From Mayberry to Wind River: Rural cops on the big and small screen
Not all police movies and TV shows are about big-city departments — here’s a selection of those set in the small towns and wilds
A small-town police chief settled in to watch the movie “End of Watch” some years ago. Everybody had been talking about it: how long it took to film, how much research the writers did, how the actors spent months doing ride-alongs with real Los Angeles police officers and how realistic the banter between partners was, and the chief was looking forward to it.
The next thing the chief knew, Michael Peña shucked his duty belt and went to fists with a suspect, and the chief was yelling, “You’re SO fired!” at the screen while trying not to spill his popcorn.
“End of Watch” is a blockbuster, but definitely a city one.
Rural cops know if they pulled a bare-knuckles bout with a citizen that the chief, the sheriff, their aunties, grandma and Sunday School teacher would hear about it before they could drive back to the office. Don’t get me wrong: cops love a good buddy action flick no matter where it takes place. “End of Watch” always tops the favorites list, even for rural cops who’ve never had a partner or backup who arrived in under an hour.
But what about movies and TV set in the small towns and the wilds? They exist. Let’s take a look.
First, the classics
For TV, that’s got to be “The Andy Griffith Show” with good Sheriff Andy Taylor enforcing the law with nothing but a smile, a badge and the goodwill of his neighbors.
The bigger, windier westerns like “Gunsmoke” run a distant second.
The sheriff of Mayberry was a mixed blessing for the rural officer. The idealized small town that everyone remembers, but no one really experienced, invented a stereotype that’s sticky as pine sap. It wasn’t intended to be realistic, just sweet and fun, yet Mayberry has somehow endured as a favorite childhood morality tale turned burr-under-the-saddle for modern, real-life rural officers.
For classic movies, my vote goes to “High Noon” starring Gary Cooper as a recently retired marshal facing down bad guys he once locked up who are now free to hunt him and his new wife. It still feels current, despite the steam engines and horse-drawn conveyances. Any rural cop can identify with the marshal who has a deadline, no backup and knows that every felon they ever arrested knows where they live.
Modern shows, movies
For reality TV, my vote goes to “Alaska State Troopers,” which ran seven seasons but folded after two troopers who had been regulars on the show were murdered in a remote village.
The show did an excellent job of profiling places with more animals than people, more snow machines than trucks, and long, long commutes to answer calls.
A new series, “Alaska PD,” did similar work following officers in places so remote that some of them commuted from the lower 48 in two-week rotations. It hasn’t yet been renewed for a second season, but I’m hopeful.
For TV fiction, the easy pick is “Longmire,” but it’s not my top choice. (Maybe I’d like it better if I read the books...it’s just s.l.o.w.).
I believe the best modern fiction show about rural cops is “Justified.” The series is based on the short story "Fire in the Hole" by Elmore Leonard who tellingly offered this advice for good prose: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”
The lead character, a deputy US marshal exiled from Miami back to his Kentucky hometown, may not be a rural cop, but he’s steeped in a rural setting and formed by a rural upbringing. The characters are complex, and the writers never telegraph or take the easy way out. The dangerous one in the room could be female, or old, or both. The guy who got arrested in the last episode may be the main character’s only backup in the next one. Guerrilla weed grows co-exist with moonshine stills, supplementing (or supplanting) honest coal-dug wages, and also drawing insidious attention from organized crime. Appalachian feuds percolate in the background, dragging decades-old grudges into daylight when the heat turns up.
The law enforcement characters, from upright Kentucky trooper Tom Bergen to corrupt sheriff Doyle Bennett to the highly-underestimated Constable Bob turn stereotypes on their heads, repeatedly.
Last, let’s find those (few) movies that (mostly) get the feel for rural policing right. They’re not blockbusters like “End of Watch,” but they tell smaller stories in a big way.
Coincidentally, both of my picks for this category are written by Taylor Sheridan, also a writer for the series “Yellowstone.”
First is the curmudgeonly buddy movie “Hell or High Water” in which two Texas Rangers squabble, annoy and support each other through a dusty, poverty-raddled landscape, chasing a pair of bank robbers to a bloody end. It’s funny and it’s heartbreaking and no one wins. Plus, there’s a hilarious and horrifying running gun battle when the hapless bank-robbing brothers choose a crowded small-town target and discover the reason for the slogan, “Don’t mess with Texas.”
My best choice (at least to date) for a movie that captures the feeling of remote policing is “Wind River.” The snow, the long shots of distant mountains, tribal police Chief Ben’s weary observation that traveling five miles requires driving for 50, all drive home feelings of isolation and a lack of resources. Rural officers get to see themselves through FBI Agent Jane’s eyes as she learns what they already know after she arrives on the reservation to investigate a murder.
“This isn’t the land of backup, Jane. This is the land of ‘You’re on your own,’” Chief Ben tells her.
It’s a hard, sad, beautifully told story of good people mostly doing the best they know how and the bad people who feel entitled to take what they want, in a place where they think no one will hold them to account.
Both movies make it understood that crime doesn’t stop in the country, so someone has to be there to say “no.”
TV and movies aren’t meant to be real life, but to be entertainment. They’re art. Art reflects us, and the really good art leaves out the boring stuff. All of these shows and films fit that bill, but taste is individual. Drop me a note telling me what great shows I’ve missed, and which you’d add to the list.