Why APB’s Revision of the Lessons of RoboCop Should Disturb You

APB is a new FOX series that focuses on Gideon Reeves, a Tony Stark character whose best friend is killed in a bodega hold up and as a result Reeves decides to use his maverick attitude, considerable wealth, and tech genius, to take over a single precinct in Chicago, Precinct 13, to prove that there’s a better way. He is aided in his quest for justice by Theresa Murphy, a clear nod to the Alex Murphy character from RoboCop (a fact most reviewers have commented on, like here, here, and here), a single mother who believes in old-fashioned police work, but is quickly taken in by Gideon’s charms, and the real world results his gadgets and toys produce. Billionaire toys save lives! Policemen with up-to-date equipment live to fight another day! News at 11. The show is cute, and clever, which with Matt Nix, the brain behind Burn Notice, as a showrunner isn’t surprising. But the clever, aw shucks exterior is for me a Trojan Horse.

The show loosely credits the story about Sidney Torres as inspiration in its opening titles, the man who post-Katrina, sought to save his neighborhood by creating his own police force. But it’s not the real life inspiration whose marks are all over this freshman show, instead, it’s the 1987 movie RoboCop. When RoboCop was released in 1987, it showed a dystopian Detroit, so riddled with crime that the police had become privatized, sold as a good decision in large part by the technology and tools corporations could bring to the table in order to make the streets safer. While Alex Murphy, the deceased cop resurrected as RoboCop is not quite the judge, jury, and executioner we see in the dystopian futures of Judge Dredd (1995) or revised in Dredd (2012), it’s easy to see how he’s a precursor to that approach to law and order. Both the original and the horrific-not-needed remake of RoboCop in 2014 ultimately argue that while technology and toys are wonderful tools, in the hands of good policemen, they are not the end in and of itself. We will always need humans, with their feelings and instincts, to police and monitor our streets. Both movies are ultimately a condemnation of corporations, the corrupt men who run them, and any system that discounts the people who make up these systems. These dystopian futures also make the statement though that clearly if nothing is done, if we continue with the status quo, these are the crime-ridden futures we have to look forward to.

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To understand all the arguments APB is making we must first consider its setting which is not a dystopian future but modern day Chicago. To do this we must read this Chicago setting in the context of how else Chicago is currently presented on television. The Chicago Fire/Med/P.D/Justice serieses all present a similar view of Chicago- crime and its consequences are at the forefront, narratives that focus on how innocents are harmed and how there are still good people fighting the good fight. Chicago P.D often has troubling narratives of racist and/or corrupt cops who may cross the line, but always for a good cause. All of these shows, as well as FOX’s Exorcist from this past season, present a similar visual aesthetic of Chicago- the character of the city is a series of neighborhoods, where good people live, contrasted against the empty lots, the rundown warehouses and buildings that are the invisible character, the source and reason for why Chicago faces these issues. Shots the like ones below are in every episode. The city is constantly defined by these absences, so often presented from one shot to another especially in the chase scenes, constantly in the background. The firemen drive past these empty lots, the policemen chase criminals past them. But there’s an odd juxtaposition between these shots and the presentation of middle class America.

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These empty spaces are very much coded as the dangerous places good people must go in order to ensure the safety and prosperity of the people who live on the fringes of them.

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Just as with the promotional materials, Chicago is a character in the show, constantly in the background. In Chicago P.D, one of the main settings is the Silos, where Voight buries bodies, and where shady deals are made. The Silos occupies a liminal space, on the fringes of the city, a location that enables these activities, with the skyline of the city proper after framing the background.

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In addition to these images, the Chicago series of shows also juxtaposes the green spaces of Chicago against these empty lots and industrial backgrounds.

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APB uses these same types of visual shorthands to present Chicago as a character. The Chicago in APB is both the home of good people, and the empty wasteland that leads to crime. It has the strange empty feel of old time Western towns, with the city proper most often shown as the purview of the corrupt politicians who don’t care about the inhabitants of the city.

In the show, Gideon Reeves chooses Precinct 13 as his pet project because it’s where his friend was killed but what strikes him as he first sits in the precinct is the decrepit nature of the precinct itself. As he sits and waits for someone, anyone, to help him catch his friend’s murderer, we see Gideon’s gaze in the form of the camera focus on the out of order sign on the copier. The typerwriter used for reports. The filofax. The barely working computer. This presentation of the interior of the precinct is a mirror to the abandoned and forgotten city exterior.

As a billionaire engineer Gideon decides that the precinct just needs the right tools- fancy body armour, new cars, high tech tasers, a complete overhaul of their tech, and of course an app where the whole community can pitch in and report crime in their neighborhoods, protecting themselves from crime. The old-school cops, most notably in the form of curmudgeonly Ernie Hudson’s soon-promoted-captain, resist at first but are soon won over, BECAUSE TECH WORKS. Amazingly, if you pay for enough cops, and give them the tools they need, they do better, crime goes down. It’s the same lesson as RoboCop.

But here’s the thing- the original RoboCop is set in 2043-4 with the remake set much closer in 2028, but still both set and marketed as occurring in a dystopian future. The streets of this dystopian Detroit are crimeridden and awful because it IS a dystopian future. In theory RoboCop is a cautionary tale of what happens if we don’t support the police, care for your neighborhood, do your part. Ultimately, RoboCop places its belief in the people, not in tech or corporations. The narrative of APB is the reverse. It is set in the Chicago of the present, the here and now, so it’s not a cautionary future tale, it’s a commentary on current events, and in the context of the President of the  United States misrepresenting Chicago crime statistics (and according to most, not an accurate way to read the data), and threatening to call in the “Feds,” this is dangerous and disturbing commentary.

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APB presents Chicago as already a dystopian city, so riddled with crime, and corrupt officials that someone must step in, and the only one capable of doing this is a billionaire with no experience in the very field he proclaims to fix. His outsider status is touted as his greatest asset. A billionaire who is accused of grandstanding, arrogance, with no experience. APB presents Gideon as a less jerky version ofTony Stark, but in the current cultural context, that’s not who Gideon Reeves calls to mind, although the creators clearly want you too. According to APB, the lesson is not to trust the people. We’re already living our worst dystopian fears, and trusting the same people we always have has led to this. Crime-ridden dystopian cities under siege, previously relegated to futuristic movies, are now a reality. APB wants you to put your faith in an unqualified, inexperienced billionaire because he has cool toys. And I admit, Gideon Reeves is charming, and a little broken, and clearly cares. But he also dumps projects as soon as he loses interest in them, doesn’t always see the people the tech and his projects are meant to be helping, neglects his company and the people employed there on a whim, and often throws tantrums when things don’t go his way. So APB is fun, and the tech is cool, but the lessons and statements it is making are a little disturbing in our current political and cultural climate.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karra Shimabukuro is a Ph.D. student in British and Irish literary studies at the University of New Mexico. Her research focuses on how folkloric characters (especially the Devil) are represented in literature and popular culture. She regularly writes reviews for The Journal of Popular Culture and The Journal of Folklore Research Review, and she is also a regular presenter at the Popular Culture National Conference. She is a self-professed geek girl and can be found at scholarlymedievalmadness.blogspot.com.

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