Crime is ubiquitous on the small screen. As noted by Barbara Villez in her 2009 book, Television and the Legal System, of the 120 law and crime shows on television since the late 1940s, more than half appeared between 1990 and 2008. Since then, the numbers have only expanded.
But as the general topic grows familiar, the shows’ formats keep changing. In the ‘90s, police officers and lawyers in the original Law & Order and NYPD Blue focused on a nuanced probing of individual morality in tension with legislated norms and judicial practice. In the 2000s, crime solvers triumph as outliers to the traditional framework of the police, the lawyers, and the court personnel.
Of course, the idea that the brilliant citizen detective can outsmart the plodding cop is as old as the crime genre itself, arising directly from the Romantic conception of creativity and genius as the unique possession of the exceptional individual. In that sense, the new noughties’ TV crime shows fit right into traditional generic parameters. The eponymous Dexter (Michael C. Hall), Dr. Lightman (Tim Roth) from Lie to Me, mystery novelist Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion), and Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) in Bones are the logical descendants of Sherlock Holmes, Jane Marple, Phillip Marlowe, and Jessica Fletcher.
Unlike those private citizens, though, 21st-century investigators foreground structures of knowledge that directly challenge the law as a society’s first and most equitable guarantor against chaos. Whether forensic scientist, con artist, psychic or serial killer, their individual epistemologies trump the law any day, as the citizen’s primary source of justice.
Their shows go further. They disdain legal procedure and personnel, advocate for replacing politically approved and equitably administered rules with the arbitrary exercise of personal morality, and celebrate the demands of retributive justice over the provisions of legal procedure. Again, none of these ideas is particularly new. But the ways current TV crime shows articulate them suggest disturbing changes in popular attitudes and images. They claim not only that the law does not provide justice to ordinary Americans, but also that it cannot do so.
These shifts both shape and reflect an existential insecurity in America. First, the ubiquity of television shows and their formulaic structures create not only an accessible source of information about the law, but also construct a rough and ready, working legal culture seemingly applicable to everyday life. As Villez argues, law and crime on television provide most citizens with understandings that “establish a vision of authority and an awareness of individual rights. With a legal culture, citizens acquire criteria allowing them to evaluate actions, decisions, and even the well-foundedness of laws.” As television representations mutate, so too does the legal culture they mold.
Second, the degree to which modern societies legislate individual and collective action means televisions shows can probe the most intimate as well as the most public aspects of life, in the form of crime stories. And, as several law journal articles have pointed out over the last decade, crime shows far over-represent heinous crimes in their constant fixation on murder, near-fatal assault, and general indifference to human life. No aspect of daily life is safe from disaster: not only is the fictional law failing, but the fictional threats people face, as individuals and as citizens, are escalating.
These representations parallel the external, non-fictional experiences of America. September 11 epitomizes an egregiously public failure of national and regional law enforcement, followed by two inconclusive and inglorious wars, and an economic meltdown: these events collectively suggest, more than anything, the inability of institutions, from the presidency on down, to protect the individual.
The televisual enactment of such insecurity goes beyond the perennial tension in American history between communal responsibility and individual self-interest, to an almost amoral survivalism.
Dexter needs victims, and the fact that he is represented as applying a form of mainstream science to choose those victims negates the absolute danger of his need. As long as he dispatches bad guys, he’s okay. In Bones, the long-running debate over whether and when Tempe Brennan will, or will not, legally carry a gun, is also a long-running debate about rewarding the exceptional individual with the power to kill at will. Journalist and scholar David K. Shipler writes of the dangers of the marginalizing legal structures and the law, reminding readers, “The rights of the lowliest criminal aren’t his alone. They belong to us all.” If television’s crime shows foster a legal culture that rejects the law, we, the audiences, in applauding justice and forgetting the law, are willing participants in the erosion of our own protections.
Is there hope for something different? Perhaps. In the recent fall TV season, two shows re-integrated the solo crime solver with the unique (and, it has to be said in one case, wacky) gift back into the traditional apparatus of law enforcement. In Unforgettable, Carrie Wells (Poppy Montgomery), who can forget nothing except the day her sister was murdered, slowly returns to her abandoned career as a detective. In Grimm, Nick Burkhardt’s (David Giuntoli) ability to see and apprehend supernatural creatures bent on deadly mischief in Portland, Oregon emerges from a patently ridiculous premise: Nick is a homicide detective working within the constraints of the law, despite his “special abilities.” Whether these two shows form an aberration or a trend, only the unfolding schedules of 2012 will tell.