In the latest futuristic crime TV show from Fox, a multi-billionaire vows to change his city after a criminal attack and a devastating personal loss. He isn’t Batman, and he doesn’t dress up in a costume to fight criminals: he buys a police department and takes on street crime with an arsenal of high-tech gadgets. APB is a fun show, but it missed out being anything more than light escapism.
The show is loosely based off of 2015 New York Times Magazine feature, Who Runs The Streets of New Orleans?, about an industrialist named Sidney Torres. Following Hurricane Katrina, crime in New Orleans spiked. Torres’ home was burglarized. So with the fortune his sanitation company made during the cleanup of the city, he created the French Quarter Task Force, an off-duty police detail. An accompanying app allowed civilians to report crimes as they were happening.
In the show, Justin Kirk stars as Gideon Reeves, a billionaire wonderboy who made his fortune building rockets, military hardware, computers, and robots, giving him a net worth of $100 billion. (Bill Gates, by comparison, is only worth a measly $85 billion.) While coming home from a product demonstration, he stops at a store to get some cigarettes, only to walk into an armed robbery. When he tries to call 911, he’s put on hold and attacked. His friend is shot and killed, the thieves flee, and when the 911 operator picks up, he screams into the phone: “Where the hell are you people?”
Weeks later, brooding over the incident, he shows up at a local council meeting and asks for something unconventional. He wants to take over the local police precinct, which has been subjected to devastating budget cuts. He’ll outfit it with the latest crimefighting technology. Turn down his offer, he tells the council, and he’ll fund all of their political opponents and install new politicians who’ll accept his proposal. He takes over the 13th District, creates a phone app, and outfits his cops with all types of advanced (and expensive) body armor, body cameras, weapons, drones, computers, and coffee machines. Reeves is a bit like Iron Man’s Tony Stark. He has a lot of money, he gets tuned into a societal issue when it finally affects him personally, and he decides to put his energy into solving a problem that the government just hasn’t gotten around to addressing.
Before long, he’s won over the skeptical police force, and they take to the streets with all the resources of a billionaire at their disposal. There are hitches: not all the tech works as planned right off the bat, and the first reports are false alarms from people checking on whether Reeves is serious about his project. But before long, they catch a real report and quickly capture a suspect, aided by a cell-phone video that a civilian texted in. By the end of the episode, the entire city has begun to adopt Reeves’ app. The next couple of episodes settle into a predictable pattern: Reeves has some big ideas for how he can disrupt policing, and he introduces a new gadget, while officer Amelia Murphy (Natalie Martinez) helps keep him grounded by introducing him to the gritty nature of police work.
Science fiction television often looks five minutes into the future to figure out what’s coming next, and APB has a nice formula that makes it a fun escape each week. Unfortunately, the show feels as though it’s missing out on a lot. It imagines that technology is the only way to solve the world’s problems, while ignoring the underlying issues that caused the crime in the first place. The initial episodes also ignore the huge and relevant implications of police co-opting civilians as a surveillance force, and the notion of privatized law enforcement run by one incredibly wealthy individual with an agenda of revenge. So far, Reeves seems benevolent enough in his intentions, but it’s still a troubling idea.
Two other stories come to mind while watching APB: Steven Spielberg’s film Minority Report and CBS’s excellent show Person of Interest. Both stories work because they look beyond the gadgets, and tackle some big underlying issues around privacy, guilt, and wealth inequality. The difference between APB and those stories is that Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Nolan recognized how scary this type of future can be, and took advantage of the queasier questions that impersonal, tech-driven law enforcement can raise.
APB seems to represent a series of law-enforcement ideals that we’d like to believe in, even if they’re almost entirely unrealistic. With advances in cameras, computers, drones, and the like coming every single day, the idea that new technology is somehow the silver bullet when it comes to crime-fighting is enormously appealing. But large organizations like government bureaucracies are slow to change — the nation’s nuclear forces are finally phasing out floppy disks this year. So far, the series is fun, mindless entertainment. But unless the series evolves significantly down the road, it’s an enormous missed opportunity to present a story that digs into our very real problems with policing and technology, and examines them in a meaningful, dramatic way.