Practically no one on TV just happens to be a police officer. The only Wacky Sitcom Dad I can think of who was a cop was Carl Winslow, and as I recall, his job mattered less and less over the course of Family Matters, and it might well have been one of the few holdovers from Perfect Strangers. (Also, I wonder how many people remember that show was a spin-off.) I haven’t seen either in too long to remember. Despite that, there are dozens of shows with police officers as major characters. More, in fact, than I think matches the number of actual police in the US; we all know that jobs aren’t equally represented, but man are there a lot of TV cops.
So what gives? It isn’t even just procedurals, though there are a lot of procedurals out there, and there are probably more cast members of the various Law & Order, CSI, and NCIS franchises than there are employees of some small-town police departments. Maybe even not-so-small town ones. It’s that, while I don’t include him among the Wacky Sitcom Dads, Andy Taylor was a cop. We’ve been watching Eureka lately, and the main character of that’s a cop. Probably without trying, the average TV viewer can name a full dozen cop characters, not all of which will be from cop shows.
Sometimes, it’s more organic than others. Twin Peaks was, originally, the story of a murder. So the cops are important characters. And although the focus there was broader, and you’d get people who worked at the mill and the diner and the hotel, we came into Twin Peaks with an FBI agent. Similarly, I think Eureka works because you need someone whose job brings them in contact with the weirdness of the town but can be an audience surrogate by not being a super genius. Both shows are also about an outsider to the town who gradually learns its secrets, and in both cases, there are good story reasons for it to be a cop.
But why do we watch all those procedurals? I mean, Law & Order is a show where I can say, “Oh, this one—I remember who did it” and keep watching it. Yes, okay, I’m a re-reader, and “I know who did it” is not a reason for me to not enjoy something if I liked it well enough the first time. It’s still a weird genre to be as successful as it is, one where in addition to the big three franchises there are literally dozens of other “the same police solve a ton of murders” shows. One of the ones I like is set on a small Caribbean island with a murder rate that’s got to be higher than my entire state these days.
I think at least in part it feeds into a human need for the mystery to be solved and the evil-doer to be punished. Sure, not every killer on these shows is evil; in particular, I’m thinking of the Law & Order where Megan Follows plays a woman who is so overburdened that she kills her son. She’s wrong to do it, but she’s so sympathetic and the issues she has with the system are so overwhelming that “evil” is a hard word to apply to her. And as I recall, the victim on the furry episode of CSI was shot by a farmer who thought he was a coyote. But still. There is, indeed, a certain order implied by the results of procedurals.
Now, I can name you plenty of mysteries that don’t have the police as main characters. I have for years been in love with Lord Peter Wimsey, who’s merely the brilliant and cultured second son of a duke. And of course there’s Miss Fisher, and although she works with the police it feels as though that’s at least in part because she thinks it’s the most likely way to get Inspector Robinson into bed. Last year’s Knives Out was an extremely successful mystery movie featuring a couple of cops who couldn’t have figured out what was going on without the help of a Gentleman Detective with an accent apparently borrowed from Shelby Foote.
But the fact is, most mysteries aren’t solved by nosy old spinsters or stuffy Belgians with improbable facial hair. There was a proliferation of private eyes in the ’40s, but I suspect even then it wasn’t an accurate portrayal of the average PI’s real work. Sue Grafton was always quite clear that her Kinsey Millhone investigated far more murders than the average, and most of her job in the real world would have been the insurance investigation she initially did to pay the bills. Sam Spade would’ve had more divorce work than Kinsey, but that’s a difference in law between the ’40s and the ’80s.
We as a species seem to like mysteries, and we like to have those mysteries solved. The genre may not be universal—in fact it’s far too modern to be remotely universal; I don’t think there are any detective stories from Elizabethan drama just for starters. But as soon as professional police forces really started being a thing, we started playing with those detectives in our fiction to put things into place.
It’s also true that, when our fiction is about criminals, we tend to throw in cops. This one goes back quite a way; sure, the Sheriff of Nottingham wasn’t a law enforcement officer the way we think of them today, more someone who collected rent and things. But if your story is about a criminal, you need to have someone from the side of the law who goes after them. That’s just the way the whole thing works.
And Andy Taylor? To be honest, I’m not entirely familiar with the show anymore and don’t know why they decided to make him a sheriff. Mostly why I don’t think of him as a Wacky Sitcom Dad is that I tend to apply the term first to characters where their interaction with the family takes up most of the story, and we routinely actually saw Andy at work. Also, half the point of the show was that he wasn’t wacky and it was the people around him who were. Sitcom, yes; wacky, no.