Saturday, November 14, 2009

Three good cops.

I've been watching old TV shows on Netflix and Hulu. It's enjoyable on several levels. I like to see how well the shows hold up, it's interesting to see how much slower paced the plots were back in the day, and it's always fun when you recognize some guest star. One show I have been re-watching from the beginning is Kojak. I wanted to see when it sank into self-parody (pretty early), but I also wanted to see if it was still fun to watch, and it is. For example, the guest star on the first episode is Harvey Keitel before he hit it big. David Proval, who later plays a very scary hood on The Sopranos, plays a cop who gets shot.

Watching Kojak got me on a compare and contrast kick with what came before it and what came after.

Sgt. Joe Friday. The signature role of Jack Webb's career, Dragnet's great realistic touch was showing police work as mundane and painstaking. Friday is diligent, he is honest, he follows the chain of command, he is the complete opposite of trigger happy. We know next to nothing about his personal life, except that he sometimes socializes with his partner, Bill Gannon. There are work shows and there are shows about personal lives, and Dragnet is all about the work.

Of course, while police work often is mundane and painstaking, Dragnet was also an officially sanctioned propaganda tool of the Los Angeles Police Department, which has been home to its share of trigger happy and dishonest cops since before my dad was born. Dragnet did bear some resemblance to the lives of most detectives, but it also didn't mention even the possibility of bad apples on the force, let alone a rotten chain of command.

Lt. Theo Kojak. As a series, Kojak does not try to be realistic. The most real touches are that the squad room is dingy and Kojak's car is a beat up, rust colored sedan, and that sometimes, there are stories about bad cops. Much like Jack Webb and Friday, Telly Savalas and Kojak are linked forever, so much so that people might forget how often Savalas played violent criminals or hotheads earlier in his career.

Kojak is cool and dapper. He's a good cop, because dammit, he cares! He's a man's man, he's a ladies man, he's the smartest guy in the room. He isn't Sherlock Holmes, who was pretty much a one man forensics lab before the invention of the forensics lab. Kojak has hunches and his hunches are always right.

Possibly the biggest contrast between Joe Friday and Theo Kojak is their relationship with the chain of command. Friday is a firm believer in the chain of command. Kojak believes in the chain of command going down, but going up... not so much. He gets orders and ignores them. The situation is so bad that the scenes with his captain, played by Dan Frazer, seem more like stuff written for a hen-pecked husband and domineering wife or an ineffective father of a stubborn child.

On the other hand, the chain of command going down, in Kojak's N.Y.P.D., being a lieutenant is not a desk job like it is for lieutenants on Law & Order. He's always up in everybody's business. The detectives under him can't go to the bathroom without his say so. He's out interviewing, he's the first on the scene after the beat cop, he's on stakeouts and breaks in on the bad guys, guns blazing when necessary.

Det. Jimmy McNulty. It's not fair to compare The Wire to other TV shows, but here goes anyway. Like Kojak, a lot of the cops on the show get to be the smartest guy in the room sometimes. McNulty is first in line here, because he is the first cop to realize that it's the Avon Barksdale crew that is dropping the most bodies and controlling the most territory, which is the impetus for the first season of the show. He's not dapper like Kojak and his partner Bunk is, but Bunk's relationship with the chain of command is not a complete train wreck. This is the main reason I'm going to compare McNulty to Kojak.

In so many ways, McNulty is the reality of what would happen to Theo Kojak. Being a man's man means he's a drunk. As a ladies' man, he is forever unfaithful to the women in his life. McNulty tries to be cool, but he has two boys at home. He mentions the Ramones and they roll their eyes at him like he's a dinosaur.

The smartest guy in the room can be a serious irritant to the second smartest guy in the room, or sometimes McNulty is the second smartest guy and just doesn't realize it. As for McNulty caring about the job, he is told more than once "That was your first mistake, Jimmy. You gave a fuck when it wasn't your turn."

But it's McNulty's complete lack of respect for the chain of command upwards that makes him most like Kojak, and in reality, a guy who can't be trusted to follow orders would not get a chance to climb the ladder, no matter how many commendations or how good his clearance rate was. In anything like the real world, there would be no Lt. Kojak. He'd be stuck at detective, and if got a little too smart and bucked the chain of command too obviously, he might end up riding the boat like Jimmy did.


CDP said...

I like the tribute to David Lloyd. By the way, I stillthink that Chuckles the Clown is only the second funniest ever episode of MTM...the funniest in my opinion is "Farmer Ted and the News", which is available on Hulu.

Matty Boy said...

I don't have a favorite episode of MTM, I have favorite lines.

Mr. Grant: You got spunk! I hate spunk.

Murray: You know how they say everyone has a book in them? In Ted's case, I think it was just gas.

Ted: This is Ted Baxter. I've just returned from Washington, D.C., where I discussed the world situation with our nation's leaders. Well, our our leaders but one.

Something to hide, Richard Nixon?

Mauigirl said...

I enjoyed Dragnet and Kojak too. Also "The Streets of San Francisco." I would love to watch those again - especially since now I've been to SF many times and would love watching Karl Malden and Michael Douglas in the familiar streets I now know well!