Alternate Title: Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Police Brutality
Note: I did not write this blog. This is a guest blog written by my sister, JoJo. She has lots of thoughts about this show and this topic, so I encouraged her to blog about it.
In the months since the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by American police officers, TV shows featuring cops have come under much scrutiny. Much of this scrutiny pertains to the glorification of police brutality as a means to solve the mystery and serve justice. More specifically, those against this type of representation argue that these shows glorify cops who go rogue and break the law in the name of justice. This then normalizes the real-life actions of cops who kill unarmed black people and are not held accountable for their actions. For a fuller explanation of this phenomenon, I suggest this Daily Show clip.
Since this criticism has arisen, many wonder what we should do with cop shows. Some even wonder if we should get rid of them altogether. While I agree that the American portrayal of police brutality is harmful and wrong, I don’t agree that we need to get rid of police shows altogether (although, we could maybe use a few fewer CSIs and Law and Orders). What many don’t realize is that Britain has provided us with a template for how to represent the police without glorifying them or police brutality. One of the best, though not perfect, examples of this is Grantchester.
If you haven’t seen Grantchester, it’s a British murder-mystery series that airs on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre based on The Grantchester Mystery novels by James Runcie. The show is set in the 1950s, beginning in 1953. The main focus of the series is a vicar in the small town of Grantchester, first Sidney Chambers, the subject of the books, then subsequently Will Davenport. Each individually help a local inspector, Geordie Keating, solve mostly local crimes in the town of Grantchester. 4 of the 5 seasons are available on Amazon Prime, so if you haven’t seen it, I highly suggest you do yourself a favor and binge all available episodes.
The first thing I noticed when I first started watching Grantchester is that perpetrators and those involved in crimes are humans, not monsters. For me, this is one of the more appealing facets of the show and British crime dramas in general. And it’s one aspect that separates American and British crime dramas. In American crime dramas, crimes are committed by monsters. The police characters are often unable to fathom how the person they’re dealing with could commit such horrible crimes. The resolution comes in “serving justice” to a monster of a human being who other humans should be protected from. (See any Law and Order, CSI, or even Criminal Minds.) However, in British crime dramas, crimes are committed by humans. In Grantchester specifically, context is provided for why someone committed a crime. Moreover, the crime and the solving of it relates to the relationships between the victims and those surrounding them. They’re just as focused on answering the why as they are the what. Because of this, each Grantchester episode tends to focus on some facet of society that can be harmful when construed a certain way. This allows the show to make social commentary using crime, rather than just “serve justice” and punish crime. Furthermore, the show showcases how flawed humans commit crimes when they’re pushed to their breaking point. The show explores what pushes humans to the point of harming others when they otherwise may not.
When it comes to the representation of the police and crime in Grantchester, the viewpoint character is a vicar, not the policemen. This not only allows the mysteries to have a more moral focus (note: without being too cheesy), but it also makes it so Geordie, our main insight into the police, almost never breaks the law. He doesn’t always like or agree with the rules and laws he enforces, but he’s almost never shown taking matters into his own hands to serve justice at any cost. When someone does break the rules, it’s usually the vicar, Sidney or Will, who will often get a talking-to afterwards. Almost never is physical force used to get information out of someone and if it is used, it is shown in a negative light to highlight that this is not acceptable behavior.
The one time we do see Geordie physically hurt a suspect is at the end of an episode featuring pedophilia where Will, Geordie’s friend, has also been victimized by the pedophile without being physically harmed. The episode is so dark and upsetting that the arrest of the pedophile is not enough resolution for the audience, Geordie, and Will. This results in Inspector Geordie then punching the pedophile as he’s being locked away. Geordie’s punch doesn’t seek to normalize police brutality, but rather provide a rare but needed catharsis for the audience and the character. (We could talk about how a fictional inspector punching a fictional pedophile on a fictional TV show is more catharsis and justice than many real victims and families of victims of pedophilia have ever gotten, but that’s a different post.) Overall, there are often foot chases of suspects and witnesses on Grantchester, but all-out police brutality is rare. This allows the show to rely on intrigue to provide the drama. This keeps you on the edge of your seat with the relationships and developing details rather than using force and action to keep the drama up. Because of this, Grantchester is not an action show like many American crime dramas.
Another important aspect of Grantchester that I’ve already touched upon is that the viewpoint character is a vicar, not a police officer/investigator/inspector. The crimes and investigations are seen through the eyes of two different men of God trying to navigate morality in the rapidly changing world of the post-war 1950s. More specifically, they not only help Geordie solve crimes, but they each have their own season long arcs that highlight their struggles with morality. Sidney is a jazz-loving World War II veteran vicar dealing with PTSD, alcoholism, and semi-unrequited love. Will is a rock’n’roll-loving semi-celibate vicar searching for a father figure who’s pursued his profession and lifestyle to rebel against his over-bearing and lying dad. It should be noted that Geordie, the inspector, is also shown to be not perfect in his personal life, from having an extra-marital affair to committing his mother-in-law to a mental institution for mental illness. These characters aren’t perfect, and the show knows they aren’t perfect.
Often, in American crime dramas, the shows try to make their viewpoint characters perfect. And these viewpoint characters are almost always policemen, detectives, investigators, etc. The American viewpoint characters are perfect until the show doesn’t want them to be for plot purposes and then they’re perfect again. And by perfect, I mean the moral compass who knows exactly right from wrong. This allows these viewpoint characters to be justified in police brutality. They’re perfectly right all the time and so they can do anything they want to solve the problem. This isn’t the case for Sidney and Will. They’re trying to help solve crimes and assert morality in their community when they themselves don’t fully understand morality. Instead of allowing the audience resolution in having right-from-wrong, Grantchester challenges the audience to reevaluate what they believe to be moral and to evaluate their own faults and humanity. This is ultimately what crime shows can be if we stop focusing on glorifying the police and police brutality and rather focus on why crime is so fascinating to us.
Crime is fascinating to humans because we want to understand why people hurt each other, and, in doing so, explore our flawed humanity. Sure, seeing justice served is satisfying, but you can also get burnt out on always seeing the perfect good guy save the day, not to mention how problematic this can become when police brutality becomes normalized. But I’d argue that crime shows can be more important in how they explore our humanity and our flaws rather than serving justice and providing action. America doesn’t need to completely nix crime shows. We need to reimagine them more in this way, in highlighting humanity, both the good and the bad. We need to find different angles beyond a perfectly moral cop and “serving justice”. We, rather, need explore the nuances of the justice system, humans’ relationships to it, and the implications of crimes beyond just their consequences, such as questions of morality or what leads to crimes. This would take a lot work and maybe it’s just a perfect ideal in my head. But I hope that Hollywood executives and writers are taking their extra time in quarantine to critically think about how cop shows impact our society at large. In addition to increasing racial representation in their shows, I hope they could take a cue from shows like Grantchester because no matter what, we are all human, not monsters. And above all, I hope they remember that Black Lives Matter.
Author Bio: JoJo Buckley has a B.S. in Nutrition and Dietetics with a minor in German. She enjoys singing, drawing, reading, and any visual fiction to overthink. She’d like to thank Mary Grace for handing over her platform and allowing her to voice her thoughts on a subject she is barely qualified to talk about.