The third season of the popular LAPD-supported cop show The Rookie is markedly different to its first two seasons. Or is it? In this episode we examine how the activist and advocacy group Color of Change helped rewrite the third season of The Rookie, and whether they achieved their aim of making it a more accurate depiction of the police. We hone in on the questions of institutional racism and corruption in the justice system, which were ignored or downplayed in seasons one and two but are front and centre in season three. We round up by asking whether the show is sufficiently subversive to actually challenge people’s perceptions, or simply provides a progressive, tokenistic gloss to the same old copaganda.
Anyone who has been following my work for a while will know that I have a bit of a fascination with The Rookie. It’s an ABC comedy-drama set in the LAPD, the Los Angeles Police Department, which centres on John Nolan, a man in his 40s who joins the police as a rookie.
So this is a slightly unusual take on the copaganda procedural, in that the show focuses more on developing character arcs and relationships than it does on the ‘thin blue line between order and chaos’ of most cop shows. It is quite different to the Law and Order and NCIS TV universes, and for what it’s worth I actually enjoy it as a piece of entertainment, despite finding it quite risible in places.
On the political spectrum it’s a typical liberal product in that it has a racially diverse cast, the original captain of the police precinct is a woman, the young black rookie from Nolan’s academy class is gay, and so on. But it’s also a typically liberal product in that it does absolutely nothing to explore the sexist, racist working culture within the LAPD, which is then inflicted on the population at large. As per usual, diverse casting and characterisation is a substitute for saying or doing anything subversive or challenging.
There is an interesting sub-plot to this, whereby the actor playing the black female cop who is Nolan’s training officer in season one accused a black, male cast member of sexually harassing her and accused the white, female head of hair and make-up of sexually assaulting her at a party. The upshot of this is that the show called in an outside firm to investigate, who found no evidence to substantiate her accusations but likewise found nothing disproving them.
That is to say, if there were witnesses to what happened then none of them said anything but likewise, there were no witnesses to these altercations who said that these things didn’t happen. Similarly, the accused had no apparent alibi, certainly not one backed up by witnesses or evidence.
As I said in a subscribercast, I tend to believe her. She left the show, as did the cast member and the head of hair and make-up. She gained nothing from this, it didn’t become some viral #metoo thing because she’s a black woman accusing a black man and a white woman of sex crimes (or at the very least deeply unprofessional behaviour). It doesn’t fit the narrative of the poor, bourgeois white woman being subjected to the evils of powerful old white men, so she was largely ignored and unsupported.
However, she was replaced in season two by a new training officer for Nolan – another black woman, to maintain the ethnic mix. About halfway through season two she opens up to another female officer and tells her that she was raped by her handler while working undercover. This storyline is never picked up again, and from that point onwards she sluts it about all over the place, hitting on virtually every man she meets.
It’s a really fucked up mea culpa wrapped up in a bunch of nasty cliché, masquerading as ‘sympathy for the plight of women’, as though it’s only women who suffer these things. An absolutely typical example of Hollywood’s inability to take a sophisticated, intelligent, sensitive approach to human suffering.
That’s not what we’re going to focus on today, but it is an example of how this show is replete with virtue signalling, gesture politics and symbolic victories for progressives acting as a cover for a deeply conservative piece of PR for the LA cop shop. This is the analysis I offered in my 40 minute video about the series, which gets into the Rampart scandal, predictive policing, no end of examples of police violence, racial profiling, sex crimes by police officers and so on.
All of these things are ignored or wokewashed by The Rookie.
Then, something interesting happened. The organisation Color of Change published a report on Copaganda, which applied content analysis techniques to hundreds of episodes of TV shows set in the criminal justice system. They also detailed the involvement of dozens of ex-police and ex-military technical advisors working on many of these shows, and discussed the influence of real life cop shops on how they are portrayed on screen.
Their conclusions were perhaps not that surprising – that there is the same racism, sexism and classism in most of these shows as we find in many police departments. As Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, put it:
It’s the most overdeveloped character on TV. They are almost getting carte blanche in how their stories are told, which in some ways replicates how police have immunity in the real world.
The organisation, whose membership has grown to over 2 million people, has had some success pushing back against the tidal wave of TV copaganda. Both Live PD and Cops were cancelled in part due to pressure from Color of Change. For a little more on this here’s a clip from an interview he did with Democracy Now:
The Netflix show he mentions is Border Security: America’s Front Line which is, of course, supported by Customs and Border Protection, part of Homeland Security. I appreciate that there are some of you who will balk at the notion of an organisation pressuring a TV network to cancel a TV show because of its politics, and I must admit I have some reservations about this tactic.
Naturally, people whose sole response to popular culture is to blather about ‘cultural Marxism’ and ‘critical race theory’ have called this censorship ‘cancel culture’ and so on. But there’s a huge difference between an online smear campaign against an individual – i.e. cancel culture – and a swell of popular criticism leading to a media corporation deciding to stop making a specific product. The former is just bullying and harassment, the latter is a legitimate tactic against a centre of power. ABC are owned by Disney, they can take the hit both emotionally and financially. An individual who makes a racist joke on a podcast so the Twitterati bully their listeners into abandoning or even starting a hate campaign is in a very different position.
Nonetheless, is this the best answer to the problem of copaganda? In an ideal world, no. The best answer would be to teach the entire audience for these shows how they are carefully crafted deceits, and watch those loyal supporters turn into critics, and then stop watching, and then the shows get cancelled.
But that isn’t possible, because – just as with military and intelligence propaganda – copaganda has been around for a long time and is very effective. Convincing people they’ve been propagandised when they are so heavily propagandised that you’re trying to overcome psychological associations as much as ideological beliefs, is very difficult. Not impossible, but impossible on a large enough scale that it will lead to TV shows simply not being made any more.
Color of Change’s Influence on Cop Shows
The other big part of what Color of Change have done is meet with people inside the culture industries, to make their case and lobby for changes in how the industries work. They’ve even put together a database of consultants for writers and producers to turn to, so they don’t have to rely on the default setting of turning to some Republican voting ex cop who’ll probably spout a bunch of toxic macho bullshit that then makes its way into the script.
Now, I enjoy me some well written toxic macho bullshit, but only in the context of a story that offers an alternative way of being, an alternative model for the audience. If the only thing they get is toxic macho bullshit then it stops being funny or provocative or a counterpoint to simpering progressive preaching and just becomes… toxic macho bullshit.
As Robinson mentioned in that interview, they went to Fox to discuss one of their productions and the executives offered to make the show more diverse, rather than to fundamentally change its values. On another subscribercast I broke down an interview with the producer of one of the Law and Order series, who said he had also met with people from Color of Change.
So, when the news broke that the organisation had also met with the producers of The Rookie, and that season three was going to be a departure from what they’d done in seasons one and two, that piqued my curiosity. This news broke in January and there were several online panels where writers and others involved in the show discussed their new approach.
One of these was at the Sundance Film Festival, titled Color of Change – Looking Forward: The Future Of Crime Television, which was moderated by the organisation’s Director of Culture and Entertainment Advocacy and among the speakers was Terence Paul Winter, Executive Producer and Writer on The Rookie.
I find this very interesting, that one of the lead writers – who is a black guy from South Chicago, so is well aware of what the police can be like – is struggling with this so much. He keeps saying they are not changing the show, but they are. If your show is aspirational – i.e. shows the police how we would want them to be – then that is categorically different to an honest depiction of the police.
I also find it curious that the lead actor, Nathan Fillion, was all in favour of making these changes to the third season. In the promos for seasons one and two he was very pro-police.
So the question we’re left with is how much of a departure is the third season of The Rookie from the standard issue copaganda format? It’s amusing – one of the comments under my video on the first two seasons is that I was wrong that the show covers up for police racism, because in season three they have a racist. I’m just guessing here that this comment came from a fan of the show, rather than someone objecting to its new direction, but let’s take a dive into this third season and see how different, subversive or challenging it truly is.
Recontextualising Tim Bradford’s Racism
In the first two seasons of The Rookie there is only one scene that depicts a cop being overtly racist. One of the other rookies from Nolan’s class, Lucy Chen, is partnered with Tim Bradford, an ex-military guy who is very stern and strict and takes no prisoners.
Just as a quick aside – why is it that so many South Asian-American characters on TV have the surname Chen? I must have seen half a dozen characters with that surname in the last few years. Maybe Hollywood needs to update its big book of names, because these writers are coming across as very limited in their scope.
Anyhow, the actor who plays Tim Bradford has given interviews about going on ride-alongs with the LAPD, meeting cops, being trained by cops, how he was invited to a special police event where guys from the Rampart division were saying how much they loved his character. Naturally, the LAPD couldn’t find any documents relating to all this, or to how a current LAPD cop is the basis for the entire show, is an executive producer and script consultant, and even appears as a cop in one episode.
The scene in question is during a car stop on some Central American gardeners, but Bradford’s racist comments are just a test to see how Chen will respond.
Here’s where things get really interesting – I sent my video investigation of The Rookie to Color of Change, along with a bunch of documents on various shows that I got from the LAPD. It seems that they took some of my criticisms of the show on board, because the rewriting of The Rookie season three recontextualises this scene, which I specifically drew out in my video.
Across two scenes, Chen confronts Tim about his ‘lesson’ and his ‘less than PC language’
Tim admits that his behaviour wasn’t appropriate, and this is part of a larger story arc that requires some explanation, so bear with me. The other rookie, Jackson West (who is a young, gay, black third generation cop) loses his training officer who goes off to become a detective. Her replacement is Doug Stanton, played excellently by Brandon Routh.
Stanton is an old school racist who sees all black and brown people as potential criminals, and makes a lot of condescending, stereotyping comments about Jackson’s athletic ability. He isn’t vicious or openly bigoted, but he is obviously prejudiced. Jackson decides he has to do something about this, so he asks Tim’s advice and Tim initially tells him to suck it up and just hang in for a few weeks until he finishes his training.
But then, after the confrontation with Chen – who lives with Jackson and knows all about what’s going on – Tim decides to support Jackson when he goes to the watch commander to complain about Stanton.
This leads to a cat and mouse game where Jackson is trying to get enough dirt on Stanton to get him fired, while Stanton realises this and tries to find a way to get Jackson fired. The culmination is when Stanton leads Jackson into a dangerous public housing estate and leaves him alone to get beaten up by a gang of hoodlums. But Jackson realises, and turns Stanton’s bodycam back on, showing what he did.
This has been praised by some commentators, but I find it is just a lengthy rehash of the same problems with the initial scene with Tim and Chen, or the brief references to one rogue, racist cop in one episode of season one. It makes it look like this is just one cop, and while Tim (the most old school of the training officers, because he’s the white guy, itself something of a racist, sexist stereotype) initially dismisses Jackson’s concerns, he comes around almost instantly.
This marginalises what is, in reality, part of the working culture within the LAPD since day one. If they truly wanted to address this problem in the show, they would do some flashbacks to when our three rookies were in training, and show the mentality these trainees are indoctrinated with. Instead, the only flashbacks to their training days come in the form of some phone camera videos of the three larking about.
Systemic Racism, the War on Drugs and Community Activism
However, the Doug Stanton story is not the only long-term arc where this issue plays out. Nolan, our 46 year old rookie, is being punished for reasons we won’t get into, so he and his training officer are sent to a community outreach centre in a poor neighbourhood. They encounter a local activist who is very critical of the police. When Nolan chases down and arrest a reprobate who breaks into someone’s car, the activist confronts him.
Nolan notices that the gates into the local park are chained up, so he cuts off the chains. Activist guy confronts him again, saying the locals had locked up the park because drug dealers used it at night.
So Nolan sets about repairing the lights at the park, and having CCTV cameras set up, and having more patrols come by to keep an eye on things. The activist guy confronts him again.
I have to admit, I got really tired of this guy and his twitter slogan style of arguing and approaching these problems. Plus, there’s a nasty undercurrent to what he says – he refers to drug addicts as junkies, and treats them as social pariahs. But at the same time he objects to the police arresting someone who broke someone’s car window and tried to steal their stuff.
Which of these is truly the bigger crime? Sure, if people had better economic opportunities then there would be less petty theft, but likewise is someone taking drugs actually a criminal? Are the people selling them drugs criminals, or people taking the economic opportunity that is open to them?
So the activist’s ultimate answer – to get meth out of the neighbourhood – is perhaps even more shallow and certainly less well-intentioned than Nolan’s rather half-witted efforts to help.
Likewise, the fact that this community activist who is very critical of policing as a response to social problems is all in favour of policing when it is the war on drugs – the very policy that drives so much of the mass incarceration, racial profiling, violent and domineering police tactics and so on – is really fucking stupid. His answer to the problems caused by this policy is more of this policy.
Ultimately, the activist basically gives in and befriends Nolan, and even starts having a thing with Nolan’s training officer, the sex-mad rape victim character. So this voice of dissent is shown giving into the system, even inviting it into his community. Though of course, he’s black, so he goes for the black female cop, because The Rookie still struggles with miscegenation.
Thus, is this a true rewriting or are they just replaying the same idealised, aspirational view of the LAPD from the first two seasons? This activist starts out as someone who says the locals don’t call the cops because they can’t trust them, contrary to what Nathan Fillion said in interviews. But he ends up not only accepting the police’s presence in his life, but welcoming it and even cheerleading for the war on drugs.
In this sense, even the rewritten version of The Rookie isn’t as far forward in its thinking as The Wire, a TV show that preceded it by nearly two decades. The message is that for an open, liberal society to function, where different races live in harmony, they still need a perceived external threat, the drugs and the drug dealers. And even the drug addicts.
This is a pretty cynical version of progressive liberalism, and certainly not one that breaks any boundaries, either conceptually or in practice. It is, as the activist says, putting a band aid on a systemic wound, just as much as old school policing does.
Which leads me to ask – is this sort of shallow, symbolic progressivism actually doing any good? Or it is lending legitimacy to the system, rebranding it for a dissenting audience?
Another Dissenting Voice is Co-Opted
The other long storyline in season three is that Nolan goes back to night school to finish his degree, so he can become a training officer himself – just like the real life cop his character is based on. He only takes one class – ethics and criminal law – which is taught by a prominent female blacktivist.
Yeah, it’s not very imaginative. The class gets into a debate about defunding the police, there’s a whole thing about Nolan not telling them he’s a cop and then they find out, it’s all just a vehicle for a bunch of fairly preachy, shallow dialogue.
Where things get interesting is that the lecturer also befriends Nolan, but retains her scepticism towards the police. She even goes on a ride-along with Nolan and his training officer, under the guise of it helping her write her book on policing.
So this is another dissenting voice, and one that is more articulate than a random twitter dipshit who thinks people who break into people’s cars should go free but drug addicts should be imprisoned. A dissenting voice, that is, until her life is threatened by white supremacists, at which point she needs the police to protect her and proves utterly useless in the face of the enemy. Which kind of undermines every single thing she has said up until that point, and reinforces exactly what Fillion said in his interview – that even people who are opposed to the police still call 911 when they need them.
This is the sort of cynical, often macho attitude you find in institutions like the military and the police – any criticism is dismissed through ad hominem speculation that the critics still want their help.
Well, I, for one, don’t. I cannot really envisage a situation where I would call the police, especially since the only times I have ever done so, they’ve been utterly useless and refused to do anything. These days I just deal with things myself, where necessary. I know that not everyone can do that, but I honestly believe there are lots of better answers to these problems than calling in a bunch of uniformed tools of the state.
In the final episode of season three we get another toe being dipped into the water of the profound problems of modern policing. Nolan arrests someone, and suffers a minor injury during the pursuit, so the DA charges the suspect with assault. Thus, Nolan becomes aware of the problem of systemic overcharging, whereby prosecutors go for everything they can in the hope of leveraging a plea deal.
This storyline is patently ridiculous – the notion that someone with a year on the job had never previously encountered a prosecutor over-charging someone to try to get a guilty plea is just unrealistic. But of course, so is the fact that it took until the last episode of the third season of this show for them to acknowledge this widespread practice.
As such, this is a product of just how dishonest the show has been up until this point, rather than just bad screenwriting. However, what happens next is one of the most insulting things I’ve ever seen on TV.
That’s right, Nolan (having only just become aware of the problem) solves it overnight. The police division refuses to participate with the DA’s office when they overcharge suspects, having apparently asked everyone in the building and reached a universal consensus in just a few hours. Because the LAPD is just so damn efficient when it comes to reforming how it operates. Doesn’t it make you proud to be an American?
We have to come back to this question of whether anything in the show has actually changed, or whether it remains an idealised, dishonest depiction of the LAPD? And thus, does the show actually apply any pressure on the real LAPD, or provide it with a mask to cover its worst activities? Likewise, we have to wonder whether Color of Change have actually achieved anything here, except lending credence to a show that continues to be an absurd piece of copaganda?
Because this is the problem – by claiming the rewriting of The Rookie as a success, we have to assume that Color of Change are happy with every dissenting voice in the show being co-opted by the heroic police. We have to assume they are happy with the most dissenting voice being a cheerleader for the war on drugs.
Now, this rewriting did go beyond the usual tokenism and perhaps Color of Change deserve some credit for that, but I’m left with the nagging feeling that they’ve actually made things worse. Their good name is being lent to a production that remains very pro-establishment, it just finds way of incorporating and then nullifying dissent in a way that it didn’t before.
So, while I respect the organisation and what they’re trying to do, I’d love to know whether they considered this experiment a success or a failure. To me, it’s overwhelmingly a failure that surrenders ideological territory at every turn and undermines every dissenting voice in the show. Simply having dissent being represented, but never winning the argument, makes for more rounded drama but it accomplishes nothing politically.