Why are TV writers making so many of today's TV cops so stupid?
This is the moment that made me throw a pillow at my TV screen last week.
A policeman has stopped a car as part of a roadblock looking for a fugitive who once was the county sheriff and is also a member of a murderous cult. (I know! Stay with me here.) The missing fugitive is a white male suspected of helping hide another serial killer; the car has a white male wearing a hat and sunglasses sitting in the passenger seat.
The policeman has his eye on the passenger as he gets out of the car, hand on his holstered gun. Somehow, the passenger, who is the fugitive, of course, whips out his own gun and shoots not only that officer, but another policeman standing farther away, like Wyatt Earp on his best day.
This is the level of police stupidity required to further the plot lines on Fox's latest drama series, The Following. And I have had enough of it.
For those who missed my earlier column on TV violence, The Following is movie star Kevin Bacon's first foray into life as a TV star, featuring the onetime Footloose lead as a damaged FBI agent drawn into a cat-and-mouse game with a serial killer played by James Purefoy, literary professor Dr. Joe Carroll.
But for the plot line to work — the serial killer recruits a legion of cultlike followers, escapes from a maximum security prison and kidnaps his wife and son out of police protection — every cop in the show has to be dumb as a box of hair.
Even Bacon's character, Ryan Hardy, isn't exempt. The show's backstory includes the notion that Hardy was once so stupid he consulted Carroll to help him catch a mysterious serial killer who turned out to be the professor himself. (also a bit of a ripoff of the Hannibal Lechter movie which predated Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter. There, Will Graham was a damaged FBI agent who had been attacked by Lechter after figuring out he was a killer while consulting with him on crimes.)
Hardy's stupidity was exposed again in last week's episode, when a follower of Carroll's showed up claiming she was leaving the cult to take an immunity offer.
A police officer pipes up and says he has frisked her for a weapon. But he somehow misses the sharpened sticks in her hand, which she whips out and stabs into the eye of the FBI agent in charge. Wonderfully shocking end to an episode, achieved by making a roomful of FBI agents look dumber than everyone watching at home.
It also got rid of a character who, not surprisingly, was questioning whether Hardy was right for the job. A smart leader would have sacked everyone within sight of this case when Carroll escaped from jail. Or when an agent was kidnapped from his hotel and tortured by the cult. Or when the sheriff they were consulting turned out to be a Carroll followed named Roderick. These guys have screwed up so many times, it's tough to pick the worst one.
This is a dynamic worse than the typical TV crime show formula, where one cop is particularly smarter than all the other detectives (The Mentalist, Elementary, The Closer, Law & Order and Criminal Intent). At least on those shows, someone is smart enough to close a case and stop the bad guy.
And it doesn't stop with The Following. NBC's new serial killer drama Hannibal features Casino Royale bad guy Mads Mikkelsen as the legendary foodie/serial killer Lechter, who also manipulates a department full of skilled federal agents into considering everyone but him as the killer they're all searching for.
All these shows could learn a lesson from Showtime's Dexter, which allows Michael C. Hall's serial killer Dexter Morgan to outwit the entire Miami police department without making them look incredibly inept. (Showtime just announced that the show's 2013 season, debuting at 9 p.m. June 30, will be its last.)
Indeed, next season unfolds after Morgan's sister Deborah discovered his secret and killed another cop who also figured out his crimes. It might have taken them seven seasons to work it out, but at least one Miami police officer eventually sussed out that their blood spatter technician was so good at figuring out murderers because he is one, too.
Better yet, Following creator Kevin Williamson (Vampire Diaries, Dawson's Creek) could watch Southland, TNT's amazingly excellent cop series that aired a season finale Wednesday which looked an awful lot like a series finale. (At press time, the show hasn't yet been picked up for a new season.)
Southland's cops are street smart, observant, distracted, misguided and struggling to cope with a job where survival and success often feel like a roll of the dice.
Last week, troubled veteran John Cooper (given a marvelously layered life by Michael Cudlitz) was shot by his fellow officers while beating a belligerent neighbor. He had just survived a hostage situation weeks earlier where his partner was killed.
When shows like Southland are fighting for their lives in a tiny corner of TNT's schedule, somehow it seems unjust that the bonehead vision of law enforcement on The Following and Hannibal should get such a wider platform.
We can only hope these show creators realize, by allowing their characters to be a little smarter, it gives us all a better story.