Monday, March 15, 2010

The Guy With The Movie In His Head

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I don’t usually do reviews, but I’m breaking that rule today because I want to talk about CTV’s new cop drama “The Bridge”.

Prior to its debut, the series was hyped as “polarizing” and “controversial”. But I sensed something else in the pilot, something I can only describe as disturbing and ultimately destructive.

There’s a lot I don’t pretend to speak on with much authority. But one topic I understand fairly well is cops. I’ve written police pilots for all of the major American networks and a couple up here. Almost all were shot, a couple turned into successful television series, one wildly so.

During four seasons of “Top Cops” on CBS, we did 96 episodes comprising 3 stories per week, each a faithfully recreated true crime. The process of making sure those stories retained their authenticity was intense.

I logged hundreds of hours on ridealongs in high crime neighborhoods in several American cities. Days were spent shadowing detectives or federal agents, nights in cop hangouts, noting the special things they knew about criminals and the rest of us. Learning, perhaps most of all, what made them tick.

Some were good cops and some were bad. Their ranks were comprised of decent and dedicated men and women as well as racists, misogynists, sadists and malcontents. Sometimes those less laudable attributes didn’t interfere with the way they did their jobs.

Sometimes they did.

During our four season run, I attended funerals for cops whose loss cut the hearts out of their departments. I watched corruption scandals tarnish an entire force. Mostly I remember one Latino officer, standing before a mob during the Rodney King riots, refusing to anger as he was repeatedly spat upon by people who would never know how hard he’d fought for them.

None of us can fully comprehend what these people try to scrub off before they go home.

But some don’t wash it away. They turn it into something else.

It was easy to write stories about these cops. Audiences like heroes who are straight-shooters. They like flawed heroes and anti-heroes. And they even connect with those who do the right thing despite their imperfect nature.

What they don’t accept are heroes who are dishonest, who pretend to be something they’re not.

Our story process on “Top Cops” began with a team of journalists led by true crime writer and novelist Lorenzo Carcaterra, best known for “Sleepers” later made into a Barry Levinson film starring Brad Pitt, Billy Crudup and Robert DeNiro, as well as the superb cop novel “Apaches”.

If a cop and his story rang true for Lorenzo, we pitched it to CBS. If approved, the premise faced a second hurdle in Executive Producer, Sonny Grosso, a former NYPD detective immortalized in “The French Connection” and “The Seven Ups”. Sonny approached each story and script as he would questioning a suspect.

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“You’re supposed to do this. Why’s he doing that?”, “Nobody makes that kind of connection. He’s left something out.” and “Bullshit! She’s making this up!”

Once a police officer and his story got past those two guys he had to deal with me. I was the one who had to make audiences engage, no matter how unfamiliar the story felt compared to all the cop dramas they had seen.

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The officers we eventually dramatized ran the gamut from those you’d immediately trust with your life to ones whose dark motto was “Plug ‘em and plant ‘em!”. All of their approaches worked when it came to creating arresting drama.

The guys we stayed away from, were the ones who knew their lives would somehow look all right if they could see them on the silver screen.

Some were flamboyant story tellers. Others seethed in silence. They had hand tooled leather jackets or signature accessories. They drove cars connected with cops named “Bullit” or “Starsky and Hutch”. Everything about them said, “I’m already a movie. Shoot me!”

They went out of their way to let you know you could never understand the secret codes of policing and that the only reason you could sleep safely at night was because “I’m out there”.

They were keepers of some sacred flame only they could comprehend. You could never build a story around them, because the foundation wasn’t solid. You never knew what the story was trying to accomplish. And if you didn’t --- how could the audience?

Which brings me back to “The Bridge”.

The series is the brain child of Craig Bromell, described thusly by Susanne Boyce, President, Creative, Content and Channels, CTV Inc.:

“Craig Bromell is one of the most galvanizing figures in the history of policing in Canada. We look forward to working with him on THE BRIDGE, and bringing to Canadian audiences a distinct and authentic view of life behind the scenes of a modern police force.”

Said distinct and authentic view is based on Bromell’s experiences as head of the Toronto Police Union during the 1990’s. Aaron Douglas (BSG), plays series lead Frank Leo, a no nonsense cop elected head of his police union. In the pilot, like Bromell in real life, Leo leads a wildcat police strike and gets into confrontations with police brass and other forms of authority while fighting for his union brothers.

A CTV Press release describes what’s coming in future episodes as follows:

“Frank Leo begins his quest to put street cops first and clean up the force from the ground up. But the old boys’ network running the police force and the city’s self-serving politicians are not about to sit idly by while a former street cop makes up his own rules. Frank walks a thin blue line as he battles wiretaps and a concerted campaign to bring him down, letting nothing stop him from fulfilling his unwavering vow that when cops are in trouble, the union will be there.”

Those, like me, who actually lived through the Bromell era in Toronto might not see what he did as “crusading” for any kind of truth or justice. It was a time when many within the force as well as law abiding citizens felt that the four words painted on the side of Toronto Police cruisers, “To Serve and Protect” no longer applied to anyone who wasn’t a rank and file union member.

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It wasn’t unusual for some who spoke out against Bromell and the Union’s tactics to face real or implied intimidation from Toronto police officers. Fodder for great drama to be sure. And television audiences have matured sufficiently that whether the union crusader envisioned by Bromell was an ethical to a fault Frank Serpico or Vic Mackay of “The Shield” he’d have their attention.

But that’s not what’s on view in “The Bridge”.

Instead, we’re presented with a nebulous code of ethics that changes with the frequency of the commercial breaks. Cops are regularly shown behaving completely immorally and then proudly defended by the Frank Leo character.

In the series second episode broadcast last Friday night, somebody mentions that one of Leo’s Union members is a wife beater. Leo spits back a defense that silences the critic, “Spousal abuse doesn’t make him a bad cop!”

That scene comes moments after he's argued that some other cops buying counterfeit goods doesn't make them bad cops either.

By the episode’s end he’s traded the life of a cop even a Union boss can’t defend to a Russian mob boss to buy protection for a former partner who’s in prison for killing his wife. Of course, her death was “an accident”…

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If any of this is an actual reflection of Bromell’s time in the Toronto Police Service, it might help explain why entire communities and large areas of the city stopped co-operating with the cops on their streets, allowing street gangs and drug trafficking to establish a grip that may never be broken.

But I’m quite confident in saying there’s barely anything in “The Bridge” that ever really happened --- except to some guy with his own private movie playing in his head.

The entire series operates on a level of paranoia and self-delusion that beggars belief. Leo and his fellow officers are downtrodden and abused by all those of higher rank. Every Captain and Deputy Chief practically sneers with venality while twisting their Snidely Whiplash moustaches --- and those are just the women!

But the caricatured characters aside, the events within the show have such a tenuous grasp on believability that they make “CSI: Miami” look like a reality show.

Among the plots in the two hour pilot are an ominous black pick-up truck that keeps mowing down homeless people yet remains unscarred by all the flying bodies and debris. When the vehicle is finally cornered, five of our “heroes” pump 68 shots into it without reloading, killing an old lady they didn’t know was inside.

Despite having had an ID on the vehicle and owner for what seems like forever, this takedown causes much anguish for our cops when it’s learned there is no blood or fibre evidence because the vehicle has been repainted.

Well, duh!

But things work out when we learn the old lady had been befriending homeless people, took out life insurance policies on them and then had them squished.

Like the dumbest adjuster on “Crash & Burn” wouldn’t figure that one out.

Not that he’d have to, because nobody ever seems to get any hard evidence on anybody on “The Bridge”. If one of our inner circle of cops says it, it’s true. Anything said by anybody ranked higher than a Sergeant is a lie.

Make that a vicious lie designed to ruin some poor cop’s life and career.

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One of the other plots in the pilot concerns a “bad cop” who is robbing drug dealers. Throughout, everybody on the force is searching for three missing uniforms. Despite the fact that “Bad Cop” already has one (and why he’d therefore have to steal one more than he needs is never explained) --- absolutely nobody seems to notice some of the robberies involve a real police car that either isn’t missing or isn’t that important to them.

But the “A” story revolves around Frank becoming radicalized and taking on the entire “rotten at the top” police force.

Upset by the suicide of his training officer, he pressures the department into a full police funeral. In a real police force, the insubordination exhibited here would either be forgotten because of his relationship with his training officer, or it would earn him a new assignment designed to humiliate or bore him into resigning.

But in Frank Leo’s world it leads to wire taps and fellow officers being strong-armed into getting dirt on him.

Why? He’s a fucking nobody!

Oh, wait. No. He’s the guy with the movie in his head that somebody’s trying to put onscreen --- and still have it make sense.

As Frank’s war with the brass escalates, he goes to bat for two fellow officers suspected of police brutality. Despite an official autopsy report indicating the cops had nothing to do with the death of the kid they were arresting, some mysterious “They”, who are only out to get our cops, is circulating a video tape that makes them look bad.

Why?

Because if they don’t Frank has no motivation for calling a wildcat strike. When he first pitches the idea, another cop is justifiably concerned, asking, “Won’t it endanger the public?” Leo’s uncontested response, “Not if it’s a Union thing!”

You see, I guess there’s a criminals Union that we don’t know about because we’re not cops and if the cops go out they just phone up the head of the Criminals Union and ask their members not to cross any picket lines or make any of their “brothers and sisters” look bad…

Who writes this shit?

And who thought it was a good enough idea to shoot?

Anyway, “complications ensue” and pretty soon cops are wearing wires to get shit on other cops and other cops are not wearing wires because that would be tellin’ and eventually the Chief gets a line on the bad cop who’s been robbing drug dealers.

Does he have him arrested?

No.

He meets Frank, now head of the Union, to get his okay to kill the guy. Because instead of arresting a bad cop and maybe proving that there’s a need to keep his troops under his thumb, it’s now more important to corrupt Frank by getting him to okay the killing.

Which Frank does.

Only he doesn’t because he then goes and arrests the guy before the police hit squad can arrive.

Honest, you can’t make this shit up --- unless you’re that guy with the movie in his head.

I’m sure there was a way to take the original premise for “The Bridge” and turn it into something that doesn’t look as absurd as it does. And I don’t know if the fault in that lies with the original concept, or those who signed on to help create it, eschewing whatever artistic ethics they might have for a pay check.

Or maybe it was those who green-lit its production in the first place.

Somehow, one, all or a combination has created a show that doesn’t want to admit what it is, can’t comprehend why it is and doesn’t even dare tell you where it is.

As the series went to camera, CTV reiterated its “Flashpoint” commitment to no longer hide the Canadian roots of the shows it was partnering with CBS to produce. But somewhere along the way, that got lost too.

But perhaps damaged most of all is the reputation of our industry. Canadians don’t get that many chances to produce hour long dramatic television, especially the kind that has a chance to connect with a popular audience. And I fear, “The Bridge” if it ever manages to escape across the border, will provide many with further proof that we’re just not ready for Prime Time.

And that’s a terrible shame that could have been easily avoided.

Making good television is not just about making the deal work. It’s not about trying to look “edgy” and “polarizing” and “controversial”.

It’s about putting creative decisions in the hands of producers who are story tellers, people who write and create, those who know you can’t trust the guy with the movie in his head.

Truth is always stranger than fiction --- because fiction has to make sense. And that movie running in some guy’s head usually only makes sense to him.

14 comments:

The White Wolf said...

Kudos to TV, EH? linking to your post. I was under the impression they just waxed politically-correct on Canadian television.

RE: Cop Feature.

TRAINING DAY was a great cinema experience for me. Watched it back to back - first time ever.

David Ayer's script is as lean as the come.

rpp said...

I suspect you nor any member of your immediate acquaintance was involved in the police 'management' practices that were all too familiar in the the 1970's and 1980's.... many members of my family were. Unfortunately, it appears you did little, if any investigation into this matter or your comments wouldn't be so erroneous.
Paranoia was the rule rather than the exception at this time. Much of what would be considered 'acceptable' investigative techniques were no where to be found, something that should not be surprising to anyone when you believe that your superiors are doing everything, or will be, to make your life a living hell.
Whatever creative licenses may have
been taken to put this show on the air are more than worth it ! Enjoy a police story that actually has some validity behind it, for a change.

jimhenshaw said...

It was great being a cop in the 70's and 80's wasn't it, RPP?

You could call people niggers to their faces, tell raped women they must've been askin' for it and put somebody on the Cherry Beach Express whenever you wanted.

Maybe you or a member of your family was the cop at 52 Division who handcuffed a friend of mine to a chair and kicked him down a flight of stairs, only discovering after his knees were broken that he was completely innocent.

Nobody's saying the job wasn't tough and you didn't have to deal with a lot of scumbags and nobody understood how it really was out there -- least of all those bullshit civilian review boards.

But there's a line, RPP, a line between being "Them" and being somebody better.

If you crossed it, I got little sympathy for you and if you just looked the other way, I have even less.

A cop is supposed to stand for something, buddy. If you want to wallow in self pity, get into Canadian show business.

Chris said...

Thank you Jim. You said everything I have been thinking, but brilliantly written. I hope Boyce reads it.

Brandon Laraby said...

Maybe I'm in the minority here, but I grew up having a lot of respect for the police in my area.

I grew up in a lot of small Ontario towns and the cops there were always decent people -- at least any of the ones I'd ever met.

They were the kind of people who'd come to class and talk to you about the dangers of drugs in our Values Impressions and Peers (VIP) class and then go out there and then spend time to help a friend of mine when he had his new hat stolen by some jerks.

They'd make sure you got home safe if you asked them and were the kind of people that -- even to this day -- I smiled and waved to when I saw them.

Coming from my small towns to the big city and being indoctrinated in the 'grit' of it all was quite an experience for me, I literally couldn't make the connection between the scandal and what I knew to be true.

Hell, even here in Toronto (a year or two ago) I had an officer take time to drop by my house and deliver my missing wallet (still full of money) to me.

A wallet I'd considered lost -- that some concerned citizen had seen and given to the police without request for a reward.

How is that supposed to jibe with what I've been told and shown about cops on TV?

It doesn't.

Now, yes, I say all this knowing that I'm a small-town white-boy who's generally kept his nose clean; knowing that I've never had to deal with issues of race or discrimination or sexism.

That said, I'd really like to hope that these events would've played out the same way if it were otherwise -- that whatever the circumstances, I've been fortunate enough to meet decent, honest, caring officers of the law.

But I don't know.

All I can say is what I know, what I've lived through -- and I gotta say that the stuff I see on shows like The Shield, The Wire and The Bridge... well, while it makes for good TV... that's not real to me.

And damn am I ever grateful for that.

Anonymous said...

Brandon, have a look at this.

And then spend another ten minutes with Google.

Anonymous said...

Here it is:

The exec producer, the guy with the movie in his head, said, "I wanted to set the record straight," about his own career.

He didn't say, "I want to make a great TV show," or even, "I want to tell the stories of the dedicated men and women of the police."

Okay, everybody can understand wanting to set the record straight, and there were probably a lot of publishers who would have been happy to publish an autobiography - but why would CTV provide such a platform?

DMc said...

Nobody needs to hear about another white man's relationship with the Police, so though there's a lot that I would like to say about The Bridge, I'll just repeat this:

The "wildcat strike" that was portrayed in the Pilot was based on a real strike that happened in 52 division in the early to mid 1990's, when Bromell was the union head. A black Citytv reporter was profiled, yanked from his car, and beaten and when the whole thing blew up, hundreds of former cops and cops --some in uniform, some not, descended on 299 Queen Street West, which was then the ChumCity building.

As people left work for the day, they were treated to the sight of the streets and sidewalks filled with cops -- some in uniform, as I said, some just wearing union ball caps.

They heckled people as they left. They called people names. They formed walls that wouldn't let women or visible minority people through. Anyone who said something -- something to the effect of "you guys shouldn't be doing this" was physically threatened.

It was probably the most upsetting thing I'd experienced that year, and it filled and unsettled my dreams for years afterward, colouring my perceptions and trust of the Toronto Police Force.

That is Bromell's legacy for 1000 people who were just trying to go home from work -- accountants, researchers, tape librarians, story producers, P.A.'s...many in the workforce for ten minutes. I was in my early 20's.

It was a shameful, shameful day. Celebrating it or trying to spin it as heroic is a stain on police everywhere, most of whom my head tells me are hardworking public servants.

But Bromell and his idiots made sure that my heart will always wonder otherwise.

The White Wolf said...

Hahaha.

I grew up in the small mining towns of Norther Ontario and the corruption there (I'm sure in some cases) would make Big City crime pale in comparison.

My uncle was a high grader that traded gold for coke - with Cops!

He's the proud owner of a successful Motel on the 101 now.

Tons of crooked cop stories:

One of the biggest drug dealers in our town owned the biggest car dealerships. His daughter crashed in a Cesna loaded with coke.

Cops tipped off the rich parents of my crime addicted friends prior to busting the kids from the wrong side of the tracks. Countless times!

And I swear that the dude that lives on the other block from me in Montreal is an ex-Timmins cop who was 'transferred' out of town after he was implicated in providing young girls (FROM Montreal) to sicko politicians and (you guessed it!) fucked-up cops.

I, fortunately enough, used to date the daughter of a prominent judge and whenever I was drunk and disorderly (or wandering around on Acid;) would name drop her to the cops that initially tried harassing me, saying we'd been in a fight or whatever.

And it sure as hell didn't hurt being White, non-native, and English, when it came to a: 'look the other way' cause the kid's White, non-native, and English rule.

But Truth is always stranger than fiction. Innit?

Now what's the other show, 'The Running of Doyle' all about?

The White Wolf said...

P.S.

My dad used to party with this Good Cop who wanted nothing more than OUT of the local Police Force.

And this one time...

after the Chief of Police in Timmins almost broke my arm, the Officer who drove me home (no charges laid - on me!) was one of the kindest dudes.

And then there was that time when I beat up the Ringmaster of a visiting Texas Circus after he assaulted me when I told him his Elephant was CHAINED TOO CLOSE to a cement pillar - making the animal unable to lie down...

THose cops actually saved my life by arresting me.

So, of course, not all cops are bad. Just the corrupt ones and the murders.

rick mcginnis said...

All I had to hear about this show was "Craig Brommell" and I knew I'd never watch a minute, for precisely all the reasons you laid out. Not that I'd expect anyone at CTV to run that internal interrogation for themselves.

Brandon Laraby said...

@anonymous and DMC

Yeah, living in the city and, well, generally being an adult has shown me otherwise in regards to Corruption and such.

And, like so many things, the more I learn about these things (I hadn't known that much about the wildcat strike...) the more freaked out I get.

Gustav said...

What an extraordinarily well-written and informative review AND article on the purpose of a police drama. I wish you had a show on and hired me to work for you. Such learning / opportunities are thin on the ground. Kudos~!

John McFetridge said...

Hey Gustav, I'd like to work for Jim, too.