TV Crime Shows: The Same New Story, or: Writers’ Block?

Once upon a time TV’s law enforcers kept their private lives private and solved crimes against “Joe Citizen.”   Dragnet, M Squad,dragnet The Untouchables, The Detectives, Peter Gunn and 77 Sunset Strip are examples from that earlier era.  With the advent of such programs as Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue the protagonists of crime series not only became involved in their own family issues but also spent an increasing amount of time dealing with crimes against themselves and their agencies, e.g., bogus accusations of cover-ups, corruption, evidence tampering, and even murder.  Moreover, today’s criminals are wizards who know that (1) crime labs and medical examiners’ facilities are so security light that almost anyone can enter and blow them up or take hostages (CSI:  Miami, NCIS, NCIS:  New Orleans, Scorpion), (2)  a law enforcement officer’s brother or child can be easily kidnapped (Hawaii 5-0, CSI), (3) it is simple to become  intimately familiar with the movements of every Behavioral Analysis Unit employee (Criminal Minds), (4) a CSI’s car can be wired to explode without anyone seeing the activity taking place in the parking lot (CSI), (5) underground para-military/corporate/governmental organizations must be created to ensure public safety (Person of Interest, The Mentalist), and (6) even a mentally ill hacker savant can use a psychiatrist’s files to murder a client and wait years before targeting the therapist, now a high level federal agent (CSI:  Cyber).  As super malefactors, they are incredibly familiar with investigative procedures and have the time, funds and ability to recreate scenes of the crime (CSI) and taunt their pursuers (The Mentalist).  Law students and their attorney mentor can kill clients and spouses (How to Get Away with Murder).

In short, the overarching theme of virtually every contemporary network TV crime series is the police/NCIS/CIA/FBI/crimeperson of interest lab investigating itself or being investigated by another law enforcement agency.  Solving crime on the streets is secondary.  On Person of Interest, the ostensible rationale of helping unknowing citizens from suffering at the hands of average hoods was jettisoned rather quickly in favor of a nebulous mission by rival super computers and their human attendants to destroy each other in order to save humanity from itself.  Similarly, The Blacklist, in which law enforcement  employs former criminal mastermind Remington to locate and defuse the nasty intentions of international criminals, degenerated into Remington fighting for his life—and his FBI handler learning that her husband is a plant.

Such series are also full of clichés:  stalkers/serial killers have (1) photographic expertise and never tire of taking and enlarging in their darkrooms pictures of their law enforcement targets (they seem unfamiliar with the digital revolution), (2) unlimited funds to build and equip unseen their chambers of horrors, and (3) the ability to construct ultra-sophisticated explosive devices.

Do writers find these scenarios so compelling they must be used ad nauseam?  Have we come to the end of network TV series imagination?  Is it impossible to come up with anything new in a 24/7 TV world?

By Kim

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