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Clean Up the Town

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"You can tell all your scum friends that things are gonna change in this town. I'm not just another pretty face."

A new person (or an old inhabitant returning after years away) comes to a town suffering from lawlessness and corruption. He or she is appointed to a position of responsibility, such as The Sheriff, and proceeds to reduce crime, establish the rule of law, and topple the corrupt powers that kept the town from prospering. The Drifter on the other hand does this chronically, switches between towns and repeats the feat.


A stock plot in The Western, although easily transplanted to other settings. Often, it may be a corrupt organization that needs cleaning up instead.

In more cynical works, the would-be reformer ends up succumbing to the corrupt system, dying or worse, becoming just as corrupt as the people they replaced.

In comedic works (particularly cartoons, it seems), may entail a broom and/or dustpan, a pointy stick and garbage can, or other literal interpretations of the phrase.

Contrast with the Tyrant Takes the Helm story arc, where the villain may believe that they're in this plotline, but are actually making things worse.



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     Comic Books  

  • Batman, to varying success; the recent franchise reboot emphasized this aspect, as Batman himself hopes that someday he won't be needed.
  • Jesse Custer in the Salvation arc of Preacher.
  • Deconstructed in Southern Bastards. Earl's father Bertrand once famously ran organized crime out of the town, but it doesn't go well when he tries the same years later.
  • Played straight in Copperhead by new Sheriff Clara Bronson. The town has a problem with corruption from the mine owner commiserating with the local government, and criminals and the Natives are constantly preying on the weak.


  • Example of comedic use: Back to the Future:
    Goldie Wilson: You wait and see, Mr. Carruthers. I will be mayor! I'll be the most powerful man in Hill Valley. And I'm gonna clean up this town.
    Lou: Good. You can start by sweeping the floor. [hands Goldie a broom]
  • Jimmy Cagney does this with, of all things, the Bureau of Weights and Measures in Great Guy.
  • Played straight to hilarious effect in Blazing Saddles when the new sheriff has to clean up the town and resorts to unorthodox methods. Candy Gram, anyone?
  • Support Your Local Sheriff is another comedic western example.
  • In Hot Fuzz, Nicholas Angel has been so effective at cleaning up London that he's making the other cops look bad, so he's transferred to the quiet town of Sandford. At first it looks like there's nothing for him to clean up, but then unusual deaths start happening...
    • And when all the crime stats back in London go off the charts in his absence (making the Police look even WORSE than they did when Angel was just showing them all up), they come crawling back to beg him to return.
  • Road House. Dalton starts off acting as head bouncer at a bar, but is forced to Clean Up the Town to save his own life.
  • Happens in (of all places) Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, after Mean Mr. Mustard's theft of the magical musical instruments turns the town of Heartland into a crime-ridden cesspool. How does the eponymous band clean things up? With a musical carnival!
  • This is a good deal of the plot of Walking Tall (1973).
  • Outland
  • Dodge City: Wade Hatton comes back after years away and takes the job of sheriff of Dodge City to rescue the town from the violent misrule of evil Jeff Surrett.
  • The Untouchables
  • Ultimately what happens in Desert Heat.


  • Discworld: Carrot Ironfoundersson, when he arrives in Ankh-Morpork - but he's so nice about it...
  • Liaden Universe: Pat Rin yos'Phelium when he arrives on Surebleak.
  • Deconstructed in Harlan Ellison's short story, "The End of the Time of Leinard". The sheriff who was brought in to clean up the town decades before is now seen as a menace for his heavy-handed tactics, leading the town to conspire to get rid of him.
  • Sivord, a wrecked town in The Will Be Done, has it's 'Night of Elimination', where a mysterious stranger kills the major criminals in the town during the course of a single night.
  • In a sci-fi comedy Arm of the Law by Harry Harrison, an android police officer is assigned to a police station of Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop types in a Wretched Hive on Mars. He promptly arrests the local crime boss for an outstanding warrant, forcing the other officers to help him clean up the town (which the android does most efficiently) because they're afraid the crime boss will have them tortured and killed once he gets out of jail.
  • A juvenile version in Miss Nelson Is Missing, when the titular teacher calls in sick because she can't handle her unruly class anymore. Substitute teacher Miss Viola Swamp shows up and flat-out states, "I'm here to whip this class into shape!"

     Live Action TV  

  • The Untouchables.
  • Many episodes of Stargate SG-1. Often, the SG-1 team arrives on a planet to discover that an enemy force (Goa'uld or otherwise) has enslaved or is otherwise tormenting the local population, prompting the team to clean up the town.
  • The entire cast of Angel was eventually assigned to run the uber-evil law firm they had spent the last four years fighting. Everyone angsted a lot about whether they were up to the task, or would be corrupted themselves.
    Angel: You hired Harmony as my secretary??
    Wesley: I thought we could use a familiar face.
    Angel: Hmm. You turned evil a lot faster than I thought...
  • Once Upon a Time: Emma came to Storybrooke when her long-lost son showed up and said she was The Chosen One. She didn't believe the kid, but when she got a good look at the town and the crooked mayor, she decided to stay put and be a professional pain in her side, eventually getting the job of sheriff. As such, she's untangling all of the town's dark secrets.
  • Pretty much every new ER chief showed up with the attitude of getting the faltering, disorganized department into top-notch shape.
  • Robert Stack name drops this trope in an Unsolved Mysteries segment about the murder of small-town police chief Robert Hamrick, who was the third man to take on the position in 6 months, his predecessors having been driven away by a local gang.


  • The first album by The Protomen largely takes place some time after Dr. Light created Protoman to do this, and Mega Man decides to follow in his footsteps. Mega Man ends up discovering that Protoman grew so disgusted with the inhabitants of The City and their unwillingness to fight for themselves against Wily's tyranny that he turned on them and became Wily's Dragon.

     Newspaper Comics  

     Table Top Games  

  • Shadowrun adventure Harlequin's Back. In one of the mini-adventures in the book, "A Fistful of Karma", the PC's must defeat a cruel tyrant who oppresses the people of a mining town.
  • Dragon magazine #71 (back when it wasn't just Dungeons & Dragons) had a Boot Hill module called "The Taming of Brimstone", in which the player characters had to clean up the eponymous town.


  • Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas starts off and ends up being about CJ and Sweet cleaning up their crack-ridden 'hood.
  • The original Saints Row, drawing a rather obvious inspiration from San Andreas, opens with the Vigilante Man Julius Little forming the 3rd Street Saints (so named after their original turf, the Saints Row hood in Stilwater) for the express purpose of bringing down the three massive gangs currently warring over the city. The Player Character is an innocent victim of said gang war who is saved by Julius and offered a place with the Saints. Unfortunately, combating gang violence with even more violence, while eventually stopping the gang war, only makes the Saints fill the resulting power vacuum. This Heel Realization prompts Julius to disband the Saints and try to kill the protagonist in the finale, as he realizes that, having tasted blood, the "Playa" will never go back to civil life.
  • The Nameless Mod's Trestkon is this — if the player wills it.
  • In Crackdown, the city's police force barely is able to hold the line at their own headquarters. The Agent must go through the city, killing the leaders of the three gangs who rule the city and their lieutenants. It becomes a subversion when it's revealed the Agency allowed the gangs to run roughshod, so they'd be able to assert a despotic regime once they clean out the gangs.
  • This is the plot of all the Streets of Rage games. Somehow, the crime syndicate keeps coming back.

     Western Animation  

  • Looney Tunes short "Drip-Along Daffy": Daffy Duck comes to "clean up this one-horse town", and in the end he does... as street-sweeper. His Hypercompetent Sidekick Porky Pig, who's been made the new sheriff, quips "Lucky for him, it is a one-horse town."
  • Similarly done at the end of the Quick Draw McGraw cartoon "Double Barrel Double," but without the double entendre line. Possibly because Quick Draw himself is a horse so the joke wouldn't work.
  • The Spongebob Squarepants episode 'Pest Of The West' has Spongebuck immediately being appointed sheriff so he could save the town from Plankton's ancestor, Dead Eye Plankton. He does exactly that.
  • The Critic's "Frankie and Ellie Get Lost" has Jay decide, when his wealthy parents are lost at sea and presumed dead, to turn his inheritance towards literally cleaning up New York City's garbage and graffiti. It works so well that the city officials decide to thank him with a ticker tape parade...and the celebration leaves the city just as grimy as it was before.

     Real Life  

  • Name a political challenger, this is almost guaranteed to be one of their platforms.
  • City Marshal Dallas Stoudenmire was brought into El Paso to clean it up as the previous 5 marshals in the last 8 months were either incompetent, corrupt, or killed. He proceeded to kill at least 10 criminals in the next year, dropping the crime rate significantly.


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