overthinking the idiot box

April 4th, 2005

In the world of television, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the writers and producers of hour-long crime dramas, and the viewers, who watch said dramas. These are their stories.

Be Careful Out There
Awarding Dick Wolf His Patent: In Defense of the Police Procedural

by Andreanna Ditton

At a rough count — rough because my TV guide has stopped listing anything that airs after midnight and I'm either too cheap or too lazy to buy the official TV Guide — some form of Law and Order aired 47 times last week. Thanks to a Spike TV marathon, CSI beat that drum by three with 50 on-air appearances. On the plus side, it means that there's almost always something on that my roommate and I can agree to watch. On the close to plus side, it ain't Reality TV.

Add to that count Numbers, Cold Case, Without a Trace, Blind Justice, anything that airs on the pre-primetime hours on A&E, the new Kojak, Crossing Jordan, the late NYPD Blue, Medium, Medical Investigation, and, well, I'm sure I'm leaving something out.

This is a plethora of police procedurals, most of them updated for the plugged in viewer with flashforwards, flashbacks, and flashpossibles. We've been given foleys of esophogial flesh searing with a Funion crackle — thank you CSI:Miami for that memorable sound/sight, endured only for the promise of Farscape's Ben Browder in blue jeans. We've seen the inside of a vein, the crosshatch of a hatchet mark and the cerebral cortex gone horribly wrong. Every hour on the hour, some bright young thing gets nearly naked and dead on a cold steel set somewhere in Hollywood or Vancouver. And we're tuning in to the tune of record numbers.

I have to admit to being a fan. I like mysteries, I like the balance of gross and satisfying and I like that today's procedurals are smart enough to occasionally leave us hanging.

It's constant video stream of the worst of humanity — greed, jealousy, psychosis, hatred, apathy, selfishness and base fear and we can't get enough. When CSI first premiered, it wiped the floor with the competition. Law and Order is spawning faster than a rabbit on Viagra. There's no end in sight.

For the most part, these shows offer minimal character development, despite the wisecracks and clever asides. Some of them hint at the tolls taken, but we don't watch to see if Elliot Stabler will sleep with the shrink or if his wife will take him back, if Grissom will lose his hearing or if Greg will get promoted. It's nice, but not essential.

We watch because these shows dish up hour-long solutions to the big button-pushing fears of harm and death and sexual violation. It's a comfort to think if something happens, an Olivia Benson or a Catherine Willows or god forbid, a Horatio Caine, will come along and find the evidence that will put away the villain. That terror can be answered, catalogued and shelved in the 42 minutes allotted.

On the industry side, networks want shows that can function independently. A show with an arc is a show that has the potential to alienate new viewers. An NYPD Blue, or a Homicide that demanded an understanding not only of the characters but prior events proved to be moderately successful, but not so much so that networks sought out more examples of the model. With the recent success of Desperate Housewives and Lost, it'll be interesting to see if the next pilot season gives us an arc-based procedural.

Most offer us both a puzzle and a way to step back from the immediacy of the violence we see broadcast during the 10-12 p.m slot in a technicolor far less savory than Jerry Bruckheimer's CGI.

However, it's also this FX wizardry that draws us in while bolstering the distance. No matter the amount of gore, the intricately detailed blood, guts, and in a recent memorable CSI, body parts scattered over the highway, we the viewer know that the viscera is bright, shiny and manufactured. The supersaturated evidence of violence both titillates and repulses us. We can act as bloody-minded voyeurs while remaining secure in our own bodies — whole and complete and miles away from the coroner's slab.

But the titillation is key, touching on our darker sides, the peeping tom in all of us. Although not all of these shows utilize the zoom lens on the brain bits, they universally elevate the gritty details of violation, offering a safe way for us to explore our vilest urges, setting up a sort of weekly — or daily in this case — Passion Play of social mores.

With the nude lifeless bodies on display — both figuratively and literally, we are not only providing work for the actors who look good in rigor blue, we are providing an illicit thrill of exposure, a pure vulnerability of flesh that touches on everything from necrophilia to incest taboos to exhibitionism. When we hear about the awful, created details of a rape or molestation, it allows us to experience the full horror/fascination of those crimes without being truly touched by them.

Police procedurals offer a way to deal with the mundane aspects of this type of horror, these banal examples of violence that we rightly dread in our real lives. We are constantly confronted with a world that has very little use for us as individuals, and no amount of extra officers or better intelligence seems antidote to the prevalence of banal violence. When we watch Benson and Stabler act and react, fight for the worthiness of a young boy molested by his neighbor or a girl sold into sexual slavery, we feel vindicated that someone cares, that these sorts of crimes might just have a solution. When we see Ice T and Richard Belzer suiting up on the side of the good guys, we believe anything is possible. It isn't necessary to care too deeply about the characters as individuals, to worry about their mental health or their psychological wounds. They're drawn with enough texture to gently differentiate themselves from the stereotypes — angry cop with anger management issues, former stripper turned investigator, geeky scientist, intense, laconic leader, high strung DA, compassionate coroner. But they don't transcend stereotypes so much as offer variations on a theme, shadings of character in degrees of probability. Olivia Benson is more than a slightly androgynous girl cop with compassion, but not a lot more. It's up to the actors to infuse these characters with a degree of nuance.

The rash of crime dramas are at the very least offshoots of the last 50 years of network programming, but they do offer viewers a new take on a slew of old fears. They provide the comfort of a known format with a sharper edge. Law and Order is successful because of its "ripped from the headlines" component, providing solutions that the headlines can't. CSI tells us that the detritus of our lives might be the key to vindication in the case of our deaths.

Ultimately, it's the combination of pablum nice and atrocity awful that draws us to these shows. The chance t o settle down, day or night with 42 minutes of solution, peering into our ugly urges and our need for justice to combat them, an answer to daily violence with a cast of attractive characters complete with the tenacity to solve the crimes and the compassion to bother.

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