WHAT WE THINK: As we slide deeper into the ring of hell known as reality TV, it may have skipped notice that we are exactly a month from the 25-year anniversary of the mack daddy of reality shows, “COPS.”
Hard to believe it’s a quarter-century since we took our first ride-along, during a time before cellphone cameras, car-chase choppers or Rodney King.
“COPS” has thrived over the years despite having zero sex appeal — unless, of course, you’re into mulletheads or orthodontically-challenged women in stretchpants.
To this day, it’s still got that stripped-down, DIY feel: There’s no host, no narrator, no black-and-white flashbacks retracing the culprit’s steps or creepy sound cues — just that “bad boys” reggae theme song and lots of radio chatter.
Even better: Its “stars” don’t audition for the show, dish scripted lines or try to parlay their face time into personal appearances. Their only “situation” is the one they’re not about to get out of.
The cops on “COPS” usually find their skels tippin’ down the street, sometimes luggin’ someone else’s property, occasionally with both shoes on.
Or they’re swiping a 40-ounce from the all-night mini-mart—like the three uniforms standing right outside don’t see them.
Then there’s the guy in shorts and sleeveless t-shirt (stained, of course) who isn’t the least bit surprised to find armed officers AND a cameraman in his trailer. Like his reality show brethren, Clem can’t help but play to the millions of viewers on the other side of the electronic eye.
But there are two problems here: We aren’t a jury of his peers, and he’s no thespian.
“She hit me first” certainly isn’t going to win him any sympathy.
So Clem is summarily yanked from his Lay-Z-Bubba and escorted to the cop shack, his 15 minutes of fame shrunk to an unsteady cameo, as we cut to commercial and you take a moment to thank your maker for handing you what only this morning had seemed a fairly miserable draw.
There have been some genuinely freaky moments on “COPS,” like the time a homeowner told police how he shot a burglar and, sure enough, the officers found the interloper 10 toes up. And there’s no disputing the fact that Johnny Law has a thankless job that could never pay him enough. But a snapshot of crime in America?
What about the public official trading sewer contracts for fat envelopes? Or the popular dance teacher who’s Humberting a 15-year-old prodigy?
How about the drunken corporate exec who plows his Beamer into a tree — or, worse, into a group of pedestrians? Or the interweb predator who discovers the minor he’d been sending pics of his package to was really an undercover detective?
Having been in this racket for more years than I care to remember — first as a police reporter, then editor and now publisher — I can tell you what else “COPS” doesn’t give you:
Those are the moments of fright that our guardians in blue often experience when they have to rush into a potentially fatal situation.
The producers can argue that the guy serpentining his pickup down the blacktop could be toting a sawed-off shotgun and a death wish. More likely, though, he’s got little more than a joint tucked behind his ear that he’s forgotten about.
No question, our personal sense of security is wafer-thin. But we still have the illusory comfort of “COPS,” a sublime, unspoken pleasure that comes not from witnessing true mayhem at a safe remove but from eavesdropping on losers in much worse shape than you or I could ever be.
The 25th season is already under way for one of the two true pioneers of what has become a shallow gene pool of reality television (MTV’s “The Real World” being the other).
Yet the official anniversary date for “COPS” is March 11.
So, when that night rolls around, whatcha’ gonna do?
Pull on a clean tank top, crack open a 40, and sing along:
“Bad boys, bad boys…”