Among the newest network television procedurals hoping to capture a share of that sweet procedural pie is APB, which premiered February 6th on FOX. Since most of the shows are straightjacket-bound to the formula in terms of format and plot, they usually try to distinguish themselves from the crowd with some kind of “hook” in the premise. Maybe the main character is a different kind of tormented genius who’s a jerk to everyone! Maybe it follows a department dedicated to a specific brand of sex-murder. APB presents itself as a cop show with a Silicon Valley touch. It focuses on a Chicago precinct that gets a massive boost in funding and a technological overhaul after the city hands it over to the control of a billionaire. Network procedurals adore timeliness, and what better way to try to draw viewers than with a glimpse of the cool crime-fighting toys of the future? Sciencing up law enforcement worked for CSI, after all.
Hence in APB, the usual pattern (crime scene > questioning witnesses > chase > examining evidence > the first breakthrough > false lead > another chase > dead end > eureka moment > final chase > quipping as the perp is led away) is spiced up with the addition of futuristic bulletproof uniforms, a smartphone app designed for easy crime reporting, and drones. Lots and lots of drones. There are many scenes of drones swooping through alleys and over streets in pursuit of suspects. APB is higher-energy than what one typically thinks of for a cop show. (This is why, in my estimation, the show is likely to fail. This genre thrives with older demographics but struggles with the younger, no matter how flashily you attempt to dress it up.) This is policing for the millennial set. It’s hip, it’s shiny, and the heedless enthusiasm with which it treats the subject is utterly horrifying.
Granted, a lot of that horror is intrinsic to the genre. The police procedural has been a cornerstone of American television for nearly as long as the medium has existed, going back to Dragnet in the 1950s. Filmmaking styles, the explicitness with which shows are allowed to address their content, and the subject matter explored have evolved in that time, but the core of the cop show remains almost unchanged. Each week, it’s a new case. The cops are good, the robbers are bad, the killer is probably the guest star character actor, etc. The inner lives of the cast of characters aren’t subject to heavy scrutiny, and they always get the perp. This setup is so ingrained in pop culture that it goes unquestioned, but on a fundamental level, it is and always has been out of sync with the reality of crime and punishment in America.
This is made most evident whenever a show’s love of “ripped from the headlines” plots exposes the gaps between their moral universe and the real world. How can a procedural address police shootings of black people, or racial profiling, or brutality, or false confessions, or sentencing disparities, or any of a thousand other issues without alienating its viewers? How can something which by its very nature valorizes the police grapple with the ways in which law enforcement fails the communities it’s supposed to protect? Remember that procedurals, alongside TV stalwarts like the multi-camera sitcom and the game show, exist almost exclusively as entertainment comfort food. This is a big reason the genre represents some of the most venerable and popular programs on the air. Witness the dedicated, healthy viewership of the NCIS franchise and Blue Bloods, to say nothing of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order / Chicago universe. They do not maintain their audiences by challenging them.
Go beyond that to the basic assumption every one of these shows has: that law enforcement is a matter of “good guys” vs. “bad guys,” and not of the state exercising control over its populace. While these shows may revel in sometimes-lurid murder, they have a paradoxically childish philosophical core. APB is no different, with its cop characters openly discussing their job in terms of how to best “beat” the “bad guys.” Criminality is its own class, different from “regular” people, and it’s up to the boys and a couple of token girls in blue to stop them. It’s a game of cops and robbers with blood.
So it wouldn’t be fair to single out APB for criticism on the ground it stands upon alongside every other series in its genre. But the tech aspect, intended to set it apart, does indeed add a different dimension of queasiness. The drone issue alone is disturbing. Police departments across the country are adopting the technology, to the escalating consternation of watchdog groups. The surveillance state is robust enough as is, and the addition of eyes in the sky, paired with the increasing militarization of the police in general (a topic almost never addressed by shows like this), primes the institution even more for abuse and overreach in the repression of the poor and/or nonwhite. But hey, drones are cool, so watch a computer-generated one chase a criminal driving a muscle car!
APB was developed by sci-fi TV mainstay David Slack (a writer for Person of Interest, which dealt heavily with surveillance), based on the New York Times Magazine article “Who Runs the Streets of New Orleans?” by David Amsden. That article covers Louisiana trash magnate Sidney Torres, who set up the French Quarter Task Force as a private venture to handle law enforcement in the namesake neighborhood of New Orleans. In an age of public spending cutbacks, private policing is only becoming more common, but the task force’s use of an app with which the public can contact them is likely what caught Slack’s attention. The article also covers how the FQTF purged the French Quarter of “vagrants” (the long-discredited Broken Windows Theory is cited as justification), but I doubt we’ll see anything like that on this show or any other procedural anytime soon.
In APB, such an app is merely the beginning. The Torres-analogue tech billionaire Gideon Reeves, played by Justin Kirk, is seeking to “disrupt” policing. Rather than supplant the police as Torres did, he’s been put in charge of an existing department, but they are effectively his army – and he arms them appropriately. In his first presentation to the precinct in the pilot episode, he unveils a new Taser-like weapon that looks identical to a real gun and fires its electrodes as fast as bullets (which somehow work without a cord connecting them to the device). Hence, officers can “safely” subdue people without looking like chumps or fearing for their lives.
The innovations roll in from there, with at least one getting the spotlight in each episode to air so far. In addition to the aforementioned app, stun guns, drones, and bulletproof uniforms, Reeves engineers a better lie detector utilizing biometric feedback, algorithm-based tracking and sorting of surveillance reports, James Bond gadgets and tricked-out motorcycles for hot pursuits. If APB manages to run more than a season, one can only imagine at what point the shark is jumped and the solutions grow more magical and ridiculous with each new episode. And each new addition to the force’s arsenal only heightens its Orwellian capabilities. Within the space of a few episodes, this Chicago neighborhood is now at the mercy of an authority which not only has unprecedented insight into its residents’ daily movements but also is able to concoct new methods of control in the space of a few days. And of course, the role of recurring villain is played by civilian oversight, in the form of the meddlesome mayor’s office.
Again, all of this is presented uncritically as a good thing. The pilot kicks off with Reeves’ close friend and CFO being murdered. 911 takes forever to arrive, the police seem apathetic when it comes to catching the killer, and Reeves is disgusted by the ramshackle conditions of the department. With his wealth, genius, brash arrogance, and penchant for “witty” one-liners, he’s a blatant Tony Stark clone, though without the Iron Man suit. APB posits policing as in need of reform not on a cultural or philosophical level but on an innovative one. The solution apparently is to turn things over from publicly accountable officials to private citizens for “disruption.” Reeves is only wrong on the specifics of how he should be applying his tech, with a beat cop turned Detective Theresa Murphy (Natalie Martinez) on hand to show him what it’s really like on the streets and create romantic tension.
As government institutions continue to be undermined by reactionary politicians and lose any efficacy they once had, there’s been a thread of libertarian salvationism calling on the billionaires to step in. But to save whom? In APB, Reeves takes over a poor district, but Torres, the rich interventionist upon which he was based, set out to clean up the French Quarter, one of the whitest parts of a black city. If we cede control of our social services to private sources, who exactly is going to be doing so for the areas which offer little prospect of profit to them in return? APB has to draw up a revenge motivation for Reeves to keep his actions believable, but such a scenario is so drastically unlikely that poor people in such a real situation would have little reason to hope for such aid.
The scenario goes from Orwell to Minority Report in the third episode of the show, in which Ada (Caitlin Stasey), one of Reeves’ engineers, tries to get him to intervene in a domestic violence situation on the basis that, statistically, such conditions lead to worse violence or even murder. Despite being a maverick, Reeves rightly points out that they can’t arrest someone for what they might do. Thus, Ada has her target’s credit cards hacked, then mocks him in a convenience store to goad him into attacking her. Though Ada is chewed out for this by the man’s wife, it’s because of her general busybody interference and not the terrifying overreach of her powers. Ada continues this streak in the same episode by “solving” a confrontation between police and a band of armored truck robbers by remotely detonating the bomb in the robbers’ truck, nearly killing some of them.
APB at least recognizes this as a blown-up bridge too far, with Reeves disturbed by his underling’s action. Still, will this lead to a deeper critique of law enforcement mission creep and the inherent danger of granting unfettered surveillance powers to the state? Or will Ada simply develop into a “bad apple” or eventually learn her lesson? It’ll likely be the latter. APB is a procedural whose core theme is about upending the status quo, and yet it instead reinforces it in the most thoughtless way.