Writers of crime dramas address race inequality in the criminal justice system—and on the screen—at recent panel.
For writers of cop shows and procedurals, the argument for richer, more nuanced storytelling is a matter of addressing a powerful polarity: the indestructible appeal of crime drama across broadcast, cable, and streaming, and a national dialogue on policing and race inequality in the criminal justice system that has stamped an expiration date on an entire narrative model.
Recently, the WGAW convened a virtual panel of advocates and writers for a discussion about how writers can expand crime-drama and cop show storytelling in ways that preserve the dramatic stakes while including ingrained injustices as germane aspects of story.
The panel was sponsored by WGAW’s Writers Education Committee, Committee of Black Writers, and Latinx Writers Committee, in partnership with Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity and Storyline Partners, as part of a multi-part series unpacking cultural narratives surrounding underrepresented groups. Learn more about TTIE’s #WriteInclusion: Tips for Accurate Representation project online.
Among the participants was Cultural and Entertainment Advocacy Director for Color of Change Kristen Marston. Color of Change is the civil rights advocacy organization whose January 2020 report, “Normalizing Injustice,” took a deep dive into the ongoing harm caused by cop show messaging.
For three weeks in 2017–2018, graduate students at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project coded some 353 episodes across 26 different “crime-related scripted TV series”—from Netflix’s Narcos to NBC’s The Blacklist to Amazon’s Goliath. The result: over 100 pages of data and analysis “suggesting that the scripted crime genre influences the public to grant even more authority to police than they already have: to break the rules, to violate our rights, to cage the beast of crime as they would have us believe it is—racial overtones and all,” Color of Change said.
Coders didn’t just track the race and gender of characters; they pointed to the casting of Black actors as judges to legitimize a racist system while “voiceless” Black actors fill perp roles. They parsed story points to quantify portrayals of “wrongful actions” by the putative “Good Guys” (no-knock warrant searches, uses of physical force). Among the more eye-opening findings: Across 18 series in which the trend was evident, there was a per-episode average of eight wrongful acts committed by an ostensible “Good Guy” (i.e., a criminal justice professional) to every one wrongful act by a “Bad Guy.” Behind the scenes, the report found, consultants and arrangements with city film offices mattered: 17 of the 26 series studied had police, FBI, or military personnel as consultants.
The release of the report came six months before the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that marked summer 2020. “People we had been in conversation with for quite a while were suddenly very urgently wanting to meet,” Marston recalls.
Jessica Farris, senior policy counsel at the ACLU and another panelist, sees a landscape in which little-understood inequities of the criminal justice system could blossom into compelling storylines. Case in point, Farris said: When an officer witnesses misconduct by a colleague, police union rules allow for a 48-hour period before giving a statement. Civilians don’t get that grace period.
Of course there are good cops, but “I would find it compelling to watch shows about how dastardly the overreach is, rather than how heroic it is,” Farris said.
For panelist Cara Reedy, program manager for the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund’s Disability Media Alliance Project, “having a conversation and inviting a disability org to speak about it was kind of groundbreaking, because we just don’t get talked to that much about it.” Noting that a disability can refer to a mental illness or a child with ADHD, Reedy offered this alarming statistic: “Even though disabled people are overrepresented in prisons, we’re 50% of the people that get shot or killed by cops, we’re largely erased in police procedurals. There’s no conversation around that statistic.”
In its consulting work with TV series, Marston said, Color of Change isn’t about delivering notes on scripts so much as making writers more cognizant of what creative choices, big and small, mean. “It’s not always changing the show,” she said. “It’s adding more layers of honesty and accountability.”
For writers, that mindfulness can sound oppositional to episodic pace, intricate plots, and the demands of an escapist genre fueled by giving audiences what they want: a solved case. Joining the advocates on the panel were Shalisha Francis (Seven Seconds), Carlito Rodriguez (Empire), and Elgin James (co-creator/showrunner, Mayans M.C.), with Aaron Rahsaan Thomas (co-developer/showrunner, S.W.A.T.) serving as moderator.
Thomas, who broke into procedurals on CBS’ Numb3rs, clarified that the panel wasn’t about bashing crime shows into oblivion, but about expanding their purview. “When I started off in police procedurals, that was the rule of the day—good guys and bad guys,” Thomas said. Speaking to the tradition of crime show anti-heroes restoring justice no matter the method, he said, “It was always celebrated to go outside the system. The question that necessarily hasn’t been asked is, who bears the brunt of these broken rules and laws?”
Francis wrote on Netflix’s 2018 limited series Seven Seconds, which revolved around the hit-and-run death of a 15-year-old Black teenager by a white police officer. Over the course of 10 episodes, Seven Seconds built to a gripping, if stark, resolution about the intersection of race and police culture in the criminal justice system.
If this is a dramatic story in its own right, complete with good and bad on both sides of the blue line, a show like Seven Seconds is still hard for the broadcast networks to swallow. And yet Francis noticed a state of reflection coming out of last summer about the harm cop shows cause. “How long is this reflection going to last? I don’t know. But as a writer I can say the sorts of pitches I was getting for development, they were all very cognizant of this is not going to be a normal cop procedural.”
Panelists talked about how “we are in a unique position as Hollywood writers to shape the narrative. There are dozens of these cop shows that we churn out every year that seem to tell the same story. The cops are always right, they always know who the bad guy is, and they always get their guy no matter what they need to do to do it. What you end up putting out there is, oh, they only do things that are necessary.”
This year, Carlito Rodriguez and his writing partner and wife, Leah Benavides Rodriguez, developed a cop show for network and basic cable. “Our take on it was, lean right into the reckoning,” Carlito said. Their mayor had just been elected on a “Defund the Police” campaign. Gazing at the future, “I don’t think cop shows are going to go away. I think that creators are just going to be creative and dope, and say, ‘OK, so we see these versions, how about this?’” he said.
Now established writers of color, Carlito and Elgin James both served time as younger men in prison. Carlito also has family in law enforcement. “I imagine that my experiences, among TV writers, it’s not unique, but at the very least not the norm.
“Have all my interactions with police, has every time I’ve gotten pulled over, has there been some bullshit? No,” he continued. Once, a white cop let him out of a speeding ticket because he and the officer found commonality as New York Yankees fans. Another time, it was “guns out, aimed at me, it’s not even mistaken identity, it’s you’re driving through the wrong neighborhood, you look suspicious. ‘Get on the ground, pull your pants down.’ They run the gamut between those two poles.”
As a writer now creating that situation as a scene, “my thing is, is it going to lead to story?” Carlito said.
James, a former member of a violent, anti-neo-Nazi street gang, said that when he first met with executive producer Kurt Sutter for Mayans M.C., his take on the show came from personal history. “All my violence has always come out of fear,” James said. “My friends, who some people may think are sociopaths or done these terrible things, it’s because we were so hurt. Our feelings were hurt all the time. If someone wouldn’t look me in the eyes when they shook my hand and I’d want to hit them in the face with a brick, really it just comes down to, they hurt my feelings.”
While not a crime drama, Mayans M.C. is about rival, drug-dealing Latinx biker gangs on the California-Mexico border. To James, who took over as showrunner for Season 3, the motivation behind the gang warfare is far deeper than the quest for money or the trope of finding a substitute family. “It’s more than that. It comes from being too sensitive for the world.”
The cast, writers, and crew on Mayans M.C. are majority Latinx. “In telling Black and brown stories, particularly Black and brown young men being criminals and being caught in the cycle of poverty, violence, broken homes, incarceration, gangs—there’s so many stereotypes of that for us, because so many of the cast members, people in the writers’ room, people in the crew, are people who have been through that cycle. We finally get to tell our story. It’s powerful to take that back. There is a human story to it.”