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'Boston's Finest' TV Show: Just a Police PR Stunt?

Boston crime is a hot commodity in pop culture these days. From Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and Ben Affleck’s The Town to the real-life 2011 capture of infamous Beantown gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, New England is quickly overtaking New York as the go-to cultural home for underworld drama.

On Wednesday, TNT will partner with Donnie Wahlberg to launch Boston’s Finest, a reality TV show about the Boston Police Department. The program will give an unprecedented glimpse into the personal lives of officers and day-to-day police operations. Fascinating a topic it may be, it’s important to stay vigilant regarding the show’s residual effects: Finest will be most viewers’ sole source of information on the BPD, and with that power comes great manipulative potential.

Wahlberg is quick to claim his show will not be the Boston equivalent of Cops. Where that program made the chase and capture of petty criminals a de-contextualized spectacle, Finest claims to include more personal drama, showcasing the humanity of people whose work alienates them from the general public. In Quentin Tarantino's film Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Pink asks Mr. White if any “real people” were killed in a heist gone wrong. “Just cops,” White replies. Boston’s Finest tries to combat this sentiment and make us see officers as human beings rather than arms of a political machine.

In fact, cast members deem “reality TV” an inadequate term to describe their show: they call it “documentary” TV. Emphasis is placed on the show’s representation of true life, free of the falsehoods and choreographed drama of much reality programming. Wahlberg says of the officers, “They are the show. We’re just the messengers.”

But how much of this can we really believe? The fact is, in order for the show to exist, the Boston Police Department has to cooperate. Not only must it give showrunners access to daily operations, it must provide officers as cast members, and presumably adjust these officers’ schedules to account for constantly being filmed.

What inevitably emerges is a symbiotic relationship. Al Jazeera documented a similar phenomenon regarding Hollywood’s interaction with the U.S. Military: a branch of the armed forces provides access and materials, and the filmmakers provide a narrative. Only something else happens during this exchange: the storytellers’ capacity for critical engagement is severely limited. In the case of Boston’s Finest, it’s tough to criticize the BPD when the BPD is your meal ticket.

Regardless of intention, no law enforcement entity is perfect. Many claim to “protect and serve” while simultaneously engaging in corrupt and discriminatory activities. So when a “documentary” show is granted the access that Boston’s Finest claims to have, it’s not just an opportunity to “humanize” officers, but to address larger problems within the department. But if Finest is symbiotically linked to the BPD, it’s just as likely to become a mouthpiece for departmental interests.

Boston’s Finest can either be a genuine critical engagement, or a form of BPD propaganda. On February 27, we’ll see which one it chooses.

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