was trying to acknowledge recent events while admitting it lacks the authority to really dig into them.”
But there is something important to be learned from the disastrous Good Wife episode: In order to address diverse issues, television needs diverse writers and cast members. “The Debate” was written by two white people, directed by a white woman, and featured mainly white characters in the major speaking roles. It’s no surprise that it was so clumsy — there was no one around with a personal connection to the issue to prove some much-needed nuance and direction. “These shows are so overwhelmingly white and typically male that when you even consider touching on something like this, that affects other cultures predominantly or disproportionately, now you’re in a losing position before you even start,” says Haywood. “Maybe your intention is literally to grab the hot story — the headline — service it for one hour and then check off your box that says, ‘Well, we did a #BlackLivesMatter episode here so we’re good for another eight seasons of [not] doing anything black.'”
The Law & Order: SVU episode, which was much better, albeit not perfect, had the advantage of a diverse staff. Warren Leight, a white man, “co-wrote it with Kevin Fox, who is Irish and the son of cops, the nephew of cops, and the grandson of cops, and A. Zell Williams, an African-American writer on staff.” This gave SVU the opportunity to approach the story from multiple racial standpoints (and with insight from someone very close to police work).
Titled “Community Policing,” the SVU episode focused on three detectives — none of whom are part of the regular, main cast — who, while in pursuit of a rapist, fire 35 shots and kill an unarmed black man. It quickly turns out that the man wasn’t even the suspect in the actual case at hand. The episode was pure SVU: from the cold open (a young girl is raped) to the grand jury being tasked with indicting the officers. Like most SVU episodes — which tend to work as conversation starters, not as the final word on a matter — it didn’t aim to find a solution. Instead, it attempted to craft a careful, (sort of) well-rounded take that portrayed the experiences of the officers, the dead man’s family, the SVU detectives, and, most prominently, DA Barba, who took a big step in fighting for the cops to be brought to justice.
A previous SVU episode, Season 15’s “Amaro’s One-Eighty,” also had a storyline in which an officer, Detective Amaro (Danny Pino), shoots an unarmed 14-year-old boy. The episode was mostly about how the new mayor wanted to turn Amaro into “the sacrificial lamb” and “poster boy of excessive force,” exploring how a shooting like this affects the detective on a personal level. “Community Policing,” by contrast, focuses more on the grand jury aspect of the incident, and is more representative of the grand jury in the Eric Garner case. In discussing the episode, Law & Order: SVU Executive Producer Warren Leight cites Garner’s case, saying that the show was at a point “where we could legitimately do an episode in which a grand jury feels the situation has reached the tipping point because the true story in most of these cases is [that] chargers are not dropped. Grand juries, prosecutors are reluctant to prosecute.” As Leight observes, “a District Attorney’s job in a grand jury is to get an indictment, except in the case of the shooting of an unarmed man by the cops, in which they seem to think their job is to muddy the waters.”
Outside of the writers room, diversity of the cast is important to these episode, too; otherwise, they can devolve into offensive pandering. Haywood agrees: “I don’t want you to go trot out your one black recurring character just for the Very Special Episode,” he says. “Either make ’em a fucking series regular or be the fabric of the series, and then include them in this, or you’re going to come off looking like you brought them literally out of the kitchen to weigh in on the Black Topic.” If you want to tell a real, complete story about institutionalized racism and police brutality against black people, then you need black characters to speak up. CSI: Cyber may have had a pretty ridiculous and cringe-worthy episode with “Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes” — which involved hacking into police bodycams and faking a black person’s death to satisfy an agenda — but at least it had Computer Expert Brody Nelson (Shad Moss) to provide a counterpoint to the general tone of the episode, portraying his internal struggle with being both a black man and a member of the FBI.
In one scene, after he sifts through racist comments in emails from within the bureau, Brody confronts Special Agent Elijah (James Van Der Beek); tensions are already high between the two because Elijah injured a black man during a protest. “If I get mad, I’m the angry black man,” Brody explains, “If I say nothing, I’m an Uncle Tom.” He confronts Elijah about microaggressions: laughing at an inappropriate joke, not correcting a friend or family member, saying the N-word while singing a song. It’s the first — and only — time the CSI: Cyber episode displays any sort of intelligence in regards to the racial content of the episode, and it’s because the series had a black character speak up.
A similar example is Scandal‘s Season 4 episode “The Lawn Chair.” While its overall execution wasn’t perfect, it was far and away better than The Good Wife because the show already had a well-established black character in the lead role. The episode also stood out because it took a unique approach to the subject by focusing on the overwhelming grief — and anger, frustration, disbelief — of a father who has to stand guard over his dead son’s body. It’s a tough hour of television, one that Joshua Alston of The A.V. Club couldn’t even assign a grade. Because how do you grade an episode that is so emotionally devastating, possibly triggering, and a reflection on the racial trauma that black people face every day? “The Lawn Chair” is a good example of why it’s so hard to write critically about these sort of episodes — and, perhaps, why so many viewers prefer that shows keep things light.
That could be one of the reasons why it’s the comedies that really seem to be getting it. Over the summer, The Carmichael Show aired an episode titled “Protest,” which deftly handled police brutality and protesting. “Protest” — an episode that I’ve already discussed at length and in terms of gallows humor — managed to both explore every side of the issue while maintaining a light mood. Brooklyn Nine-Nine did something similar with its recent subplot, in “Boyle’s Hunch,” where subway posters promoting the police department are vandalized because of the negative perception of the cops. It was, in some ways, too dark of a plot for such a lighthearted series to take on — after all, this is Season 3 and it’s the first time this is coming up, because the show doesn’t concern itself with real-life police matters. But that’s why it worked as a smaller C-story, rather than being front and center. It kept the humor while acknowledging that police officers are often, especially lately, seen as villains.
Haywood has a theory as to why these storylines may work best in comedy: “When you’re doing drama, you’re trying to depict it as gritty and realistic as possible,” he says. “[With] comedy, obviously you have to service your laughs, and I think that may require the writers, actors, and producers to think about it from a slightly different perspective and not try to be so overwrought and message-y.” The genre’s need to work in jokes and other comedic moments help to balance the message, to get it across without lecturing or getting melodramatic.
Another theory is that drama is a genre that tends to require one of two endings: a “happy,” wish fulfillment ending (the meeting with the president in Scandal or the reveal that the murder was faked and the victim is alive and well in CSI: Cyber) or a devastating, depressing ending that remarks on the fact that the system is as broken on television as it is in reality. (Of course, “wish fulfillment” in these cases is still a huge bummer.) Comedy, on the other hand, has more freedom and leeway in tone to explore a subject through a humorous lens: it showcases multiple viewpoints by relying on dark jokes, it uses laughs as a way to ease the tension, and a sitcom episode — half the length of a drama — doesn’t necessarily need a cut-and-dry ending.
All of these elements — genre, diversity, plot, characters — help to shape each different episode and contribute to its overall quality. But that still leaves one question: Should television attempt to cover police brutality and the Black Lives Movement in the first place? There are ample, obvious arguments to support both positions. The episodes bring attention to the cause, providing us with (occasionally) nuanced takes to help parse a complicated issue and perhaps educate those who aren’t up to speed. But on the other hand, they can come off as pandering, exploitative, or just desperate to enter the conversation, even if the show and characters in question doesn’t belong in it.
What it comes down to, finally, is intention and execution. An episode from The Good Wife or CSI: Cyber that doesn’t seem motivated by anything other than a desire to milk a hot topic for ratings does more harm than good. It fails to resonate with black viewers and instead becomes a source of irritation, exasperation, or just straight-up depression for us — CBS’ Blue Bloods, a police series that thrives on conservatism and pro-police narratives, had two episodes that dealt poorly with police brutality (“Excessive Force” and “Rush to Judgment”) and were infuriating to watch. These are the sort of episodes that aren’t necessary. But an episode like The Carmichael Show‘s “Protest” had just the opposite effect: It made black viewers, like myself, feel as if someone got it, like someone understood the vast range of emotions that we go through while reading the news. It was an episode that clearly meant something to the writers — it wasn’t a ratings grab, but a topic that they felt needed to be discussed — and it succeeded in both entertaining and letting black viewers know that we’re not alone.