On the morning of July 7, 2016, a group of cops in Flint, Michigan, gathered at conference tables during roll call to watch the latest act of citizen journalism creating headlines across America. A YouTube video, playing on a TV in the center of the room, showed Diamond "Lavish" Reynolds, a young woman from Minnesota, live-streaming the shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, by a police officer. As the scene unfolded, some of the Flint officers averted their eyes. Others solemnly shook their heads. The room was silent except for the sound of the video.
When the clip ended, a discussion about policing in the era of cell phone cameras and Black Lives Matter broke out. A white officer named Robert Frost remarked that this particular interaction reminded him of similar incidents in the press and that the video only showed "one side of what happened." Another white officer criticized not the officer who shot Castile but Reynolds's decision to film the encounter. "Her boyfriend just got shot by the police," he said, "and her first reaction is to take out her cell phone and start recording. And she was pretty callous about it." He went on. "Assume you're always being recorded. Don't let it change your tactics."
His comment comes with a layer of irony: The entire exchange was filmed as part of Flint Town, a new Netflix documentary series about policing that debuted March 2 and, along with Dirty Money, Dope, and Shot in the Dark, is part of a wave of original programming on the streaming giant showing the gritty aspects of the true-crime genre. The episodes chronicle the city's police department during a year in which it faced budget cuts, rising crime rates, and a water crisis that left as many as 8,000 children exposed to lead. Given an unparalleled level of access to the Flint police department, filmmakers Zackary Canepari, Drea Cooper, and Jessica Dimmock sought to portray the economic and racial tensions that exist between law enforcement and the communities they're tasked with overseeing.
With its carefully composed photography, highly serialized storylines, and gestures towards relevant political issues, Flint Town initially scans as the antithesis to Cops, the controversial reality series with the famous theme song that debuted on Fox in 1989, thrived in syndication, and is still chugging right along, now on the Paramount Network. But the show is also a byproduct of Netflix's strategy to expand its content library exponentially and reel in every possible subscriber by dabbling in every genre seen across the linear TV landscape. Accomplishing that task will require Netflix to adopt a "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" ethos, and as anyone raised on TV knows, there's always going to be unhealthy ingredients mixed into their overall media diet.
Like Cops, for example. Since the start, Cops has peddled a now ubiquitous aesthetic: a cinéma vérité style, an absence of voice-over narration, the occasional car chase, and a warped view of poverty and crime. It's a problematic program. It's also a popular and lucrative American institution. So is Flint Town a farm-to-table Cops? Or is the series and Netflix's other recent crime-related reality shows just more fast food TV with a veneer of respectability?