Television is a vast landscape offering a wide array of genres from which to choose. In my “Analyzing TV” series, I will discuss some of these types of shows in detail and determine what makes them stick around.
The world is often a terrifying place. We turn on the news to hear of the latest shooting or stabbing or drug deal gone awry, and often hear the same stories over and over as the police struggle to develop any leads. It can often feel overwhelming, as if there is no protection for us or as if justice is simply unattainable for these victims.
This, in simplified terms, is why we always turn to “police procedurals”. They offer us a world wherein the police always serve and protect, and the bad guys almost always get caught by the time the credits roll. We know this isn’t reality, but we also know (or at least feel) it should be. Gone are the gray areas of police brutality and innocent people being harassed. Instead, our heroic detectives are on the case and won’t sleep until justice has been properly served.
Another reason police procedurals gain so much popularity lies in their familiarity. Every week there will be a new case, the detectives will pursue the truth, and will (probably) find their guy. It’s not like tuning into a show like The Walking Dead where you’re paying attention constantly for any surprises; chances are you can join a procedural halfway through and be able to deduce what is going on, as well as what happened previously.
The genre started out much less complicated than it is today. In the early days of television, crime shows were often holdovers from the days of radio shows. The plots were often simple: good guy vs. bad guy, and you can bet your patooty (they couldn’t say “ass” on TV back then) the good guy was coming out on top every time. The crime itself was not depicted nearly as graphically or realistically as in today’s often-unsettling shows.
As time has gone on, though, crime shows have advanced into the modern phenomenon of “police procedurals”, led by early adopters such as Hill Street Blues and Dick Wolf’s famed, once-untouchable Law & Order franchise. These shows offered a grittier look at the mean realities of the streets, not shying away from displaying the most violent acts. They would also, as the name implies, offer a look into how the police go about their jobs in a deeper sense than just showing them finding and arresting people. They showed the psychological impact, the bureaucratic hassle, the tedious nature of the hunt for a perp. In the 90s, Homicide: Life on the Streets would join and offer an even more realistic portrait of police action.
In today’s always-expanding pool of TV series, a viewer can pick their poison as far as crime shows are concerned. Shows such as the original Law & Order, now confined to re-runs thanks to a poor, hasty decision by NBC, offer a straight, no-nonsense view of “the law” (or, obviously, the idealized TV version). The CSI franchise offers details into the art of analyzing a crime scene. Shows such as Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Criminal Minds offer a peek into the brains of the monsters our heroes pursue.
Ultimately, they all offer that same relatively idealistic view of the world and of our justice system. However, they at least offer more realistic elements as well. These newer shows will acknowledge that not everyone gets caught, that those who get caught aren’t always bad people, and that the police are not above criticism. It’s a step in the right direction for realism, and viewers will likely keep tuning in for the familiarity. These modern shows at least allow the viewer the belief that even when justice isn’t served, everyone still put forth their best effort and it was simply an anomaly in a long history of successful cases. One day maybe we can achieve this ideal, but for now, we tune into our crime shows and tune out of our world.