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'Motive' Wonders, Why?

Motive reminds viewers that breaking social norms can lead to dire consequences.


Airtime: Thursdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Kristin Lehman, Louis Ferreira, Lauren Holly, Roger Cross, Brendan Penny, Cameron Bright
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: ABC
Creator: Daniel Cerone
Air date: 2013-05-23

It's less than two minutes into the premiere of Motive when we learn the killer's identity. That's this new series' gimmick, that viewers know who's committed the crime at the beginning of each episode, before the cops do. From here, we're invited to wait for Detectives Angie Flynn (Kristin Lehman) and Oscar Vega (Louis Fereirra) to discover what we already know, while sharing in their emotional twists and turns as the case develops.

Offering viewers this information makes Motive seem like a different sort of police procedural. Yet despite the structural manipulations, the show carries the same basic plots, moral messages, and descriptive tendencies as most other cop shows. The investigation involves missteps along the way, as the cops interrogate the wrong people or overlook the person who should be their number one suspect. It also has them working with a very familiar team, from medical examiner Betty Rogers (Lauren Holly) to veteran Staff Sergeant Bloom (Roger Cross), from crime scene investigation techs to busy coroners fussing with high-tech devices and DNA tests. These team members offer qualitative and quantitative descriptions of the crime, and the police officers, in turn, offer their streetwise, hard-won opinions.

Flynn is certainly the most lauded -- and most vocal -- police officer on Motive. She injects her opinion throughout each case, valuing her gut instinct and qualitative evidence over the opinions of other experts. As a detective, she is very much focused on ensuring that each individual arrested for committing a crime had motive to do the deed. When she can't find a motive, Flynn works against her fellow officers and support staff to prove that a plausible suspect is actually innocent. This type of TV detective work has been popular in police procedurals since Dragnet. It prioritizes the primary officer as a nearly omniscient demigod. What the show tells us is that, thanks to her excellent (read: womanly) intuition, Flynn won't be wrong at the end of each episode. Whatever the evidence might seem to suggest, she will find the real truth.

The viewer position constructed by Motive becomes particularly interesting given the elevation of Flynn's gut instincts. If viewers didn't already know the identity of the killer, they would be convinced to go right along with every one of Flynn and Vega's missteps. Cop shows have long relied on viewers being just as in the dark as the police officers as a way to make the detectives sympathetic and make their mistakes seem standard. But while the show's intent seems to be to reveal the complexity of solving a crime, what it ends up doing is making Flynn and Vega's mistakes seem stupid. We wonder how they could be so dumb as to miss the obvious signs that Person X is the real killer.

Unfortunately, the missteps revealed on the show hardly demythologize the police. Instead of allowing viewers to think about how detectives are human, and might not always see or be able to correct their mistakes, the show -- like so many before it -- leads us to believe that good cops always fix errors. After all, procedurals have an important role in developing public trust for policing agencies and convincing viewers that we really do live in a just world. Those viewers who already have a deep-seated distrust of the police will find this part of the show particularly troublesome, because it is so blatantly ideological.

At the same time, these stories about criminal motivation will seem understandable to the audience, because they rely on familiar stereotypes. At the beginning of the first episode -- airing 20 May, before the show takes up its regular timeslot starting Thursday -- most audience members will be able to list three or four reasons the killer might have had for committing the act. Of course, the motives that most viewers can list aren't drawn from any informed knowledge of policing and behavioral science. Instead, they're drawn from shows like Criminal Minds and Numb3rs, where viewers are exposed to a highly mediated version of behavioral profiling.

Even if the motives that viewers recognize aren't the same as the ones that Flynn posits at the end of the show, they still remind viewers that breaking social norms can lead to dire consequences. When we see a young killer who is bullied by his peers, we automatically understand that victims of bullying can foment terrible rage. It's a message we've seen in other cop shows and on the nightly news. It's part of the paradigm by which we comprehend our world and direct our interactions with others.

Similar stereotypes are at work where victims are concerned. Through a series of flashbacks and investigative maneuvers, the audience sees how a given individual becomes a victim. Motive reinforces ideas about actions victims take that make them more susceptible to violent crime. For instance, in the second episode, when a young woman who is defying her parents' wishes by meeting secretly with her boyfriend makes a startling discovery during that rendez-vous that gets her killed, we immediately realize that she would still be alive had she not been sexually immoral. While Motive applies such moral lessons with particular force to women, male victims are also fair game. In the first episode, we're instructed that excessive drinking is risky behavior.

Detectives Flynn and Vega are also framed by stereotypes. Both wrestle with the family and work demons that have become par for the course on police procedurals. Flynn is the tough-as-nails female detective who's fought for her job and isn't going to let anyone dictate her instincts. Her "feelings," and the show's gendered framing of them, are typical of cop shows, where women can have natural intuition, but leave the intellectual sorting out to their male coworkers. As this show privileges Flynn, Vega serves as her rational, calming counterpart, serving as her reliable sounding board, but never making the big leaps on his own. With this conventional dynamic in place, Motive isn't as different as its opening narrative trick suggests. We know the killer's identity, and we know what's going to happen too. The standard pieces are all here, just fit into the hour in a different order.


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