Good cops, Italian style

If an American or Australian visiting Italy had time to kill one evening and turned on the television set, they might find themselves watching one of the most popular series on Italian television. Distretto di polizia (Police Precinct) is vaguely inspired by the classic American cop series Hill Street Blues.

A typical plot line covers a day or two in the life of an Italian police precinct in one of the working-class districts and presents a major serious case -- murder, rape, robbery -- which is solved by the main characters of the show. At the same time a less important case -- often a fraud and usually thwarted with a touch of comedy -- is solved by some secondary characters.

The central idea of the show is that our heroes are able to solve their cases not thanks to their intelligence but because they are able to empathize with victims and to understand their environment.

Because it is a relatively small-budget series you don't often see big action or chase scenes. Instead, you will find a lot of verbal confrontations among our police officers and between them and other people involved in the case.

The central idea of the show is that our heroes are able to solve their cases not thanks to their intelligence but because they are able to empathize with victims and to understand their environment.

But there is another important ingredient of our show: the story lines connect with the personal life of our characters in such a way that you can see the precinct as a sort of enlarged family where everyone cares about the others. There is no space for envy or bitterness, and even if sometimes our heroes don't agree about the way to manage a case, at the end of the episode they always settle their conflicts.

Now in its seventh season, this kind of show might seem pretty old-hat to an international audience, but Italians love it because it fits perfectly with our tradition, which is very different to that of most Anglophone countries. The latter are now dominated by the "scientific" and ethical-boundary-pushing approach of the Crime Scene Investigation genre, which so far is popular only with younger viewers in Italy.

The appeal of our show, on the contrary, is the pleasure a large part of the public feels in confronting a more familiar scenario, with characters who are not so exceptional at solving difficult mysteries but have a deep comprehension of the human side of situations. This was also at the heart of the inspiration of the first generation of screenwriters involved in all the Italian shows until the 1990s, people mostly coming from a cinematographic background, not particularly interested in American way of writing and producing TV shows.

Screenwriting as a literary endeavour

If you want to understand why Italian television series are so different -- in quality, in the level of acting and in filming -- from what is produced in the US or Britain and sold all over the world, you have to consider the environment where they are produced.

Firstly, Italian television is much younger and the market not nearly as big as the American one. For more than two decades, beginning in 1954, we had only a public broadcaster, limited transmission time and production that was totally internal. It was not until the 1970s that a bunch of cinema producers came up with the first Italian TV drama series, which happened to be a cop show -- mostly inspired by a literary tradition. This is because the public broadcaster of these years saw its mission as creating a culture for the masses, using the medium in an educational way.

Something changed when private interests entered the market in the late 1970s and during the 1980s. Now our market is dominated by two big players: the public broadcaster, RAI, with three channels, and a private group, Mediaset, with three channels. There are also some other minor players and, in the last few years, pay TV and satellite have slightly changed the horizon, giving a potentially wider distribution to series created by independent producers.

In this environment television writers have always played a minor role and are seen by broadcasters and producers as a subordinate element in the process of creating a series. Initiative is reserved to the purchaser (the broadcaster) and the producer. This situation is very different from that prevailing in the US, where the writers are usually also the executive producers of a show.

Indeed, Italy treats screenwriting as something quite separate from the business side of the process. Writing expertise is seen as part of the literary tradition and people involved in the creation of the shows come from a humanities background, without any kind of management training -- and, more importantly, usually without any interest in it.

The new elite and the 'masses'

In the last few years there has been some turnover in this sector and now screenwriters tend to be strong consumers of American TV storytelling, which they like not only for its style, but also for its more progressive and liberal point of view. The new generation are also people with specific training in screenwriting based on the most popular theories coming from US.

On the one hand this implies a more professional and standardized way of creating and writing TV shows. On the other hand, as the Italian market is still very attached to different models, and since financial resources are limited, there is a sort of fracture between the idea of television that screenwriters see and love and the one they are forced to serve.

This paradox produces a sort of angry frustration on the part of many of these writers. As much research among Hollywood elites has shown, there is a profound difference between the people who write for TV and the people who consume it in terms of background, beliefs and style of life.

At 33, I am a sort of exception in a world where the common experience is to be divorced (often with parents in the same situation) and to see friends mostly in their second marriage or openly against marriage, family and religion. This situation produces a certain distance between the way screenwriters see the human experience and the way they feel forced to write about it in order to please their audience, perceived as conservative and a bit dull...

Screenwriters often try to resolve this tension by introducing some of the narrative solutions they have seen in American TV into their own show. Thus, even if they are "forced" superficially to adhere to the common way of thinking, at a more profound level they try to promote their own vision, often producing a strange sort of hybrid in the clumsy attempt at aping their beloved models.

For my part, I have to admit that I share a love for the unquestionable ability of the American writers to reinvent their art and always come up with interesting solutions, as in my own favourites among the contemporary cop shows, Cold Case and Naval Criminal Investigative Service. I would like to be able to transfer some of this freshness and technical innovation to our industry, which too often tends to be conservative in style only out of fear of experimentation and from a sort of prejudice against the audience, who are judged unable to "read" a more complex language.

At the same time I try always to recognise and cultivate the specific character of our country and people, giving space to the experience (families with only two parents and of different sex, familiarity with religious life) that the greater part of Italian screenwriters simply don't know and too often are not interested to know.

It is not easy, but in a certain sense it is an exciting challenge that I can take on while doing very creative and interesting work; a challenge that requires that one be always up-to-date about the rules and theory of our craft, but also to find the time to dive into the human experience and be able to use the universal techniques of writing to tell stories that belong to our concrete reality and are not just a clumsy imitation of another world.

Luisa Cotta Ramosino is a staff writer for Distretto di polizia, broadcast by Italy's Canale 5 and produced by Taodue. She also works in the Communication Department of the Catholic University of Milan and is a regular contributor to the weekly entertainment magazine Il Domenicale.


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