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The Problem with Adding Fantasy to Cop Shows

Abrans and Wyman are the latest to risk skewing the procedural toward sci-fi

By

J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams is working on a new cops and androids pilot.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Updated September 17, 2012

They keep trying to sci-fi up the police procedural.

The cop show is, of course, one of the most durable bulwarks of the sprawling television edifice. The sorting out of evidence and the pavement-pounding to find more, forcing the shields to create jeopardy by pushing into places they're not wanted, until it all comes together for the reveal is the ideal schema for a formula that can nonetheless be startling different week to week. Still, there are only so many hours a week you can show Law & Order until the sameness starts to numb; so there's an urgent impulse to skew your police procedural, with different kinds of police, different kinds of crimes, maybe throw in a best-selling novelist.

But spicing up the cop show with sci-fi or fantasy is a surprisingly iffy affair. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't -- and sometimes it really doesn't. It's too easy for the welding seem to show, giving the whole affair the whiff of the contrived.

Contextualizing the Cop

Why? Mainly, it's because the police officer is the prototype of the normal -- the unfantastic. Consider Eureka: Jack, the cop from someplace normal, is literally the only normal, sane person in a town of weird and wacky geniuses, and he works exactly as we expect and need him to, by doing things in as unfantastic a way as possible. Or Twin Peaks: once again, the normal guy in the freaky town is the cop from someplace else.

Too much weirdness around the cops, though, and you give them nothing to stand on. That's the problem with something like Space Precinct, for example: at the end of the day you have Ted Shackelford stolidly walking through strange sets full of people in really lame costumes, and it just. Doesn't. Mesh.

Cops are so grounded in the grit of our unpleasant, grime-encrusted reality -- too well established among our most ordinary mental furniture, like firemen -- that they don't belong in a fantasy world of magic. You run the very real risk of ending up with something ridiculous, like Dennis Franz in breeches and pantaloons.

When It Does and Doesn't Work

When it works, it's because the join is more subtle. Grimm succeeds because Nick is solidly a cop, and even as he functions as a conduit between the rock-solid world of normality and the bloody, hidden world of the Wesen, he approaches everything as a cop.

Alien Nation, conversely, approached the idea of a human and an alien partnering as cops with the given that the Newcomers have been subsumed entirely into our world, and George Francisco is not a woo-woo space-alien but an immigrant in the context of our ordinariness, struggling to live as a Californian and work as a detective.

The closer you get to trying to mash a fantasy edifice onto a granite cop show foundation, the more likely you are to end up with something both unconvincing and unstable. Out of recent shows that involved police procedurals in the context of a sci-fi/fantasy premise, Life on Mars came closest to working -- and that was canceled.

Others, like FlashForward, in which cops tried to use the tools of a police procedural to solve a worldwide sci-fi conundrum, or New Amsterdam, involving a man with a fantastic nature working as a homicide detective, more or less failed utterly in that component of their storyline even if they had other things going for them.

Cops and Robots from Abrams and Wyman

So what are we to make of the news that two of the key creative forces behind Fringe, J.J. Abrams and writer-showrunner J.H. Wyman, are putting together the pilot to futuristic humans-and-androids police procedural for Fox?

The names are hardly a guarantee. As Ronald D. Moore's Precinct 17 amply demonstrated, even the biggest and most trustworthy names can crash and burn trying to twist up the cop show.

The premise bears some scrutiny. It is described as an action-packed buddy cop show, set in the near future, when all LAPD officers are partnered with highly evolved human-like androids. This is intriguing, since most cops-and-robots partnerings assume that the android is unique, and therefore that the human half of the partnership is exposed to the kind of edifying experience that an ordinary cop with an ordinary partner could never imagine.

One Cop, One Android

Buddy-cop pairings normally involve some kind of straight cop/weird cop setup that opens up the mind of the more normal of the two, ideally giving the wild half a grounding influence in return. It's the idea behind everything from The Streets of San Francisco to Lethal Weapon, and more iconically in something like Due South, where a streetwise gruff Chicago cop works with a Canadian mountie whose frame of reference is so different he might as well be an alien like George Francisco.

Androids and cops should work the same way: the trope extends one way into slapstick comedy (Holmes and Yoyo, starring John Schuck as a robot police detective you could plug your coffee percolator into) and the other way into serious sci-fi, as with Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw.

So it's somewhat dissonant right at the outset that everyone will have a robot partner in this new project. If experience is any guide, the overlay of world-of-robots onto a precinct bullpen is fraught with peril for viewer disconnect.

Perhaps the direst news is that the project is at Fox, which gave the pair a pilot-production commitment. Wyman, an actor (he starred in Sirens) and screenwriter (The Mexican and 25 episodes of Fringe, among other things) will write the untitled project and serve as executive producer with Abrams, Bryan Burk, and Kathy Lingg.

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