R.I.P. John Langley, creator of Cops and "godfather of reality TV"

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John Langley
John Langley

As reported by Variety, TV writer and producer John Langley—whose biggest contribution to culture, for better or worse, was creating the TV show Cops—has died. Langley apparently suffered a heart attack in Mexico while competing as part of the Coast To Coast Ensenada-San Felipe 250 off-road race. He was 78.

Langley’s TV legacy is obviously prickly, given what Cops became and what it started to represent, but that’s not quite what his vision for the series was. Variety quotes a TV Academy interview he gave in 2009 in which he noted that, as “a kid of the ‘60s,” he’s “sort of anti-authoritarian by nature” and that if you had told him ahead of time that he would create a TV show about cops, he would’ve guessed that it’d be called Pigs. Rather than an attempt to glorify police work or to make officers look like infallible extensions of the powerful arm of justice, the original idea was that Cops was simply an unfiltered look into the machinery of the police system—that’s why it didn’t have a narrator or reenactments telling the viewer how to feel. (As opposed to more recent competitor Live PD, which turned into the biggest show in the world by becoming the absolute worst version of what Cops could’ve been.)

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But, of course, whatever Langley had in mind for Cops when it premiered, it quickly became its own thing… and that thing was glorifying police officers and making them look like infallible extensions of the arm of justice. Critics accused the show of forcing people into signing waivers, and police departments successfully fought to have negative footage eradicated, and the show eventually got booted from the increasingly respectable Fox network onto Spike TV and then the Paramount Network. Cops was canceled last summer in the wake of the nationwide protests against police violence prompted by the murder of George Floyd, though Paramount immediately distanced itself so far from the series that it basically wouldn’t even admit to having ever aired it.

That all being said, Langley and Cops did have a big impact on TV outside of copaganda. The show’s cinéma vérité style became a cliché for news broadcasts and it popularized a style of reality TV that was less about telling a story, documentary-style, and more about just putting a camera in front of some people and watching what happened—whether or not the things that happened were actually real or if they had been orchestrated by the people behind the camera, which would also be tied to the Cops legacy. Because of this, he’s considered the “godfather of reality TV.”

Beyond Cops, Langley worked on Jail, Vegas Strip, Antoine Fuqua’s Brooklyn’s Finest, American Expose: Who Murdered JFK?, and Terrorism: Target USA. Langley is survived by his wife and four children.