Blue Bloods Season 1 Data Overview

Thanks to Zoë Samudzi and Briana Ureña-Ravelo for feedback on parts of what follows. Deeply influential but not directly cited below are Sylvia Wynter on the idea of The Human and Che Gossett‘s years of twitter musings on humanity/animality along with decades of Black feminist abolitionist visions and critiques, especially the works of Ruth Wilson-Gilmore, Mariame Kaba and Angela Davis. Credit for anything useful below is theirs. Feedback – constructive, destructive and other – welcome.

Blue Bloods is a police drama running on CBS since 2010 with an ensemble cast structure. The show tells fictional stories of the New York Police Department and District Attorney through the point of view of a multigenerational police family as they try to (mostly) incarcerate or (less often) kill people.(1) It has single episode story lines with the occasional longer arc or recurring story element mixed in. Blue Bloods mixes elements of a police drama and procedural and centers both around the Reagan family. Its aesthetic is nostalgia for an idealized, late Jim Crow/early White Flight, suburban nuclear family, warrior caste Americana. Blue Bloods anchors episodes in family dinners where four generations of the Reagan family, all with different White American English accents even inside generations, gather every Sunday. The gatherings are  a Calvinist version of joyless Protestant heteronormativity, the family’s Catholicism notwithstanding. They affirm the bonds that keep them all dedicated to each other and the carceral state.

Blue Bloods is an artless show impossible to recommend. It offers bad writing and subpar acting yet receives high ratings. Tom Selleck’s entire range is breathing heavily through his nose and the guy married to the famous anti-vaxxer is convincing in his role only if he intends to be a guy who emotes solely by punching holes in drywall. The stories affirm the police and military as heroic institutions more explicitly than almost all other cop shows, making uniformly righteous US empire’s violent institutions.

Below are data tables that look at how frequently various things happen in the first season’s stories. Many of the categories reflect things seen in other cop shows too. Others are more unique to Blue Bloods or useful only with lots of other context. For each table I try to offer context in the surrounding annotations. Some categories that are useful in other cops shows or even different seasons of the same show are not always applicable to others so this data overview will have tables others do not and vice versa.

Season one police killings

Blue Bloods at least partially resolves seven of season one’s twenty-two episodes with the death of the person the police are pursuing. The amount of people any particular cop kills in season one is only slightly remarkable. But the totals over the whole series show that most Blue Bloods cops – specifically the main cast – have killed more people than very nearly all of the people they try to jail. They are what the title character from Dexter is just lacking the self-awareness. More troubling is how Blue Bloods normalizes police shootings as heroic outcomes as explored below the table.

Episode name/date Killed by police
Episode resolved via suspect’s death Suspect killed by
E1 “Pilot” 24 Sep 2010 1 Yes (2)
State of Florida
E2 “Samaritan” 1 Oct 2010
0 No N/A
E3 “Privilege” 8 Oct 2010
0 No
N/A
E4 “Officer Down” 15 Oct 2010
1 Yes Whole SWAT team + Danny & Jackie
E5 “What You See” 22 Oct 2010
0 No N/A
E6 “Smack Attack” 29 Oct 2010
0 No N/A
E7 “Brothers” 5 Nov 2010
0 No N/A
E8 “Chinatown” 12 Nov 2010
2 Sorta 1 by Jamie (3)          1 by Danny (4)
E9 “Re-Do” 19 Nov 2010
1 Yes Frank
E10 “After Hours” 3 Dec 2010
0 No N/A
E11 “Little Fish” 19 Jan 2011
0 No N/A
E12 “Family Ties” 26 Jan 2011
0 No N/A
E13 “Hall of Mirrors” 2 Feb 2011
0 No
N/A
E14 “My Funny Valentine” 9 Feb 2011
0 Yes Suicide
E15 “Dedication” 18 Feb 2011
1 Sorta Killed by Danny
E16 “Age of Innocence” 25 Feb 2011
0 No
N/A
E17 “Silver Star” 11 March 2011
0 No N/A
E18 “To Tell The Truth” 1 April 2011
0 No N/A
E19 “Model Behavior” 8 April 2011
0 No N/A
E20 “All That Glitters” 29 Apr 2011 0 No N/A
E21 “Cellar Boy” 6 May 2011
0 No N/A
E22 “The Blue Templar” 13 May 2011 0 Yes Suicide

The NYPD or associated agencies are involved in the deaths of the people they criminalize in over one-fifth of the season one episodes, nearly one-third if we include the two episodes where suicide resolves the story. Blue Bloods is not responsible for material world police shootings but it, like all cop shows, plays a role in (re)producing public support for police violence through discursive illustration. It offers an imaginary heroic police violence. It relies on an audience that accepts these outcomes as palatable or else it would be read as the sadistic horror it is or, possibly, the audience would be aware of their enjoyment of sadistic horror. In Weber’s description of the state as the claimant to a monopoly over legitimate violence, Blue Bloods normalizing police violence is the same as normalizing the state itself. The audience receiving these stories as heroic is part of statism; the organization of sociality around monopolies over legitimate violence.

Who do the cops pursue?

But to what end is the monopolized legitimate violence deployed? Blue Bloods produces stories that portray the U.S. carceral system as not being built around Black Captivity. It tells stories of Black Captivity largely without Black people. This is not a disavowal of Black criminality nor white innocence. It still narrates through Black criminality, at times explicitly as in the second episode “Samaritan”. Instead it relies on Black Captivity being grammatical to the viewing audience. Audiences bring the knowledge of Black Captivity and mass incarceration to the show already. It doesn’t have to be said when it is the framework through which the audience understands the concept of prisons. So when Blue Bloods represents white cops hunting white criminals as their universe, it still does so through Black Captivity.

Blue Bloods‘ first season presents a radically different picture of police violence than the material world offers. The NYPD in season one pursues predominantly white people. The table below shows the demographics.

Episode name/date Racialization of person/people the cops pursue
Episode notes
E1 “Pilot” 24 Sep 2010 White  
E2 “Samaritan” 1 Oct 2010
Black Black characters are gang members or family to them
E3 “Privilege” 8 Oct 2010
White latinx
Populist story about foreigners running amok
E4 “Officer Down” 15 Oct 2010
White One of the three is Eastern European
E5 “What You See” 22 Oct 2010
White, Arab
Story about a terror attack
E6 “Smack Attack” 29 Oct 2010
White
E7 “Brothers” 5 Nov 2010
Latinx Latinxs are drug dealers
E8 “Chinatown” 12 Nov 2010
Chinese Yellow Peril story
E9 “Re-Do” 19 Nov 2010
White
E10 “After Hours” 3 Dec 2010
White
E11 “Little Fish” 19 Jan 2011
White
E12 “Family Ties” 26 Jan 2011
White
E13 “Hall of Mirrors” 2 Feb 2011
South Asian Story with Muslims about terrorism
E14 “My Funny Valentine” 9 Feb 2011
White
E15 “Dedication” 18 Feb 2011
White Early subplot about Mexican cartels
E16 “Age of Innocence” 25 Feb 2011
White  
E17 “Silver Star” 11 March 2011
White
E18 “To Tell The Truth” 1 April 2011
White latinx
Latinxs are narcotraficantes
E19 “Model Behavior” 8 April 2011
White
E20 “All That Glitters” 29 Apr 2011 White
E21 “Cellar Boy” 6 May 2011
White
E22 “The Blue Templar” 13 May 2011 White

Blue Bloods often works to have contrasting “good” characters every time it produces a racist character type. In Arabs and Muslims in the Media Evelyn Alsultany describes a “field of meaning” beyond simple ideas of representation. She writes:

The critical cultural studies approach that I employ strategically privileges the analysis of ideological work performed by images and story lines, as opposed to reading an image as negative or positive, and therefore gets us beyond reading a positive image as if it will eliminate stereotyping. If we interpret an image as either positive or negative, then we can conclude that the problem of racial stereotyping is over because of the appearance of sympathetic images of Arabs and Muslims during the War on Terror. However, an examination in relation to its narrative context reveals how it participates in a larger field of meaning about Arabs and Muslims. The notion of a field of meaning, or an ideological field, is a means to encompass the range of acceptable ideas about the War on Terror.

Here I use this “field of meaning” to look at how Blue Bloods ties racialized subject positions to specific racist types. So in keeping with Alsultany’s focus, how often are Arabs and Muslims story lines not articulated to terrorism? As in, does Blue Bloods allow Arabs and Muslims to have meaning that is not tied to terrorism?

Blue Bloods mentions latinxs as part of the plot in five episodes. In the first, “Privilege”, the cops pursue a wealthy diplomatic family whose foreignness marks their danger as their wealth and appreciation for the ballet mark their arrogance. But this is no class critique as the Reagans themselves are wealthy and have no disdain for their own wealth. Instead it is conservative populism. The show does this again, without the xenophobia, later in season one in “Silver Star”.

The other episodes with latinxs are all tied to gangs or drug trafficking. One, “Dedication”, mentions Mexican drug cartels in passing as a possible threat to Frank. Two other episodes, “Brothers” and “To Tell the Truth” are more focused on non-Black latinx drug gangs. In three of five episodes with latinx story lines or subplots, they are international narcotraffickers or drug gangs. This is sufficient to identify a field of meaning. Season one also has a couple of episodes with white drug dealers but these do not create a field of meaning for whiteness. Instead they are deviations from whiteness’ field of meaning established by the Reagan family unit. One other episode, “My Funny Valentine”, uses a migrant latina “oh yays meester” housekeeper – who appears just once in the entire series and without any cleaning materials – as a foreign prop to further Frank’s moral authority.

Blue Bloods features Black characters in only one season one episode, “Samaritan” where the cops pursue a gang of (mostly) Black youths who are terrorizing random people on the subway and posting videos of it on “NYCTHUGZ.net”. The episode also has another Black character, the ‘samaritan’. He too is criminalized, albeit reluctantly. This is one of several episodes to explicitly endorse Stop & Frisk policies.

Both season one episodes with Muslim characters are about terrorism. “What You See” uses vaguely arabesque music throughout as menace rather than comfort and explicitly endorses racial profiling in an exchange between Danny and Jackie. Turns out the person they’re pursuing is a white woman who converted to Islam and they use this to double down on Islamophobia when Jackie says, “She’s an Islamic convert? Usually they’re the most zealous.” The second episode is “Hall of Mirrors” where a Pakastani Muslim undercover cop in a “sleeper cell” is shot and Danny has to discover if he was shot because his cover was blown or for unrelated reasons. In season one Blue Bloods has no concepts of Arabs or Muslims outside of the War on Terror’s field of meaning.

The sole episode with Chinese characters is about Chinese human traffickers that also has a Chinese dominatrix. Both play into already well established racist types.

The media in Blue Bloods

Blue Bloods shares with most cop shows – with the partial exception of The Wire – a tremendous disdain for journalism that is also not a systemic critique of the media. In Blue Bloods the media are uniformly unfair and appear in passing in most episodes as presenting some kind of danger or as misrepresenting police actions. The media are underhanded and have a vendetta against the police. Frank has to constantly put them in their place and coerce their behavior, even as he secretly dates a reporter. The media knowingly publish stories impugning Frank personally as well as the whole police department. The sole example to the contrary is when a group of media at a press conference applauds adoringly after hearing that Frank’s daughter is recovering from an attack by a serial killer.

Big Hero vs. Big Villain storytelling

Blue Bloods sometimes uses a cop show trope I’m calling Big Hero vs. Big Villain. Big Hero vs. Big Villain are story arcs where the police are less systemic violence’s agents and more individuals in contest with others. Big Hero vs. Big Villain can be done in a way that includes a systemic framework, if not critique as in The Wire‘s story lines of McNulty vs. the Barksdale Crew or Stringer Bell. Blue Bloods does not do this. Instead its Big Hero vs. Big Villain stories act as personal quests, deeply personal battles and redemption arcs for its protagonists and adds a level of illegibility to the people the NYPD pursues through making their motivations more arbitrary. Season one has two main Big Hero vs. Big Villain story arcs. The first starts in the first episode and ends in the finale with Jamie, then later the whole Reagan family, against The Blue Templar, a group of corrupt cops. It’s a recurring story throughout the season with Jamie. The second is “Re-Do” where Erin is attacked by someone she previously prosecuted, who taunts Danny as well, before Frank executes him while he’s assaulting Erin.

More often than Big Hero vs. Big Villain, Blue Bloods in season one offers ‘the personal is the carceral’ where one of the Reagans has a deep personal connection with either someone injured or someone they’re criminalizing. It’s another version of desystemizing police with personal moral arcs instead of instead of procedural ones. In “Officer Down” all the Reagans are personally invested in finding someone who killed another cop because someone killed their cop family member Joe. Danny is outraged on behalf of a dead ex-marine because he too was a marine in “Silver Star”. Former neighbors are both the killers and killed in “Cellar Boy”. Peruvian narcotraffickers kidnap Linda to coerce false testimony from Danny in “To Tell the Truth”. Most other episodes also serve as examples. The writers are not necessarily invested in desystemizing the police by doing this. It is also a heavy-handed story crutch to get the audience to care about characters and story arcs otherwise too shallow and dull to intrigue or invest.

Heroic portrayals of torture and police brutality

Blue Bloods regularly portrays torture as heroic. It is heroic in either how the heroes do the torturing or torture is a successful tactic towards saving the day. Blue Bloods is not alone in regularly portraying torture as effective and ethical. NCIS, the various CSI shows, The Shield, The Wire and many others also do. It is so common in cop shows that it must be either convincing or have an already convinced audience. If it did not, much like the above police killings, the audience would receive it as the sadistic horror it is. But Blue Bloods is slightly uncommon in that it lionizes torture as a central part of two characters (Danny, Henry).

We are introduced to Danny in the pilot where he, while trying to locate a kidnapped child, drowns in a toilet and beats someone to extract information. In “Officer Down” he takes someone to an abandoned field and puts a gun to his head to extract information. His brutality is so well known that someone from the Department of Homeland Security comments to Frank in “What You See” that having someone like Danny on a case is a good thing, in context referring to his predilection for violence. Danny’s partner Jackie too engages in police brutality but this is Danny’s defining characteristic and in the Blue Bloods universe he’s carrying on a family tradition started by his grandfather Henry, who was also a former police commissioner and whose slapper he carries with him and uses to beat people as in the episode “Brothers”. Unintentionally, Blue Bloods offers police brutality and torture as a fundamental part of policing in this way, showing that no matter what else changes, police brutality will always be a part of policing.

The Ticking Time Bomb

Blue Bloods makes a fairly modest use of the ticking time bomb as a story prop in season one. They create a certain sense of urgency in most episodes but only in a few – “Pilot”, “What You See”, “Re-Do” and “To Tell The Truth” – does Blue Bloods necessitate extraordinary measures to avert pending catastrophe. While doing this in four out of twenty-two episodes is quite a lot compared to classic procedural shows, it is less common than many shows from early years of the U.S. War on Terror that preceded it like Criminal Minds and NCIS. That Blue Bloods doesn’t rely on the ticking time bomb prop further damns how often it uses police brutality and resolves stories by killing those it criminalizes. There is less at stake in canon, yet the violence is not lessened.

State Rape

Blue Bloods regularly uses rape, specifically the threat of it, as a coercive tool. In “Privilege” Danny tells a detainee who mocks his pay that “I’m compensated in other ways, like when I get to see the look of love in a meat wrangler’s eye that they made some spoiled rich kid his new celly”. Danny waxes about this even when not threatening a detainee as in “Age of Innocence” when Jackie says, “This guy’s gonna miss hid maid in Rikers” and Danny responds with “He may end up being somebody’s maid in Rikers.” Beyond fantasizing rape as a coercive tool of the state, this naturalizes assault as a feminine condition. These threatened assaults are also the legitimate violence the state monopolizes.

Other cop show tropes

Blue Bloods invokes other cop show tropes but does so only in single episodes or for just moments in single episodes leaving insufficient data to cover its representations of transgender people, sex workers and more. These will be covered in later overviews of the whole series. In season one none are remarkable in a good way. Feedback appreciated. Thanks for reading.

 

 

(1) I say “or kill” due to Blue Bloods frequently resolving storylines by killing the suspect. This occurs far too often to consider it anything other than an expected outcome for the showrunners.

(2) Delayed death as the person is extradited to Florida to face the death penalty.

(3) Jamie chases a man into traffic who dies after being struck by a car.

(4) Danny shoots an armed man who is silent after he falls. Unclear if he dies.