The New Class of Police Procedurals

Police procedurals have been around since the birth of television. They drew lines of right and wrong, and went after their crooks with the right and might of the law on their side, always steeping their cases in “Just the facts, ma’am.”

In recent years, the police procedural has changed. Sure you still have series that more or less stick to the straight and narrow, but more often than not, we’re getting police procedurals that have what may be called a bit of a Twililght Zone twist.

So, it looks like you can at least try to teach an old dog some new tricks, because while not all of the series survive, they do bring a new take on a tried and true formula.

My favorite of all of them came along a ways ago, but it is still an amazing show, and if you haven’t seen it I suggest you seek it out. It’s called Life on Mars, and I do not mean the abysmal American remake. I mean the original BBC series that walked the line between police procedural, time travel thriller, and was occasionally very creepy. Running for two series on the Beeb, the story follows DCI Sam Tyler (played by the always awesome John Simm), who is struck by a car in 2006, and wakes up in 1973, with all of his knowledge of modern day policing. Not sure if he’s in a coma, dead, or dreaming, and there’s evidence provided to support all the theories, Sam finds himself working with a group of cops led by Gene Hunt, a very old-school-police type, using his modern day investigative techniques to help solve crimes in the 70s while trying to figure out how to find his way back to the present.

The very politically incorrect, sexist and hard-drinking Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) returns in the spin-off/follow-up series to Life On Mars,  Ashes to Ashes. Bowie references continue as DI Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) is shot in the head in 2008. She wakes up in the London of 1981, and the times they are a-changing. Hunt and his cronies have transferred in from Manchester, and they all get teamed up together, Alex and Hunt naturally chafe at one another, but there’s also an underlying attraction there as well.

All the while however, Alex is trying to find her way back to 2008 and her daughter.

This show ran for three series on the BBC, and happily after the failure of the American version of Life On Mars, I don’t see them taking on this one.

Both series feature top notch acting, stories, music and costume, and while there are comic moments in both shows, the large majority of the time, it’s played completely straight, which allows the view er to buy into the story, the world, and the mystery of what is happening to Sam and Alex.

I think it’s time for me to revisit both series in the very near future. (Once I get over the current Trek kick I’m on).

In the series Life, Charlie Crews (played by Damian Lewis who first came to my attention in Band of Brothers) is a cop who was wrongfully accused and sent to prison. Upon his release he is given a huge settlement, enough to more than set him up for life, and never have to work again. He decides, however, to take up his badge again, and he and his new partner Dani (Sarah Shahi) form an uneasy working relationship, especially when Crews starts poking around in the case, and the bad cops, that got him sent to prison. So on one front it works as a police procedural, but it also has this huge conspiracy arc that is referenced episode to episode as well.

There’s great chemistry between Lewis and Shahi, and when you throw his lawyer, played by Adam Arkin into the mix, it makes for a very enjoyable show, that sadly only lasted two seasons.

Boomtown was another series with a great concept. To show the story from all sides. It tended to show you that your first impression of a situation was often wrong.

With a giant ensemble cast including two more Band of Brothers alumni Donnie Wahlberg and Neal McDonough.

The show ran for two seasons and made you look at things from all angles. Unusual for a police procedural, in that usually they made sure that the lines between right and wrong were clearly delineated.

Not so in Boomtown. With each new perspective you see that everything isn’t all you thought it was, and by the end of the episode, you see the events in a completely different way from when you started.

We’ve talked about Alcatraz previously on this blog, and though I’m not quite caught up on all the episodes yet, (I’m currently about 3 behind) I’m enjoying it.

All the inmates and some of the personnel disappeared from Alcatraz in the 1960s, but now, they’ve returned, they’re back on the streets, untouched by the intervening years, and picking up right where they left off.

So each week our team tracks down criminals, while at the same time trying to resolve the mystery behind the disappearance and the return of these people.

What I’ve really enjoyed about this, in addition to the mythology being created around the series, is the fact that the show isn’t shying away from portraying the types of criminals that would’ve been housed in Alcatraz. The child killer episode was downright chilling…

Then there is Awake, which is about to launch here on Global television, and the pilot is available online.

Starring Jason Isaacs (known to most people as Lucius Malfoy) plays Michael Britten, a cop who’s either lost his wife or his son in an automobile accident. You see, he now exists in two realities, one in which his wife survived and his son died, and one in which his wife died and his son survived.

He is seen a therapist in both realities, both of whom are trying to convince him which is real, all while he works cases, which seem to be connected (or a least they were tenuously connected in the pilot – we’ll see if they continue).

I like the concept, they’ve already established that some time soon he’s gonna have a complete breakdown, because he’s not sleeping, he simply transitions from one reality to the other, back and forth. I hope the show-runners know where they are going with it. 

But for now, I’m more than happy to enjoy these latest incarnations of the police procedural.

Have I missed any? Which are your favorites?

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