'Cops' entering its 20th season
'Cops' entering its 20th season
When discussing his series, "Cops" mastermind John Langley can't help mentioning a few of its 700-plus episodes.
Like the one where an overweight woman lunged at an officer with a butcher knife. "She falls down and the knife goes all the way in her gut! I mean, to the hilt! And she lived!" He's clearly still amazed.
"And then we had the naked burglar in Philadelphia. The cops answer the call, and the guy's on PCP, which for some reason makes people take their clothes off. It takes about seven cops to subdue him.
"Then, a year or two later in Pittsburgh, the same thing: a naked burglar coming out of a school." Langley chuckled. "Ver-r-ry bizarre."
Not every episode of "Cops" is ver-r-ry bizarre. Even so, the prospect of seeing something unexpected, unhinged or simply true-to-life has kept viewers - more than 6 million on average last season - tuning to "Cops" each Saturday since March 1989. (Two half-hours air back-to-back on Fox at 8 p.m.)
But you don't have to watch "Cops" to have felt its cultural impact. Countless scripted and reality series have borrowed its "video verite" storytelling style.
It also inspired the Comedy Central spoof "Reno 911," and its reggae-flavored theme song ("Bad boys, bad boys") was memorably borrowed by "The Simpsons."
"Cops" is an institution, however unlikely. And lodged off the beaten path on TV's least-watched night. Which suits Langley fine.
"Each new Fox exec comes in and has a lot of other issues to take care of every other night," Langley said. "Then he gets to Saturday and goes, 'Oh, we got "Cops," let's just leave that alone.' So we're very happy, just plugging along."
Come fall, "Cops" will be plugging along for its 20th season, its nimble camera crews (10 of them) continuing to patrol the nation gathering 400 hours of footage per week to whittle into each episode.
It was in the early 1980s that Langley, an academic-turned-documentary filmmaker, had the idea for "Cops." He envisioned a no-frills cinematic ride-along with police.
But when he pitched it to the networks, he couldn't get arrested.
"Nobody thought you could do a series without a host, without a narrator, without a script or without actors," explained Langley. "I kept insisting, and they kept saying no, until finally there was a writer's strike in 1988, and there was about to be an actor's strike in sympathy. Suddenly a show with no actors, host, script or writers sounded pretty good."
Especially to Fox. And when "Cops" premiered on the struggling new network, it made a splash. "It had a big 'wow factor,' " Langley recalled. " 'Documentary in extremis' . . . 'existential variety show' . . . things that people weren't used to seeing."
It also seemed to put cops in a highly favorable light.
"It's told from the point of view of police officers," said Morgan Langley, John's 33-year-old son and vice president of his production company. "Because of that, people assume that the show has a very pro-law-enforcement message."
"But we're not editorializing about what we show you," the 64-year-old John Langley cautioned. "We don't say it's THE truth, but we're saying it's certainly A truth."
And no one is playing to the camera, he said. "When a cop is chasing a guy in a stolen car, the viewer can say, 'Well, the camera's there, it must really alter things because of the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty.' " Langley laughed. "That's a crock! They don't know the camera's even there - trust me!"
"I think 'Cops' has a purity that scripted shows and 'managed reality' shows don't have," said his son. "You're not getting kids drunk and telling them to live together." *