Playing the Good Cop

Back in our youth, when children ran around and played outdoors instead of hunkering down over the latest dazzling video-game system, we boys loved to play "Cops and Robbers." The cops were the good guys, the robbers the bad guys. It's a sorry sign of our morally relativist culture that today those roles are often indistinguishable. Now boys play popular video games that glamorize quick-shooting thugs. Witness the "Grand Theft Auto" series. The cops are either corrupt or target practice, or maybe both.

On television, the cop-show genre continues, and while the police continue to be depicted favorably, there's a twist. Cop shows today are obsessed with the desire to deal in dark, violent, very visually grisly images. Cameras travel into gaping wounds, and linger on decaying corpses, overflowing with the curdled creepiness of childhood nightmares.

The crime lab is the focus of CBS's budding "CSI" franchise (with a third variant based in New York in the planning stages). Most street cops are walking the beat in the three NBC flavors of "Law and Order." On ABC, the new show "10-8" (named after police lingo for "in service") rides along with rookie cops in the Los Angeles sheriff''s department.

ABC has chosen to air "10-8" far too early for a grisly cop show - Sundays at 8 p.m. Eastern. On January 18, the show featured a pizza delivery man being shot point blank by a customer. Several of the female cops are seen in their brassieres as one primary character shows off a red lacy number and complains about her lack of sexual activity, and how she's scaring away "all the boys I wanna sack." Police discover an obese, smelly corpse perched on a toilet. ABC played it for perverse amusement, having the smirking cop on the scene explain: "Guy probably had a heart attack while executing a back-door purge."

But in the midst of this obligatory "mature" material, "10-8" was also carrying a philosophical plot, showing how policemen are always working at the angry intersection of sin and temptation and disastrous choices. That's right: someone in Hollywood contemplated the word "sin" in a script with gravity, not irony. The rookie cop, Rico, asks the veteran training him, Barnes, whether humans are basically animals with the urge to kill, steal, lust. Barnes replies: "Some people can control themselves. Some can't. That's where we come in."

In this episode, two teenagers who live on the streets have a baby and then abandon it in a portable toilet, hoping it will be found by the authorities. The script writer weaves a powerful tale about the sad plight of abandoned babies, with Barnes explaining that he's come across about 100 abandoned babies in his 23 years of police work, found in trash bins, car trunks, and gas station bathrooms. The maternity-ward doctor who checks the healthy Porta-Potty baby notes sadly that "I do more post-mortems than well-baby checks on abandoned infants."

The baby's mother, Janey, then sneaks into the hospital to feed her baby, and is arrested for the abandonment. She had been living on the streets since she was 13. The baby's father is a male prostitute. Her parental rights are suspended for four months, and she is sentenced to a juvenile center. Everyone except our rookie cop Rico lands soundly in favor of keeping the baby away from the transient and negligent teenage parents.

Rico's argument is powerful. "What strikes me as the greatest casualty of it all is our inability to accept honest acts of contrition...and what Janey needed now as for somebody to forgive her." But he also lectures Janey that if she really loves the child, she must put her infant daughter's well-being first. She should accept the four-month suspension, learn how to be a mother, get a steady job and a steady life. In short, grow up first. In the end, Janey makes the courageous decision to give her baby up for adoption.

How about that? In between the bra-displaying and the pizza-man shooting and the decaying body in the bathroom, there's a nice message about mistakes and forgiveness, about finding hope and taking responsibility. It's too bad that "10-8" has to surround this moral message with ratings-goosing gross-outs and sex patter. But those extra layers of cheese seem to be a mandatory Hollywood recipe, a way to keep the taste-testers - the ironic, snickering TV critics - from noticing too much of a good thing.