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Cops: 20 seasons of Saturday night takedowns

Cops creator John Langley knows what he wants by now: Action!

American clearly has an inexhaustible supply of low-life troublemakers. That's where Cops comes in.

Now in its 20th season, it's been a no-frills Saturday night mainstay on Fox since the days when competition included the likes of Empty Nest, Mr. Belevedere, 227 and China Beach.

"No narrator, no script, no host, no reenactments. None. Period," creator John Langley says in a recent interview. "Don't try to enhance reality. Just show reality. Make it as pure as possible."

It also helps, he adds, that "we're still the cheapest show on network TV."

Langley has assembled a suitably motley collection of chases, fights, car wrecks and in-denial drunks and drug dealers for Cops: 20 Years . . . Caught on Tape. It unrolls and unravels on Saturday, Sept. 29 from 7 to 8 p.m. (central). Fox thoughtfully sent a breathalyzer along with the review DVD.

Cops' initial guinea pigs were Fort Lauderdale, Florida's long arms of the law. The show since has trained its cameras on more than 140 U.S. police departments and also traveled to China, England, Russia and Central and South America. A Season 8 car chase from Forth Worth leads off Saturday's anniversary special. Dallas is also in the mix.

Whatever the locale, the show's unchanging theme song, "Bad Boys" by Inner Circle, has become as familiar to the ear as Monday Night Football's anthem. Langley at first included other music within the body of the show, but quickly opted to let viewers hear only the basic, natural sounds of day-to-day police work.

Saturday nights have been stripped down, too. Once aggressively programmed by the broadcast networks, they're now mostly a repository for reruns. That leaves Fox as the only purveyor of totally first-run programming, with Cops leading off and America's Most Wanted closing out.

"I wouldn't change it for the world," Langley says. "We just keep doin' our thing and pluggin' along. Leave me on Saturday nights. Leave me alone."

Langley's son, Morgan, has been an off-and-on part of the Cops crew since he was 12. Having learned at the foot of the master, he's now the principal producer of MyNetworkTV's new Jail series, which airs on Tuesday nights.

All of the arrestees on both shows have to sign release forms to be shown full-faced on camera. Morgan says that most of them have no problem making unpaid appearances in unsavory settings.

"It's amazing," he says. "It's a Warhol-ian world, I guess. It's gotten to the point now where we're so deluged by images and media that it's no big deal."

Although a pathfinder in the reality genre, Cops has never won an Emmy and likely never will. So then as now, happiness is a warm gun.

"It really has made its mark on history, so I look at it from that perspective," says the senior Langley. "Are we underappreciated in terms of the critics? Probably. But the fans stick with us. You can't have everything."