Top 20 TV Cop Show Cliches

March 18, 2009 | Lists

Law & Order SVU: What makes you so special?

For some time there has been a disconnect between TV cops and the ones everybody knew— kind of like the disconnect between June and Ward Cleaver sleeping in separate beds on Leave it to Beaver, and the kind of bedpost-grabbing boffing real-life Ward would have been administering, frustrated by that retarded pair of kids of his.

The Keystone Cops in the early part of the last century brought us the image of hapless police unable to keep a good man locked up, rather than the bloodthirsty goon hired by the railroad to bash heads that would have been more accurate. The Police Academy films taught a generation that law enforcement goals were achievable if you could make a sound like a man farting into a fan with your mouth and if your name was Steve Guttenberg, and people were still wondering what the hell you were up to.

These days, in a television milieu dominated by reality, all the realities of policeman’s work, the heroic sleuthing, the testosterone-headed mutant bully who never left the schoolyard, the “I’m jus’ doin’ my job ma’am” beat cop spilling relish on his shoe and the guy who sees fealty to the badge as the price one pays for doing whatever the hell one pleases, are represented with varying degrees of effectiveness.

Most cops though, go about their jobs with honor and restraint, that is to say, not the kind of stuff that makes for wipe-the-salt-stains-off-the-new-leather-sofa, entertainment. However, what is considerably more entertaining is shooting anyone’s ass off while order is kept on the streets of Baltimore depicted in The Wire for example (one of us is distantly related to such a cop… it happens) and drinking oneself into oblivion due to the pressures of the daily grind.

In L.A., as real life cops spend most of the time trying to separate Hollywood’s best from their transvestite temporary amours, some of what makes it to the boob tube suggests that these avocations are distracting scriptwriters from their day jobs. For every show that brings subtlety and nuance to the police profession, there are at least 10 that don’t, which leads us to our list of the Top 20 TV Cop Show Clichés!!!

1. Cops always look for witnesses in a dive bar and the bartender never sits down to talk to them. For some reason, perps never drink in nice bars, regardless of income, and bartenders are always too busy to talk to the cops even though it’s the middle of the day and their establishments are invariably empty.

2. On a related note, witnesses/suspects almost always continue doing their jobs while the cop questions them—they rarely say ‘Uh, do you mind if we go somewhere private?’ They just blab the details right then and there while they wash windows, type at the computer, work the cash, toil on the construction site, etc…”Oh yeah, Gary was always into his gimp porn and ladies’ undergarments, ever since I met him in college. That’ll be $8.95 sir, will there be anything else with that?”

3. Forensics always misses something at the crime scene that invariably requires going back and finding some trinket…sometimes it’s even a shell casing…good help is so hard to find…as are, apparently, shell casings at a shooting site. It’s a good thing aggressive Assistant District Attorneys, (all of whom were previously couture models), or young go-getter detectives, force a return to the scene of the crime.

4. The suspect always says one of the following:

  • ‘Can’t someone do _________?'(their laundry at 4AM)
  • Is it wrong to do__________? (taxidermy in the middle of the night)
  • There’s nothing illegal about __________(photographing random children in the street/at the playground)

5. Terrorizing social service agencies—cops ALWAYS go to an adoption/methadone/housing agency, meet some overworked minority and browbeat the poor sap into giving them confidential information…

6. Irish guys drink and sing old-timey songs. The Irish beatcop or detective always has a red-nose for trouble…Speaking of trouble…

7. Troubled teen daughter….the troubled teen daughter (and occasionally, but rarely, a son) has a strained relationship with the male detective and lashes out. Female detective always tries to butt in and offer advice…daughter generally has a nose ring, green hair and really long sleeves.

8. Defense lawyers always tell their clients to shut up during interrogation…As if seasoned criminals didn’t know they shouldn’t be talking during these sessions. They are repeat offenders and all KNOW not to say anything until they see a lawyer…

9. The hero is a cynical, jaded, divorced/widowed/separated drunk who has no life but his job. His captain always yells at him for not following the rules, but secretly thinks he’s the best damn cop they’ve got. The hero is forced to work with a partner, usually younger, blacker, female, who eventually becomes his best friend by saving his life or convincing him that he’s followed the right career path when he’s overcome with doubt/depression/heavy boozing or all three…

10. All victims/suspects keep detailed newsclippings of important events in their lives, that cops later use to discover something…”Wow, in 8th grade Leroy was state wrestling champion. What a tragic loss.”

11. If a cop is called to testify, it’s always shaky and he’s always raked over the coals. Arguments always ensue later about his performance and he lashes out for inadvertently disclosing sketchy police conduct.

12. There is always some profoundly shocking revelation that nobody disclosed to either legal team during the court proceedings. “My god, I had no idea my client was the mastermind behind 9/11!” “The killer studied conversational Mandarin with the victim? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Look out or Captain Cragen will snap—his suspenders

13. Lab scientists always have test data instantly. DNA testing never weeks and weeks and there are never any backlogs. The cops are always fortuitously in the lab the moment the scientist discovers something while looking into a microscope. “Here’s something you might find interesting!”

14. Someone always commits suicide right in the middle of the investigation. “The kid never had a chance. Who would’ve thought the kid with the black trenchcoat and the Sartre novel under his arm would’ve had it end this way.”

15. Police captains have to wear suspenders. Much like economists and their bow-ties, failed musicians and their fedoras, the gruff captain has his Larry King-issued suspenders.

16. Detectives always have to justify what they do for a living.

Question: How can you go on witnessing all this carnage and shocking violence and still have a normal home life?

  • If I don’t do it, who will?
  • If I hold out for another five years, I get a nice pension

17. Perps are always told what’s gonna happen to them in prison if they’re caught, as if it’s news to them and recidivism doesn’t exist. Really? THAT’S what goes on behind prison gates? Jeez, in my previous stints that never happened. You cops must really have the inside scoop on this thing.” Perp never fires back with, “well, you’re a cop. Do you know what happens to YOU GUYS in prison?”

18. The tough-talking, go-it-alone maverick. Usually has a big, bulbous head/forehead. Always gets suspended and has others grudgingly cover for his errant ways.

19. A member of the public always wanders in off the street and lambastes someone in the precinct for not doing their job and a) threatens to go to the media, b) threatens to sue, or c) a then b.

20. Cops are always confused by, and then deride, psychiatric assessments.

Psychiatrist: Your suspect suffers from a clear case of Psychopathic Trichotillomania
Cop: What’s that?
Psychiatrist: It’s an impulse disorder whereby the patient pulls out their own hair… which results in significant hair loss.
Cop (interrupting): That’s ridiculous. (Other cop, interrupting). Is that your excuse, captain? (laughs)

If we’ve missed any, well, we welcome your suggestions as there are almost too many to chronicle here…

THE SHARK GUYS are the authors of the humor books, Tastes Like Human and The Man Who Scared a Shark to Death and Other True Tales of Drunken Debauchery (Penguin).

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15 Responses | | Comments Feed

  1. I haven’t seen a Cop Show in a while, but isn’t the Cheif of Police always black?

  2. @Andrew Martin: *ding ding ding*. Also, there must always be one of the following:

    1. Old white judge in thick glasses who never knows what’s going on during the proceedings and looks to be asleep
    2. Mean Black Lady judge who rules, “Okay, I’ll allow it, but counselor, watch yourself.”
    3. Burnt out old bigoted cop pulled in to assist detectives in solving his notorious unsolvable case and spends most of the time commenting on the minorities, women, differently abled people allowed on the force. “In my day…” (Charles Durning’s guest appearance on a season six ep of H:LOTS is a great example of this.)

  3. The witness winds up dead shortly after talking to a detective.

  4. Whenever you cut to the station house (on a cop show that’s usually set out in the field), there’s ALWAYS a prostitute being booked. Bonus points if they’re sassy.

  5. I have to admit that number 9 made me think of House. Just replace detective/cop with doctor, captain with hospital administrator, drunk with addicted to painkillers and note that he started with a team of three, who were all younger, one was black and one was female.

    We can blame the anti-socialness and drug addiction on Holmes, but the rest are rather more recent clichés :)

  6. You forgot the most obvious cliche of all. “Perp goes free due to lack of evidence and then gets gunned down in or outside of the courthouse or police station by victim or victim’s family member.”

  7. It seems of late that the guy with the suspenders retired. Because, more often than not, the chief is a divorced black woman who has a troubled son/daughter that gets perfect grades, but is starving for attention and gets in trouble, so the mom (chief) has trust issues with him/her. However, one of the costars of the show relates to the kid and runs interference.

  8. Some great suggestions here guys, and a spot-on observation from the well-named Observer. In that same vein, there is the rebellious offspring of a cop who breaks the law in a desperate cry for papa’s attention. Then said cop is faced with the moral dilemma of manipulating the system to his benefit to get his kid out of a jam or treating the kid like any other perp to teach him a lesson. A colleague will always suggest leniency, but the hard-nosed cop won’t hear a word of it.

  9. A cop is always shot, 2-3 days before retirement

  10. How about the number of times police officers or NCIS officers shot their guns, my cousin is a cop and he has never pulled his gun out in 20 years. Very few officers ever pull their gun much less       engage in a shoot out 

  11. Inspectors ( especially some of the female ones) always yelling, acting like nothing is being done, but what do they do themselves, play golf? It’s so tiring listening to them every time again.
    a lot of the detectives are too young, they wouldn’t have enough experience to be top detectives.
    They don’t show any respect when they find a dead person, they sometimes even joke around and Castle even says ” goody another murder ” that’s disgusting!!!

  12. Almost every cop has a troubled upbringing like they’re father was abusive or they’re mother was raped or they grew up in foster homes and the back story always comes out when they’re trying to convince someone not to kill themselves.

    “I understand how you feel”
    “No you don’t!”
    “Yes, I do. My mother was schizophrenic. My dad was a drunk and beat me around. I was left in foster care for nineteen years. So yeah, I know how you feel.”
    “Oh. Wow. I guess you do. Huh. And you’re a cop so that’s cool.” (steps away from bridge)

  13. This one always amuses me:

  14. […] said “In the business of crime there’s two people involved, and that’s the criminal and the cops. It’s in both their interests to keep crime a business, otherwise they’re both out of a […]

  15. Kind of an add on to the busy that the cops always go to some sketchy no tell motel in the ghetto to show the innkeeper a photo of victim, missing person, etc..and it’s always a short, old Eastern European man who is rude and hostile to the cops and yells something like..”I just take their money and hand them the keys, I don’t follow them to their rooms or care what goes on in there!”. Then the cop ALWAYS has a comeback such as..”Well, while you were handing out room keys, a murder was happening on your property!”…cut to commercial.

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