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The Rise And Fall Of TV Cop Dramas


02 February 2015

Cop dramas are part of the American television legacy like no other genre of television show, reaching perhaps peak viewership in the early '00s, when “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” regularly reached an average of approximately 16 million viewers per episode in 2002 and 2003, according to TV by the Numbers. The cop drama has waxed and waned in popularity since its early days; here is a look at the rise and fall of the police procedural and what its future holds.

The Early Cop Drama
“Dragnet” has a special place in cop drama history. It originally aired from 1951 to 1959, but its popularity led to a reincarnation from 1967 to 1970, then a spin-off from 1989 to 1991, and a final run from 2003 to 2004. Dragnet began as a radio series in 1949 and, as one of the first, set the tone for all cop dramas that would follow. There was a standard for structure, accuracy and drawing inspiration from the biggest world happenings at the time. However, Dragnet often veered into an idealized portrayal of law enforcement—perhaps due to the unprecedented technical involvement of the Los Angeles Police Department and its need to uphold a certain reputation. The "Dragnet" style has waned in favor of more character driven narratives, but the legacy of its entertainment innovation is powerful nonetheless.

20 Years of Law & Order
“Law & Order” is something of an institution in American television. TV.com notes that the flagship series debuted in 1990 and ran for 20 seasons before being cancelled in 2010. The massive franchise has several spin-offs that have achieved different degrees of success, which includes “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Law & Order: Trial by Jury” and “Law & Order: LA.” The franchise was so successful that it spawned a series of PC games that featured the series' format of interviews with witnesses and even features the voice acting of the show's actors. The most recent video game title “Law & Order: Legacies” was even developed by leading graphic adventure designer, Telltale Games.

Later shows like “CSI” gained popularity and created spin-offs just as "Law & Order" did; a fact that, some say, leaves the rookie owing thanks to the veteran series.

The Future of Cop Drama
The rise of cop drama television franchises being adapted to video games has created a subsect of games that mirror the look and feel of the classics. For example, Rockstar's “L.A. Noire” shamelessly emulates the feel of the classic Dragnet with a much more gritty and hardboiled narrative. Presented in an episodic style, “L.A. Noire” hearkens back to the classic cop drama, but other games like “Battlefield Hardline” evoke the gritty and dark mood of modern cop shows.

As gaming becomes a more mainstream part of the American entertainment experience, the cop drama will evolve to embrace the interactive medium more and more. Within the police procedural there are many genres that adapt well to video game format. Whether players are solving mysteries, chasing bad guys through the streets, noble investigators or crooked cops, the narrative format of serialized police dramas is still going strong today and doesn't seem to be slowing.