A few years ago CBS commissioned me to write a pilot about the Texas Rangers law enforcement agency. My concept was standard network television fare: an older ranger has to train three top recruits—a woman, a Chicano, and an unruly young man from a good family. All the network executives liked the synopsis and outline, but at the last minute, a flurry of conference calls confused me with vague implications of a big problem. My questions were met with equivocation and avoidance. When I asked for direct guidance, I was told that no one wanted to interfere with my creative process. The execs praised each draft but wanted characters that were more relatable. I added relationships common to most viewers: significant others, siblings, children. The network response was still the same—they loved my work but it wasn’t relatable. Everyone involved was frustrated. I felt like a waiter in a restaurant trying to take an order that wasn’t on the menu.
Finally, an independent producer called me privately. Because I was naive to the ways of Hollywood, he was doing me a favor by breaking protocol to explain the problem. I needed to eliminate the Chicano ranger. I pointed out that about a third of Texans had a Mexican background, and he said that staying true to Texas wasn’t important. The character was not “relatable,” which is TV code that means nonwhite. I later learned that in Hollywood, CBS is known as the “Caucasian Broadcasting Service.”
In my father’s last years, his favorite TV show was the police drama Blue Bloods. He often mentioned it on the phone and suggested I watch it. I said I would, but never did. It was a CBS show and I was prejudiced against their prejudice. I didn’t tell Dad any of this. He was dying and wanted to talk about TV, not ethnic politics.
Three years after his death I began watching Blue Bloods exactly as my father had—alone at night, sitting in a recliner. I wanted to understand what had attracted him to a police procedural set in New York City. He grew up in a log cabin on a dairy farm and lived most of his life on a hill in eastern Kentucky. He did not read crime novels or watch cop shows. His favorite TV shows had been Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, and Babylon 5. I was puzzled by Dad’s sudden interest in the genre as well as the setting, a city he emphatically disliked.
During a long gray winter I watched the first six seasons of Blue Bloods, for a grand total of ninety-five hours. The process shifted from curiosity to compulsivity, finally evolving to a kind of delayed mourning for my father. I was duplicating his behavior at the end of his life. As each overly dramatic scene unfolded onscreen, I imagined my father watching it, aware of his impending death. By the end of one hundred thirty-three episodes, I had acquired more insight into the calculated manufacture of a popular TV show than I had about my father’s interest. I was also more aware of my own mortality.
Blue Bloods has an elegant framework that combines two mainstays of TV programming—cop show and family drama. At the center is an Irish-Catholic family consisting of three generations of law enforcement. Four of the five main characters are men. The father, Frank Reagan, is police commissioner of New York City. He lives with his elderly father, Henry, who is a retired police commissioner. Both men are widowed. Frank’s grown sons include a detective and a rookie patrolman, and another son was killed in the line of duty. The only daughter is a prosecuting attorney.
Blue Bloods follows the standard format of police procedurals: opening with a crime and ending with an arrest. There is a nod to the ensemble cast with B-stories and C-stories but the majority of episodes revolve around the oldest son, Danny, a detective and Iraq veteran. He’s the most dynamic character and typifies the classic TV police officer. He takes every case personally, is relentless as a dog on a trail, defies authority, and is capable of great violence. At times his tactics are questionable but he never quite goes too far—at least in the view of his family, who believe in treating everyone equally except people of color.
As a police officer Danny has one major flaw—he always yells at the suspect from fifteen feet away, which allows the bad guy time to run away. A foot chase ensues. This is reminiscent of Mark Twain’s famed criticism of James Fenimore Cooper’s series of Leatherstocking books. Twain wrote:
Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig.
Danny’s impulsive shout to the suspect is the same as stepping on a dry twig; it furthers action but nothing else. It certainly doesn’t deepen his character since he never learns from the error. Still, he always gets his man!
The father/daughter relationship between Frank and Erin is oddly complex because they each fill in for the absent spouse—at political functions and within the family. As the only daughter, Erin wields enormous power. Under the guise of “protecting” her father and grandfather, she destroys any chance of a woman encroaching upon her territory. In one B-story arc, Frank develops a romantic involvement with a younger woman described as a “hottie” by his sons. Perceiving her as a threat, Erin convinces her father to break up with the woman. When Erin’s grandfather begins dating, she digs up enough evidence to have the woman extradited to face criminal charges. Erin’s effort to thwart these relationships is less about guarding the family than it is about retaining power—which is the ideal metaphor for the show.
The youngest son, Harvard-educated Jamie, is a rookie cop who makes rookie mistakes such as employing compassion, honesty, and reason. These errors are tied to his education, with the implication that college boys learned the wrong lessons—or at least different lessons than older brother Danny learned in Iraq. Danny equates the streets of New York with war while Jamie regards them as an extension of the classroom. In other words, combat is good, education is not.
For some reason, Ivy League characters have become trendy on TV in recent years. When I was a kid, the only major network character who went to Harvard was Mingo, a Cherokee tribesman on Daniel Boone. This was way back in the 1960s, when Jewish actors played Indians. Much has changed. You can curse and be nude on TV, and a Native American can be played by a Hawaiian guy who grew up in Iowa, such as Jason Momoa in The Red Road. Apparently, Jews and Hawaiians are a kind of stunt-ethnic for Indians. Perhaps they are more “relatable” to a white viewership.
The grotesque pretense of the Reagan family is a steadfast refusal to acknowledge their own power based on a dynasty of gun and badge. They completely ignore their status as modern-day royalty in New York City. Instead, they feel beleaguered by the terrible burden of being a Reagan. Apparently, it is really tough to be part of a prominent New York family, especially when you are legally armed! You’d almost feel sorry for the Reagans—except for Danny, who shoots someone to death every few episodes, then reminds himself that he had no choice. His family invariably concurs. They are a moral bunch, or at least they tell themselves they are.
If a situation demands a departure from conventional ethics, each Reagan makes the “right” decision that is later confirmed by the family at Sunday dinner. The show features a great deal of talk about “crossing the line,” but that line is never defined. It is more of a gray border, vague and imprecise, much like “relatability.” None of the Reagans cross the line, but they do cut corners, known as “judgment calls that all good cops make.” Essentially, the line exists wherever a Reagan draws it. The family occupies a world of simple polarity: good guys and bad guys. Us and them. Reagans and everyone else.
The show is well cast and the acting is consistently good, but the actors are rarely given any material that challenges their abilities. The content is too busy functioning according to formula while showcasing the American myth of individuals in service to the greater good. (The novelist Thomas Kelly wrote the best episodes but left the show in Season 3.) The overriding message of Blue Bloods is that the past was better, the old values were the best, and nothing can penetrate the family bond. Like all fantasy, it is fraudulent but comforting for viewers.
Every television show strains credulity at times. My favorite Blue Bloods strain is the absolute absence of the phrase “law and order,” which would certainly be discussed at the supper table. But including the term in a script would promote a rival network’s top NYC cop show. (Dun-Dunn!) As a former toiler in the narrative salt mines of TV, I admire the writers’ attempt to justify the fact that young Jamie must remain in uniform forever. The show is predicated on portraying four facets of law enforcement: police commissioner, detective, prosecutor, and beat cop. No matter how good Jamie is, he can never receive promotion. This is especially galling to him because all the other Reagans made rank much younger, even his dead brother. This failure leaves Jamie feeling bad. (As a college man, he’s allowed to have feelings.)
The writers address this problem in a smart way: Frank claims that because Jamie is a Reagan, he must distinguish himself as a hundred times better than any other cop to avoid the perception of favoritism. Jamie consoles himself with unrequited love for his female partner.
The median age of CBS viewers is sixty; for Blue Bloods it is sixty-two. CBS is the most watched network in part because it caters to its demographic. Blue Bloods affirms nostalgia for a past that never existed except in the popular imagination. My father lived in a county that was ninety-six percent white, and rarely traveled. His understanding of other ethnicities was informed by television, which reinforces its own bigotry week by week, day after day, hour by hour.
As a child I liked Bonanza, a period show about a family of cowboys in 1860s Nevada. The father had three sons by three different women, and none of the sons were married. Bonanza ran for fourteen seasons from 1959 to 1973. My favorite character was Adam, the oldest son and the only one who’d been to college. The actor left the series after protesting that white actors were being cast in nonwhite roles. (The only ethnic character was Hop Sing, a servile and loyal cook. Racism is addressed in Episode 409. A guest-actor refers to Hop Sing as “yellow,” and the family defends him by saying: “He’s a Chinese, not a yellow.”)
Pernell Roberts, the actor who played Adam Cartwright, considered the scripts unchallenging for actors or viewers, and called the show “junk TV.” He said it was “perpetuating banality and contributing to the dehumanization of the industry.” Regardless, the network knew it had a successful formula—a Western that focused on family. The adult boys, Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe, had to ask their father for permission to take action, and constantly lived in fear of his disapproval. The same infantilizing formula has enhanced the popularity of Blue Bloods.
Frank is close to his father and each of his adult children, all of whom seek his advice on a regular basis. His kids listen to him, follow his guidance, and call him “sir.” My father had little contact with his adult children and didn’t know his grandchildren at all. We called him “sir” because he made us, not because we respected him. He never offered counsel and we never asked for advice. Frank hosts a Reagan family meal every Sunday, but my father ran his family off.
Dad preferred solitude and bourbon and the romanticized version of traditional American family life on TV. He disliked his own father, who died young, but on Blue Bloods, Dad could observe the kind of relationship he would have liked to have had with his father, and with his own adult children. He could relate to the fantasy family depicted on his television.
The Reagans live in a two-story redbrick house with white trim, similar to the house I grew up in. There are three adult kids and three grandchildren. Beyond these surface elements, shared by thousands of other families in America, I struggled to find the root of the show’s appeal to my father. Perhaps he liked Blue Bloods precisely because he was such a bad father. The show depicts the fantasy of what he wished life had been for him in the past, and what he wanted as an elderly man: the close and loving family he never had as a child or an adult. For that I’m glad of the show’s existence, glad my father had something to satisfy him at the end of his days.
I suspect that Dad related to Frank’s pride, his essential hubris. Though appearing forthright, Frank often conceals his selfish desires. If something offends him personally, he attacks it under the guise that it might damage the office of Police Commissioner. Frank’s most common verbal habit is saying “I know,” or “I know that,” or “I’m the police commissioner, I know everything.” This constant superiority would have appealed to Dad, who believed himself superior to all. Frank seldom listens, is always right, and never apologizes. Dad was the same.
My family ate supper together each night at 6:00 sharp. We had our assigned seats, including Dad at one end and me at the other—the same spots occupied by Frank and Henry in the show. My mother sat to Dad’s right, as Erin does with Frank. Mom grew up in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood of Lexington, Kentucky, and cooked the same traditional meals that the Reagans eat: chicken, potatoes, meatloaf, pot roast, cabbage, green beans, roast beef, and various stews.
Yes, we ate together as the Reagans do, but unlike them, we never talked honestly. Our meals were composed of many rules: Don’t talk personally. Don’t interrupt Dad. Laugh at Dad’s jokes. Above all—never, ever disagree with Dad. As a result, our meals were fraught with tension, the product of a collective effort to avoid making Dad mad. The group anxiety manifested in spilled glasses of milk, swiftly gobbled food, and avoidance of eye contact.
The more I considered the Reagan family meal as the big draw for my father, the more I examined the idea of food as a cultural unifier. This concept has become popular, the subject of forums and articles and much culinary jabber. But is it true? From a historical basis, very little unifies humanity except the habit of warfare, which hardly counts as unity.
The simple fact is—if humans don’t eat, they will starve. Diet is a product of geography and ease of acquisition. Conventional thought says that if you want to learn about a foreign culture, you should eat their food, but that’s like saying you could learn about police work by watching Blue Bloods. If you come to my house and dine on an Appalachian delicacy such as squirrel brains, possum stew, or dandelions, you will never know what it’s like to grow up isolated in the woods. To pretend otherwise is a fantasy.
Sociologists and pop psychologists have spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars studying food and its relationship to society. Recent research sought a cause for the increase of food disorders in the U.S. There are many theoretical origins, such as the alleged breakdown of the nuclear family, which unfairly blames single mothers and dual-career parents. One study points to the media presentation of women, while another blames the proliferation of fast-food franchises. My favorite culprit is technology. Sitting at computers is the problem—according to people who sit at computers and run raw data about people sitting at computers.
Food is also referred to as nourishment for the soul, and since we all have a soul, food unites humanity. This one gets a little tricky since food actually nourishes the body, not the soul, and neither science nor metaphysics can define a soul. This leads to the concept of a “soul mate,” which suggests that each person has an ideal partner somewhere in the world. Perhaps one’s soul mate can be found with food. Every time you walk through a crowd just wave around your favorite food to attract the right person. I tried that with a Slim Jim, a Twinkie, and a Zagnut bar, but none of the people I met agreed to have sex with me. One woman helpfully explained that a Twinkie is so filled with preservatives that it remains edible for twenty years, and if I consumed enough, my eventual corpse would take longer to decompose. I realized that we couldn’t possibly be together because she’d turn to worm food sooner than I would. True soul mates need to rot at the same pace.
My parents often ate supper together while they watched Blue Bloods, and I tried that with my wife. There was something supremely ironic about eating from a plate on my lap while watching fictional characters eat a meal at a table. A recent study concluded that eating in front of the TV contributes to obesity, but statistics don’t include emotional dynamics. If your family members dislike each other, sharing food is not a remedy. In fact, the diversion of television may well contribute to harmony.
Eating supper with my family every night for eighteen years did not produce closeness. I learned to eat as quickly as possible and get away from the table fast. The best way to accomplish my goal was to eat little. I carried this habit throughout my life and was woefully underweight most of my adult years. When I became happier, I ate more.
RECIPE FOR A COP SHOW
• Preheat oven by casting a cultural icon from a 1980s hit show.
• Fold in personal tragedy prior to the pilot.
• Blend one part each: Violence, patriotism, Christianity, service, sacrifice, family.
• Serve on plain plates in prime time.
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