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Telling Our Stories: Is ‘Road Cops’ the New Campbell Live?

It’s 7pm, it’s local content, it starts with a well-presented white guy driving around in a fast car. Joe Nunweek asks – did we get the 7pm show we deserved?

Nature hates a void, so let us watch Road Cops reruns forever, and let us enjoy more motoring mayhem and unlawful adventures on New Zealand’s Highways, Byways, and Expressways, and let us never say that the Powers that Be at MediaWorks were so against Campbell Live that they wanted to leave a hated ratings bomb in its place.

Last Monday, Road Cops was the second most viewed-show of the big TV3 night, riding Campbell’s coattails to a decisive 268,940, viewers down from Campbell Live‘s 285,200. At which stage I think we can go with some fairly fudgy numbers, as follows:

Road Cops was down 16,260 viewers after Campbell Live. I’m going to assume that’s the bare number of people who turned over or switched off when John (bless him) bade us “ka kite ano” for one of the last times at 7.29pm. Let’s fudge harder and assume that hordes of people aren’t pouring in to TV3 at the same time masses desert, just to catch Road Cops.

Even knowing its 7pm repeats this week won’t do the business that John’s smiling tidal pull gave it, over 90% of Campbell Live’s loyal audience stuck around to watch Road Cops, or didn’t hate it enough to make it stop.

I want to get into easy digs about the show’s amazing Metallica-via-Doom heavy riffing theme tune, or the way the whole thing is still shakily assembled and narrated like Back of the Y’s “Cunstables” (a parody that I’m pretty sure preceded affordable digital cameras), but first let’s note that huge amounts of intellectual labour has been dedicated to Campbell Live being meaningful crusading for “us” and chaff like Road Cops being lowbrow garbage for “them”. Meaning… meaning… what if we’re them?

Because barring the public-service heavy prehistoria of stuff like Crimewatch, I’m reasonably sure no one has ever forced modern TV to cover the New Zealand police, and yet it’s patently obvious that we love watching police do their thing. In the ’90s, this was all high-minded, unsolved murder stuff, the crawly appeal of which should be obvious. Then came Police 10-7, the ur-Show of NZ’s law enforcement frenzy which dialed it back to a steady stream of burglaries, assaults, and drug/alcohol offences.

Then Motorway Patrol, then Border Patrol, then Coastwatch, then Noise Control. If you think this has dipped a few tiers below public or even general interest, you’re completely wrong and South Pacific will have commissioned my idea for a show where road inspectors ping truckies for dimension and load restraint breaches in the time in takes you to read this sentence. We have a weird authoritarian penchant for shows that are either about police or people easily mistaken for police when you’re drunk or migrating, and it’s very hard to say in the face of this reality TV juggernaut that this is not part of our national story.

So, my night with Road Cops* starts much the same as yours. “Outright denials, a romance on the rocks and a wedding in Las Vegas at risk”, narrator Jono Pryor promises – it’s the tried-and-true tripartite structure that Campbell Live always thrived on. Constables Scott Quate and Sue-something are speeding to a hit-and-run – formidable stuff, except it involved someone’s car being gently shunted as it turned into a driveway. Driver Essie admits to being “pissed off”.

Elsewhere, a driver has run a red light, which we’re warned is stupid. The camera and the narrator fawns over Dusharn (“he’s on his restricted… and it’s well over his curfew”) and there’s a hint of the guy’s name being held out for our assessment. The cops do the cop thing where they raise questions you and they and we and the poor people in the car know the answer to: “So where’s the full licence driver?”, “Can you tell me how fast you were going?”, “Does your mate have your licence?”, etc.

Meanwhile, that Las Vegas couple, Sam and Val, get put through the wringer for a busted tail light less than 14 days before they leave the country. They’re going to elope to Las Vegas to try and do a small and personal wedding, and there’s the most excruciatingly staggered series of anxious moments before the officer gives us the happy ending we all deserve and lets them off in the warning.

Elsewhere,  a  guy called Anaru gets caught driving without a licence of any kind and gets his missus’s car impounded for 28 days. Cue heaps of bleeped-out fretting and probably the only kind of directorial fiat as he sees her looming shadow stalk across the traffic islands to reveal… a really sweet and exasperated partner, who finished a 12-hour restaurant shift only to lose her main method of transport. They walk away from Kerrie’s vehicle, and how they’ll get around now is uncertain, but they’re kissing and hugging and it forms the show’s happy ending, and I honestly kind of love it.

You almost forget that there’s precisely one situation of a clear and present threat to road safety in 22 minutes, and it’s an old guy with 10 drink-driving convictions who seems genuinely unwell in the McDonalds car park in Hastings. Road Cops makes humongous sport out of his situation, and the hoops he puts the poor local cop through by not being able to form clear sentences or take his hands out of his pockets.

The Brass Eye-isms coming out of Jono Pryor (“Jimmy’s lit up the sniffer, and now the tube comes out for a road-side breath test!” ) would almost be funny if this wasn’t that kind of tedious, voyeuristic form of sadness, the kind of antithesis of “blow on the pie” and any of the police-industrial complex’s efforts at whimsy. Slowly, agonisingly, he is handcuffed, processed, and let loose.

From a combo of old frends that includes former juvenile delinquents and ex-law students, I know that police ridealongs are not interesting. Every Road Cops exercise in one big long night is a composite of smaller, slower, even longer nights from across the regions. A show about the camera crews that have to make Highway Patrol-Police Ten-you name it is probably going to be too meta. But if you ever wanted a programme that operated as an insight into its makers’ seething, bored resentment, Road Cops is it.

The “joy” is in the mise-en-scene, some of it contrived. Unable to really do anything to lampoon the police, Road Cops instead spends ages luxuriating in what it fucking hates: ordinary people. Even the victims of the hit-and-run, who the camera can’t get enough of: an angry Pakeha girl exclaiming “We’ll find you, car who did this!” as she walks in the night, as her male friends pretend to “be gay” with each other. The editing subjects all the participants to weird and degrading fakeouts. Pissed-off Essie pulls out a massive lump of foil from her wrecked vehicle, and there’s a pixelated freeze-frame and a drop-D chord, and the greatest sentence of 2015. “It’s not a huge tinnie, but dinner that has been saved – and the search for the hit and run driver goes on.”

They get it too, you know, all the thoroughly decent people who have committed minor infringements tonight. “This Toyota Tiara is the closest Val is going to get to dressing up like a princess on her wedding day!” “Anaru’s toothless charm hasn’t worked on Jeff the cop.” Campbell Live depicted people wanting to forge through what were objectively hard lives and its heart sang. Road Cops depicts much the same thing and oozes pus like the most toxic comment section you can think of, and your mileage will vary as to which feels realest (NB: I would watch an Odometer Patrol programme).

Elsewhere, the post-production itself actually enters into its own unbearable dialogue with the participants:

Dusharn: I know it’s dangerous, but I only do it because sometimes I’m in a rush. And if I wait for that light, that could cost me missing out on my substances.

<GIANT METALLIC STING>

Jono Pryor, in a booth, months later: What do you mean ‘substances’, Dusharn?

But probably Road Cops’s biggest point of distinction is its incessant incidental music. It’s all horrible, but the music at the 10:20 mark has to be heard to be believed, parping merrily as we hear that sick man in the McD’s carpark got sentenced to 1 year imprisonment.

Even gruff authoritarian reality TV hits something very true once in a while (the “Ponsonby special” episode of Noise Control that I watched one very dark night in 2010 is a supreme ode to race relations and gentrification, even if it didn’t know it). From its appearance, Road Cops does this in huge dollops. Its brutalising racial profiling seems to be its most verité product (that is, it’s more or less filmed what it saw over several nights of police stops in New Zealand) , but on top of it you get actual breathing, unhappy,  in love humans that you can’t get in either US versions of these shows or in expensive glossy local dramas.

And then you get the people making the programme, who imprint their contempt so hard over the top of the whole thing that they’re practically another character, and the voice of God, and the voice of Jono Pryor, and partially the voice of us, the audience.

And then we’re the ones watching it in the hundreds of thousands, the police, on the same channel that ran a two-year campaign about the unexpected evils of an institution that protects itself and lets in no light, your boys, your stories, on your screen. You won’t believe it, but rumours are already gathering that TV3 wants to can these repeats, that it wants to wind the clock back to a Campbell-like current affairs show. We need to fight it. #Jesuisroadcops.

* I started with Season 4, Episode 7 for my viewing, unable to access Season 3, Episode 7 on TV3’s site, which was the rerun chosen to break from Campbell Live on Monday 1 June. Imagine watching Mad Men this way, or a big-budget reality show like X Factor that has a season long-arc, or even Campbell Live. Authoritarian buzz or no, Road Cops is the last kind of narratively “free” television.