One of my guilty pleasures is watching crime shows on TV. I love crime shows for a number of reasons.
First, I really enjoy being frightened, and crime shows offer the types of situations that I find scary. I don’t usually find horror movies scary because they are too fantastic and I cannot really picture any ghosts, zombies, or ghouls attacking me or any one I know and care about. But if a director combines spine-tingling music with a realistic threat posed by a (human) stranger, acquaintance or loved one, I am drawn in. I can imagine myself or someone I love in this kind of danger.
Second, I really like trying to solve puzzles, and crime shows sometimes offer a puzzle to be solved: who among the characters presented is guilty of the crime? I love foreshadowing when it is done well so that it does not immediately give away the culprit on the first viewing, but when watching the episode a second time one can identify the clues that identify the criminal.
Finally, I like shows that are morally complex. I don’t like shows that have clear “good guys” and “bad guys.” Instead, I prefer shows that examine the complexities of criminality and look at how structural elements of particular societies work to criminalize some behaviours while excusing others (for example, see this YouTube video featuring Angela Davis on Prisons or Michael Moore’s satirical take on a Cop show about Corporate criminals).
In particular, if a show deals with the kinds of structural relations discussed by feminists, then I will love it. Most TV shows don’t meet this standard. The only TV show that does meet this standard that I can readily call to mind is The Wire. Although this feature of narratives is probably the one that I would rank most highly in terms of importance (it would override the other two criteria if ever it were present), so few TV shows meet this standard that I tend to overlook it when deciding whether a show is worth watching. I apply this standard very loosely, if at all.
These three elements that I like in crime shows create a means of ranking crime shows that usually corresponds to how much I like them. First, the situations have to be realistic and second, they cannot give away the criminal’s identity too quickly. Finally, for (overriding) bonus points, the show should be morally complex and should not explain all criminal behaviour in terms of “bad” types of persons. Most crime shows vary along these dimensions from episode to episode, and also trends in this variation can be identified over time.
For example, Criminal Minds began its run as a series that scored highly on the first two criteria (the show scores medium-low on the third, since most criminal behaviour is explained in terms of psychological deviance, and sometimes this psychological deviance is explained in terms of individual social situations, such as childhood abuse. But only rarely is criminality examined in terms of social structures beyond the individual or the individual’s family). Since Agent Gideon (Mandy Patinkin) left, however, the show has gone down hill. Now they often reveal the criminal in early scenes that show the crime being committed and there are few scenes of suspense where the viewer believes that one of the characters is in danger.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (Las Vegas) scores poorly on the first criterion because the connections between the evidence and the solution, as well as the claims about the objectivity of the evidence, are so fantastical that they might as well be talking about zombies and ghosts. They usually score well on the second criterion, and very poorly according to the bonus third criterion.
I think that Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) used to score similarly to CSI: Las Vegas, but recently the show has become increasingly interesting along all three dimensions. First, the show usually presents realistic situations that are not overly fanciful. Second, the show usually opens with the discovery of the crime, but rarely gives away the criminal until late in the episode, which leaves room to try to figure out the culprit by considering the clues found by the detectives. Third, although the show is not always politically complex, some of its episodes are, and recently I noticed that the women on the show are taking a more prominent role in advancing the plot. I describe how women have become more important to advancing the plot in this post.