Thursday, June 10, 2010

Favorite TV Cops

Television gives me a chance to daydream myself into the shoes of people who do a job I would never consider doing in real life.

I could never be a cop. I admire the work that cops do; I like knowing every minute of the day that a large force of people has accepted the duty of ensuring my safety, along with everyone else's. But I would make a lousy police officer. For one thing, I daydream far too much; a good cop stays alert and aware at all times. For another, I'm a physical coward; I can't run, punch, or kick worth a darn. Finally, and most crucially, cops must deal on a regular basis with humanity at its most reprehensible. Violence and perversion I'd prefer not to think about, they have to confront head-on. (I couldn't make it past the second episode of Law & Order: SVU because I was too icked out.) Yet when I watch a high-quality cop show, for a little while I can see through the eyes of these men and women who do what I couldn't.

So here's a salute to five of my favorite television cops (though not, I should add, my only favorites -- just the five I've chosen to salute in this blog), each of whom shines in my eyes for different reasons.

1. DCI Gene Hunt, Ashes to Ashes. If 24's short-fused, torture-happy Jack Bauer put on several pounds and sported a British accent, he might be something like the wild and crazy Hunt. Due process demands fair treatment for those accused of crimes, but in fiction-land it's enormously satisfying to watch an obviously guilty criminal get his butt kicked, and Hunt's favorite method of interrogation involves cornering sleazebags in the Men's Room and shoving their heads in a urinal. Contrasting with more cerebral DI Alex Drake (see #5), Hunt lets his finely-honed instincts drive him right where he must go. He hasn't undergone a single day of sensitivity training, and one never knows just what he'll do or say next. This unpredictability, coupled with the charismatic performance of actor Philip Glenister, makes him compulsively watchable.

2. Constable Benton Fraser, Due South. A live-action Dudley Do-Right, to be sure -- but in this case, we can trust him with our lives. The anti-Gene Hunt, he hasn't undergone a day of sensitivity training because he would never need it; his instinctive civility and good nature come through in his dealings with everyone, from his fellow cops to civilians to perpetrators. (To give you an idea, he walks into Chicago carrying his gear because he keeps letting someone else take the next taxi in his stead.) This goofy kindness is allied with erudition and powers of perception worthy of Sherlock Holmes. On paper, Fraser might come across as impossibly perfect, but his boundless goodness is handled with wit, and actor Paul Gross makes him simultaneously irritating and loveable.

3. Detective Lennie Briscoe, Law & Order. When this show was at its peak, few shows were more compelling. Many fans watched it for Sam Waterston's unstoppable DA Jack McCoy (admittedly an intriguing figure), but Detective Lennie Briscoe, played by Tony Award-winning actor Jerry Orback, kept me tuning in week after week. Wry, acerbic, blessed with a dry wit and a worldly-wise baritone voice, Briscoe could inject humor into the most disturbing situations. ("Three gray suits -- a wild and crazy guy," he remarks as he and his partner search the closet of a murdered Parks & Recreation official.) He's what we'd often like to be: the clever, detached observer who never loses his panache. Sadly, Orbach died during the show's run. While other departing actors were replaced without a single lost beat, the show was never the same without Briscoe.

4. Agent Olivia Dunham, Fringe. Amazon women who can out-punch, out-kick, or out-shoot evil males are a dime a dozen, but Olivia merits a mention here because she's a thinker, with strong powers of observation as well as imagination. Her soldier-like dedication to her work has left her personal life rather sparse, but unlike other shows confronted with the same situation, Fringe does not treat Olivia as an object of pity. She's not cold or misanthropic; we see in her haunted eyes that she carries with her every misfortune she has seen, but she is strong enough to bear it. In this paranormal series, experiments performed on Olivia as a child have left her with supernatural abilities, but only a few episodes show her utilizing them. She doesn't need them in order to be strong.

5. DI Alex Drake, Ashes to Ashes. Conscious of political correctness, many writers fear to show female crimefighters as fallible or vulnerable. Yet here we have a lady cop who's been literally shot back in time to 1982, and who is on occasion threatened, kidnapped, and rendered helpless. So what's so wonderful about her? While she may be down from time to time, she's never out. Even in the aftermath of being rescued, she bounces back with all her strength. Like Olivia Dunham, Alex leads through her brain, utilizing her knowledge of abnormal psychology to work out the most puzzling crimes. And like Constable Fraser, she responds to those in need, even frightened gun-toting "perps," with perception and empathy. Alex doesn't seem to know kung fu. We don't see her going in for a lot of hand-to-hand combat. Compassion and intellect are her weapons, and she bears them with style.

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