Who am I supposed to believe: the cops or the TV?
Boston police have just reported that major crimes in the city this year dropped by 15 percent compared with last year. That sounds great, but I’m now three episodes into the new reality television show “Boston’s Finest,” and I’m scared to death. The city is a nightmare, a constant barrage of shootings, stabbings, drug-dealing, and street-fighting.
The TNT show, created by Donnie Wahlberg of New Kids on the Block fame, follows the days and nights of a number of cops, ranging from those on patrol to specialized squads such as the gang unit. As reality shows go, it’s pretty good: nice set-piece shots of downtown Boston and its neighborhoods, some interesting storylines and a voice-over by Wahlberg himself, who really does sound as if he’s from Boston. (That’s what happens, Matt, Ben, and Casey, when you actually grow up in the city, rather than Cambridge.)
Of course, “Boston’s Finest” does engage in all of the tricks of the reality show trade. Some scenes are re-enacted and events rearranged to heighten the drama. Consider, for instance, that even the alleged offenders in the show only appear on camera after having signed a release and that for many scenes they are clearly miked up. Sometimes there’s the feeling that they’re just actors playing out a role.
That notwithstanding, the show does — true to its name — shine a bright and positive light on the Boston police. These cops are likeable men and women. One married couple, both members of the force, share household and parenting duties in a way that would make Gloria Steinem smile. Another dotes on her mother and tries to rescue her drug-addled sister. The police are all smart and well-trained, brave in the face of danger, and remarkably sympathetic to the neighborhoods they police. Instead of loose-cannon cowboys or a quasi-military occupying force, they often seem more like social workers — social workers with guns, that is.
The Police Department doubtless welcomes good PR like this; news accounts about Boston cops are often less than flattering. Over the last few years, for instance, we’ve seen stories about police officers grossly abusing overtime, cops being disciplined for using steroids (who do they think they are — professional athletes?), and allegations of police brutality against the Occupy Boston demonstrators. On occasion the missteps have become very expensive. In 2010, the city agreed to pay $3 million to the parents of a fan who died after being arrested after a Celtics game. Last year, the department fired an officer and approved a $1.4 million settlement stemming from allegations the cop used a choke hold on a man that left him brain-damaged.
You don’t see any of this on “Boston’s Finest,” which serves an an antidote to all the negative press.
Still, to those in the city who gave this the green light, including Mayor Tom Menino: What were you thinking?
I understand the allure of television and the incredibly dumb, degrading things people will do for their few minutes of fame. Restaurant owners will let themselves get cursed out by celebrity chefs telling them how to run their business. Aspiring clothing designers will be reduced to tears after a public dress-down. In the case of “Boston’s Finest” it’s not the cops who look bad, however; they come across great. It’s Boston itself.
Wahlberg has observed to one entertainment blog that the lack of crime often made it tough to shoot the show. “We can’t make the bad guys rob a 7-Eleven, right?” Indeed, perhaps one of the best legacies Menino can claim for his 20 years has been the transformation of the city from a place that really was dangerous to one of the safest in America. Credit for much of that belongs to the Police Department: new policing strategies, better-trained cops, and more effective use of data. But against the power of television, none of this matters. Cold statistics may be one thing, but viewers considering a visit or possible move to Boston will quickly come to a different conclusion: Anywhere else would be better.
“Boston’s Finest” risks doing to Boston what “Jersey Shore” did to New Jersey.
Tom Keane writes regularly for the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.