There were cowboys where I grew up. And the landscape wasn’t much different from the scrub brush Roy and Gene and Hoppy rode through nightly on my TV set. You could forgive a kid for blurring the lines between what was real and what only happened in Western movies.
And maybe that was a good thing.
In 1959, I was nine and already addicted to television. That was also the year when Westerns reached their peak of popularity on the tube. There were 26 of them in Prime Time. 26 different hours and half hours every week when there were still only three American networks to choose from.
The modern comparative would be to give every single reality show a cowboy motif. “Jersey Shore” in ass-less chaps and “Celebrity Apprentice” on horseback.
Kids my age were literally submerged in the genre. And there’s no doubt we transposed a lot of what we learned from all those dusters into what we thought was the right way to operate in the real world.
Not all of us, of course. Many weren’t as young and impressionable or glued to the TV three hours a day.
A lot of books have been written about the influence of Westerns on our culture and how they formed so much of our collective character.
One of the best is “The Lone Ranger’s Code of the West” by Jim Lichtman, an ethics specialist, and based on the moral and ethical standards built into the original Lone Ranger TV series.
As part of his business seminars, Lichtman used to ask his audiences how they would react if they heard that the Lone Ranger had recovered a stolen payroll but before returning it had deducted expenses for items like silver bullets and tacked on a 30% finder’s fee for he and Tonto.
His clients always insisted the Masked Man would never do anything like that; that he was above such petty self-interest. This led Lichtman to finally codify what had always been the unspoken “Code of the West”.
Lichtman’s version of the Code breaks down to three main points:
1. The Hero considers the well-being of those affected by his actions.
2. The Hero bases decisions on his core values of honesty, fairness, caring, respect and his duty to what needs to be done.
3. If he must make one moral choice over another, the Hero will do what he believes is best for society in the long run.
Those of us who write for television and film readily admit that we build on what came before us. We use past templates to fashion what are hopefully new patterns. But we all know that no matter how much we think we’re exploring new territory, we’re always retracing the path Joseph Campbell mapped in “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”; treading in the well-travelled footsteps Heroes have trod since time immemorial.
But the signposts marking that path are illuminated by Lichtman’s “Code of the West”.
And even though we like our heroes a little more flawed or conflicted these days, the core components of the code apply. Even Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey of “The Shield” embodied a version of the code within their separate realities.
For when a Hero strays too far from the code, he loses the willingness of some to embrace his make-believe world and allow it to influence their reality. In breaking with the code, he also empowers those with a darker agenda.
These are truths that somehow eluded those responsible for last week’s episode of CTV’s “The Bridge”.
I’ve written about “The Bridge” before. After watching a few episodes, I sensed it wasn’t going to get any better and moved on.
But over the weekend, a writer I respect asked if I’d seen Episode #11: “The Blame Game” referring to it as --- “The most offensive hour of television ever produced in this country”.
Since that’s a record I thought I probably held, I went to CTV’s online repository of episodes to see for myself.
I wasn’t prepared for how correct my friend was in his assessment.
If “The Blame Game” is what passes for Canadian drama these days, it’s no wonder we can’t find either an audience or a lot of public support for using taxpayer money to make our shows.
Let me describe the episode. And don’t worry about SPOILERS. Even when you know what happens, you’ll want to see this repulsive piece of shit for yourself; if only to be convinced that it is the actual work of well-paid professionals.
“The Blame Game” unfolds as follows:
Two street cops, Mac and Aziz, attend a stolen car call, turning the case over to two of the series’ regular detectives. While her male partner takes the report, the other detective, Billie, retires to their car to pop some pills and smoke a little crack.
The cops of “The Bridge” apparently aren’t partial to donuts.
A short time later Mac and Aziz spot the stolen car and pull it over. The driver, a black man named Blue, (there’s some foreshadowing in that description) keeps talking on his bluetooth as they try to arrest him, relaying what’s happening to a following car that opens fire on the officers. Blue escapes and Aziz is killed.
Series lead Frank Leo attends the murder scene, conferring with detectives, learning that a street gang is likely involved and Mac is being interrogated by Internal Affairs – something that upsets the police union head because cops involved in shootings aren’t supposed to be interrogated for 24 hours.
Leo interrupts the interrogation where sleazy IA detectives are already accusing Mac of causing his partner’s death. The scene includes lines from Leo like “These are my guys not the Chief’s…” and “I’ve got every cop in the city on it” (looking for the shooters) continuing the show’s delusional reality in which a union rep runs the police force.
Then Leo and Mac break the news of Aziz’s death to his wife. Nice dramatic touch but with no basis in any police reality. Five minutes in, I am reminded that “The Bridge” is self-indulgent fantasy masquerading as cutting edge police drama.
Leo meets the Chief at a cop hangout to discuss the 24 hour rule. Seems the Chief only broke the agreement to pressure Leo into turning over the high society client list of an escort service some cops had been running so he can coerce the johns into helping forward his own political agenda.
Leo is outraged. Not at the shakedown or the reminder that more of the cops he keeps championing are scumbags, but because “I’ve got a cop killer to find” – the series writers and showrunners apparently unaware that he isn’t even a cop anymore.
They saw off at Leo giving the Chief one name off the list --- which Leo just happens to have handy and in lurid detail --- and the Chief backs IA off Mac.
By this point, I’m considering how much of what passes for the world of “The Bridge” is really a recreation of the inner corporate working of CTV, where the squeaky clean image presented to viewers hides a cesspool of lying, backstabbing and predatory violence.
It’s a world where legitimately artists can be coerced into being “politically incorrect” and “edgy” and you don’t even have to pay them that much to whore out their talents.
I’m sorry, but every single scene in “The Bridge” just smacks of people without a clue issuing the marching orders sans regard to what impact or ultimate impression the show they are making might have were anybody (however unlikely in their world) actually paying attention.
Meanwhile, Mac has gone off the rails, mercilessly beating young black men who might know something about his partner’s death.
In the world of “The Bridge” even though other cops know he’s out of control, they just take Mac home or buy him drinks and don’t press any charges.
An early message of the episode is --- don’t be black in Toronto if a white cop is pissed at some other black guy! Oops, wait, I didn’t mean Toronto, I meant --- uh, whatever fictional city this is.
CTV’s original press releases might’ve said it was Toronto but then the rumor was the city threatened to sue over how its cops were depicted or something like that --- because now it’s --- I don’t know, “anywhere” --- except, y’know, an American city since everything about the rest of the show follows Canadian legal and social protocols.
Anyway, the investigation proceeds fingering the driver of the stolen car as a black gang member named “Blue” and hints that more about what may be going on is known by a chop shop owner.
We also learn that Leo cheats on his girlfriend, regularly breaks the law and blackmails politicians. But he won’t tolerate corrupt higher-ups hurting one of “his guys”.
Blue is arrested, but gets out on bail because Mac beat him during his arrest. Yeah, when it comes to a cop killer, that’s gonna happen.
But if it doesn’t the rest of the story can’t unfold as it does.
During this Leo utters a line which epitomizes the moral bankruptcy of “The Bridge”. We’ve seen Mac beat innocent people, try to kill a guy in custody, etc. and Leo tells another cop, “Mac’s only doing what I’d do for you.”
I wonder how many Black kids watching this are having their own suspicions about cops (white ones in particular) confirmed by all this?
But all of that pales with regard to what comes next.
Billie, who’s in charge of babysitting Mac, gets high and loses him.
Mac kidnaps Blue and takes him to an abandoned warehouse (there’s always an abandoned warehouse conveniently available, isn’t there?) where he duct tapes the man to a chair and begins beating him to learn the identity of the shooter.
The man refuses to talk, terrified the shooter will kill him if he does.
So Mac shoots him.
Meanwhile, Leo is beating up the chop shop owner in a much more fashionable location than a warehouse. I’m not sure where exactly but it reminds me of the executive suites at CTV. This guy too is afraid to talk insisting the shooter will kill him if he does.
So Leo beats him harder.
With a sledge hammer.
That cinches it. It is a CTV office. Sledge hammers are what they used to sell “Save Local TV”.
Mac then shoots his defenseless prisoner a sixth time and the guy finally spills. Mac texts the shooter an invitation to join them.
The chop shop owner confirms that Blue is stealing cars (something I thought Leo already knew, but anyway) and Mac calls Leo and kills Blue while they’re on the phone.
I’m not sure if the killing had anything to do with Leo trying to talk him out of it by saying “You want to do this, give him a bullet for me”. By this point, I’m so repulsed by what I’m seeing that all rules of story logic have ceased to apply.
Then it gets even worse.
The shooter arrives. He’s a fourteen year old black kid.
Turns out Blue and the chop shop owner were deathly afraid of a Munchkin.
Pinging a GPS location off the cellphone Mac used, Leo and his sidekick turn up at the warehouse.
But they do nothing to help the kid as Mac puts five bullets in the boy’s head at point blank range.
In fact, Leo simply arranges to have the whole thing “cleaned up”.
In the final scene we learn there is no trace of the cop killers and that Mac will soon be back on the job. That’s before Leo intimidates the Attorney General into expanding the 24 hour rule to 48 hours.
I’m not going to ask how we sank to this level. I already know. This is what happens when writers and directors and actors are so intimidated by the system they work within that nobody challenges such a despicable misuse of not only our craft but our obligation to the audience.
This is the work that is produced when an artistic community is starved into submission and rendered desperate to simply pay the rent.
Some of those connected with the series are already back-pedalling, claiming it wasn’t their fault. They were only “following orders”. And there really isn’t any point in discovering who’s the Amon Goth in this particular work camp.
But every single artist who contributed needs to start asking when they decided that what they do had no better purpose than paying their bar bill --- and maybe if that bill would be as large if they hadn’t sold out the abilities some higher power or inbred spark granted them in the first place.
I’m not one of those who blames society’s ills on television. But I know it holds a place in the nurture process. And I know what Wyatt Earp and Cheyenne Bodie and Johnny Yuma taught me through that flickering screen.
So should it surprise anyone if some black 14 year old watches “The Bridge” and mutters “Fucking cops” under his breath?
Should it puzzle us when nobody gives a shit about some Afghan detainee beaten with his own sandals after witnessing helpless men being tortured and murdered in cold blood by Canadian cops they’re supposed to be rooting for?
Should any artist in this country be challenged by the cynicism of our audience when stuff like this is presented to them as the best we can do with their tax money.
I’m not saying you need to revert to the “Code of the West”. But as an artist you do need to stand for something.
And if you don’t. Could you get out of the way and make room for people who actually do care and maybe have something more worthwhile to say?