Thursday, January 18, 2018
Why The Sweeney Is Still My Favorite Cop Show
Last night I watched an episode of The Sweeney for the first time in a bit, and remembered how much I love it. I have a strange obsession with the grimy, broke-down, grey world of 1970s Britain. It's a society in decline, like ours, but it's got more panache. Dingy pubs choked with tobacco smoke, boxy cars, and flared trousers paired with wide lapeled blazers and loud ties. It's a shitty world I like to spend time in to escape from the shitty world I live in now, which is a lot worse with a lot less character. As I was thinking about the show, I remembered that I had written a thing about it a few years back. So here's a goodie from the archive.
As those who read this blog should know by now, my pop culture interests are heavily Anglophilic and 1970s obsessed. These two loves of mine come together quite nicely in one of my favorite television shows ever: The Sweeney. A Brit former colleague of mine turned me on to it after I had discussed my affection for the UK version of Life on Mars, a show set in the 70s that often made implicit reference to the characters and style of The Sweeney, from two-fisted cops to Ford Grenadas driven with reckless abandon. Imagine the Beastie Boys' video for Sabotage brought to life and transported to Blighty, and you pretty much get the picture.
It's a breath of fresh air today in a television world populated by incredibly lame and predictable police procedurals. The only American cop show worth a damn in our time has been The Wire, and that's a show that's really more about Baltimore as a city than it is about police and crime fighting. I know the current crop of crime shows well because my wife watches them obsessively. I jokingly call her favorite programs "dead body shows," since they usually revolve around the solving of murder through the use of forensic evidence found on a corpse. I find these shows -the various Law and Orders, Criminal Minds, the CSIs, etc- to be dreadfully boring and full of totally uninteresting characters. It's hard to feel any emotional connection to the police figures, mostly because they so are so two-dimensional that they make Mitt Romney look human. The criminals are very likely to be mentally deranged; they commit their crimes because they are psychopathic rather than opportunistic. I find this convention, which is especially pronounced on Criminal Minds, to be incredibly tiresome. If the criminals are just monsters and demons, they can never be interesting as characters, since their warped nature is their only motivation for their crimes. I've noticed a strange phenomenon whereby the lovers of these shows are able to sit down and watch one after the other for hours, as if in some kind of trance. The monochromatic and formulaic nature of these shows are what makes such marathon viewing possible.
The Sweeney is something else entirely. The two main characters, detective Jack Regan and sergeant George Carter, are fully-fleshed out people with quirks, personal demons, and an ambiguous relationship with the audience. This is especially the case with Regan, played outstandingly by John Thaw, who often comes across as crass and thuggish. (Just watch him action, uttering the immortal line "Get your trousers on, you're nicked!") He seethes with working class resentment, clashing with his superior Haskins in ways that betray his anger at having to be told what to do by one of his social betters. Carter is less volatile, but after losing his wife in the second season, he begins to act more and more Regan-like. He is a man caught in a tug of war between the better angels of his nature and Regan's willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
One thing that contributes to the show's greatness is that dead bodies are few and far between. Carter and Regan are members of the eponymous Sweeney, which is a Cockney rhyming slang term for the Flying Squad, the London police's armed robbery unit. The criminals (called "villains" by the cops) are not obsessed with their mothers or looking to jizz on a corpse, but are practical-minded careerists who commit robberies to make money, and for their own personal enjoyment. Among my favorite characters in the second season are Colin and Ray, two flamboyant Australians who enjoy living the high life and making fools out of the poms. For the most part, the criminals on the show come from the same working class roots as Carter and Regan, and tend to take a practical, hard-nosed approach to their careers in crime. The lines between their world and profession, and that of the police, blur considerably. The cops know the world of the criminals well, and even consort with them to get information. Sometimes you get the feeling that the roles of cops and criminals could be reversed, and that Regan could just as easily used his wits and fists to steal and thieve as to catch the crooks.
That ambiguity reflects a general realist feel to the whole enterprise. The people on the show look and dress like regular people, right down to the flared trousers, brown color palette, and explosion of corduroy that one would expect to find among the less sartorially sophisticated gents of the polyester decade. The grit of the streets coats the film, and you can practically smell the stale reek of ashtrays in the police office scenes. Characters sport thick accents, bad haircuts, and look old for their age, ground down by life. While there is the occasional bank hold-up hostage plot and take-down of terrorists episode, the ongoing struggle between professional criminals looking to make some quid and professional police trying to lock them up feels much more real to me than any serial killer plot.
Furthermore, like few other shows of its ilk, The Sweeney excels in the ancient and lost art of car chase scenes. The modern cop shows betray their lack of excitement when an hour goes by without a single screeching tire or bent fender. The beginning of the episode "Stoppo Driver" might be my favorite tv cop show car chase scene ever, not least because it looks like the chase is on real streets, and the action isn't hacked to bits by overactive editing, as is so often the case today.
Last but not least, The Sweeney has perhaps the best closing credits ever. Whereas the opening theme pulsates with energy and a skanky beat, the closing is meditative, showing the detectives putting their coats on at the end of the working day, conscious that many more days of work lie ahead. It's a world-weary close, and it never allows the show to end with cheap triumphalism or a totally happy ending. Carter and Regan may have nicked some villains today, but more await tomorrow. That sense of life as never-ending toil reflects the show's working class ethos, a voice sorely lacking in American popular culture these days.