For all its flashy editing and lurid subject matter, the long-running Fox reality series COPS has always been closer to the cinéma vérité tradition of Frederick Wiseman than the sordid sensationalism of Cheaters. After a few network-mandated first-season experiments with dramatic music and stilted "inside looks" at policemen's personal lives, COPS settled quickly into the format it's followed for the past 20 seasons: No narration and very little explanation, just punchy vignettes drawn from the everyday experiences of "the men and women of law enforcement." There's a rare purity to the whole endeavor.
The double-disc COPS: 20th Anniversary Edition DVD collects the series' pilot episode, its 20th-anniversary best-of special, an hourlong Las Vegas special, and roughly three bonus hours of classic moments and "toughest takedowns." It's a generous package for COPS fans, but inevitably, a little unsatisfying. People who enjoy drunken domestic disputes may be disappointed by the emphasis on chase scenes. People who like chases may wish the DVDs contained more of the "aftermath" scenes, where the police try to figure out why the crook was running in the first place. This is how it's always gone with COPS. The average segment contains two minutes of voyeuristic thrills surrounded by six minutes of pontificating and standing around—but too much of the former would be just as taxing.
Still, even though COPS' drive-by version of documentary filmmaking doesn't give its fans anything like a full understanding of what they've just seen, the show remains an interesting study in viewer identification and modern policing. Even the most anti-authoritarian COPS-watcher may eventually start rooting for the police to take unruly suspects down—something that's been easier than ever over the last five seasons, now that Tasers have entered the picture. And even advocates for legalizing drugs and prostitution may side with law officers over the kind of cocky dimwits COPS finds out on the streets. If there's one lesson the show hammers home, it's "When a police officer tells you not to run, you don't run." But that's easy for those of us watching at home to say. After all, Fox has yet to air COPS' mortifying sequel: PRISON.
Key features: Fairly flat commentary tracks on the pilot and "Las Vegas Heat" episodes, and informative featurettes about COPS' history and its pervasive presence in popular culture.