The long arm of the law finds its funnybone

Danny Boyle is among those revitalising the comedy cop show. By Sarah Hughes

It often seems as though you can't switch on your television without stumbling on yet another police drama about angst-ridden cops trudging the mean streets and battling corruption. But thankfully that's about to change with a host of new shows determined to put the fun back into the force.

Recently, Channel 4 announced that Danny Boyle is working with Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, the team behind Peep Show and Fresh Meat, on Babylon, a comedy-drama set in a London police station. The channel has also given the go-ahead to No Offence, an eight-part comedy series about a trio of female cops by Paul Abbott. Meanwhile, police spoof Scot Squad was recently given a full series order and returns to BBC Scotland next year while the second series of Charlie Brooker's police parody Touch of Cloth aired in the summer.

It's all a long way from the genre's last heyday, the mid-1990s, which saw Ben Elton's cosy The Thin Blue Line, Jasper Carrott's spoof The Detectives and fly-on-the-wall mockumentary Operation Good Guys competing for airtime. While those shows relied on daft set-ups and traditional punchlines, the new breed of cop comedies want to try something different and no show does so more successfully than American sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which comes to E4 in January.

Set in a New York police station, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is created by the team behind Parks and Recreation, stars rising star Andy Samberg as a genius cop who needs to grow up (Samberg described him as a comedy version of The Wire's hot-headed Jimmy McNulty) and Andre Braugher as his stern commanding officer.

So far, so straightforward, but what marks Brooklyn Nine-Nine out is the way it treats its cops not as a punchline but as a source of offbeat humour. Traditionally, cop comedies are either broad spoofs (1986's Sledge Hammer!, 2003's Reno 911!) or slapstick sitcoms (1982's Police Squad!, aka the forerunner to the Naked Gun movies, and 1986's dire The Last Precinct) but co-creators Mike Schur and Dan Goor have looked further back in history to the 1970s police comedy Barney Miller for inspiration. Like that show, which was set in a Greenwich Village cop shop, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is as content to spend time hanging out with its crew of oddballs and goof-offs as it is to have them solve crime.

By contrast, Babylon, which takes its name from slang for the police and stars James Nesbitt, will have a more satirical edge. Charting a new media guru's attempts to revamp the dated PR department of a London force, Babylon focuses on both the force's high command and the plods on the beat, looking at everything from workplace politics to day-to-day crime.

“Robert Jones [the producer] and Danny wanted to do something about all the Police, Camera, Action! kind of cops, real-life filming of police shows and the way they look on TV,” explained Armstrong at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. “As soon as there's any incident [in real-life policing] now there's 20 camera phones out and the cops are filming the public back… that interests Danny.”

No Offence, meanwhile, remains in its early stages, but Abbott has said that his first project since the end of Shameless “is a hardcore blend of cop drama, family saga and social mayhem”, adding: “I'm a big fan of well-told cop shows and jet-black social comedy and I wanted to see how explosively we could bang two genres together.”

Only time will tell if that mix leads to a hit of Shameless-style proportions but one thing's certain: after years of gloomy cop shows, it's time to tune in to the lighter side of life on the beat.

'Babylon' will be broadcast on Channel 4 early next year; 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine' will be broadcast on E4 in January

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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