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June 29, 2009

Why are TV crime dramas so popular?

L-o-15x01 I'm doing a little research for one of our staff members and I'm curious to hear our readers' thoughts and insights. We are wondering why the genre of crime drama is so popular in current American television (think CSI and its many spinoffs, the various versions of Law and Order, Cold Case, Criminal Minds, Bones, Without a Trace, NCIS, etc). What draws viewers to these shows and what does that appeal say about our attitude toward crime and prisoners in general?

I found this study, which offers at least three divergent hypotheses. I'm not sure if I buy them, though.

(Image © NBC)

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". . . 'In detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They're the purest literature we have.'"

Lord Peter Wimsey in "Strong Poison" by Dorothy L. Sayers

I tend to think that may have something to do with it.

Also, speaking for myself, I get thoroughly fed up with the hooking up and breaking up and marrying and divorcing and killing and dying that make up the bulk of so many shows. A show like "Law & Order" is extraordinarily restful just by virtue of taking all these out of the equation. That is, some of those things may be part of the crime of the week, but we stand at a remove from them. They're not happening to the characters we've gotten to know and care about. Or if they are, at least we don't have to see it all up close and personal!

jason taylor

The essay is obviously leading. All the talk about "channeling one's aggression in an authoritarian manner" is meant to be a dig at the viewers of cop shows. Which of course begs the question of why it is wrong to "channel one's aggression in an authoritarian manner"(how else does one have a society?).

People like cop shows because people who do dangerous things are admired. And because they like to see justice done. Mysteries are a sign of civilization-even the more gory ones. They show the use of reason and the rule of law which is always an assumption even if it is presented as an obstacle for the good guys. They probe the delicate balence between the need for order and the need for freedom. A cop show fan need have nothing to be ashamed of.


I don't watch most of the shows that were mentioned because, when I have tried, they get a bit too graphic with bodies and have seemed disrespectful of the dead. But, I must confess that I am a fan of Law and Order. I didn't watch it for years but then got hooked.
What I like is that they deal pretty much with the case at hand and stay out of the private lives of the regulars. Thus no soapy stuff about unfaithful spouses and that sort of thing. Also there is the quest for justice that sometimes gets side tracked by politics or career aspirations. It is entertaining and makes you think!


For me, and I've always been a fan of such shows, it's all about the value of human life. What the majority of crime dramas imply is that every life has worth, and that murder or violence against someone's life demands justice. There is a right and a wrong, and although an episode may occasionally show a wrong going unpunished (because of a lack of evidence, the judicial system, etc.) it is never shown as a good thing. In fact, it frequently becomes these ones who "got away" who spur the main characters on towards justice in other cases, determined to never let that happen again.

There's also the fact that they're usually plot or story based rather than character-driven, and, like Gina and Becky, I don't want to watch a bunch of immature, lonely, selfish people making stupid decisions week after week as entertainment, which seems to be what passes for character-focused shows nowadays. While we do see adultery, bitterness, jealousy, hatred, selfishness, etc. in crime dramas, they're almost never shown with approval - in fact, they're usually the cause or a complication of the situation being investigated. This cause-and-effect is, I think, a very accurate portrayal of the real life consequences of sin. There are certainly some versions of these shows that go too far in the blood, gore and perversion direction, and I think they're the least appealing of the bunch. Too much focus on shock value rather than plot.

As far as the study goes, I don't agree with much at all in any of the three hypotheses. I'd go with Lord Peter's theory instead.


jason taylor wrote: "And because they like to see justice done."

...as long as it's being done to someone else. ;-)

Catherine, such shows have enormously high drama, because lives are literally at stake and also because the crimes are so shocking. (Note, of course, that they must become steadily more shocking - or, as with "Law & Order", there must be shocking plot twists.)

Plus, the usual way in such shows to provide comic relief is to have the characters engage in banter with one another. Most of us haven't seen such sparkling wit expressed in dialog since our last forary into a Cary Grant black-and-white.

But I note that prisoners are rarely shown *in prison* on such shows. Before going in, or after coming out, yes, but not usually during their sentence. The shows that depict prison are always on cable, and...

jason taylor

Unless the Intrepid Hero is going into prison undercover, Lee. How many times has that plot been seen?

Catherine Larson

Thanks for the good responses so far. I have a follow up question. It seems to me that many of these crime dramas have become a lot darker, more graphic and gratuitous, especially ones that feature crimes of a sexual nature. With these darker ones, do you all think the reasons for watching are different or the same as you've listed above?


Catherine wrote: "With these darker ones, do you all think the reasons for watching are different or the same as you've listed above?"

I think the sexual ones (such as "Law & Order: SVU", which I refuse to watch, and lately many others as well) are like pornography, in that inevitably what gratified yesterday does not gratify today - so they always tend to get darker and more explicit over time.

And I won't watch them because for me they fail the Lord Wimsey test, if I'm honest with myself.

Plus, come to think of it, the Romans 7:7 test - for some of the subjects they treat. (I.e., "People really do that kind of thing??!? Yick!")

jason taylor

Yes and no, Cathrine. A lot of people probably do watch forensic drama's for the same reason they watch horror flicks-to see a lot of(sometimes extremely improbable)gore. However some like the intellectual part of the forensics. I like NCIS mostly for the characters and the lines and just put up with the gore and vulgarity.


Catherine, I would agree with you that some of these shows seem to become more and more focused on dark and twisted crimes. Personally, I avoid the darker ones (Law and Order SVU, the original Las Vegas CSI, etc.) To me, they lose the focus on the plot and become all about the shocking, violent or perverse nature of the crime. I'd second Lee's comment about the need for gratification increasing - it's not going to far to compare those kind of shows to a type of pornography, especially the sexually focused ones. I'd say there's a different motivation for watching those than for the more "routine" crime drama.

Kim Moreland

Catherine, a number of weeks ago, we had a discussion about the gratuituous nature of some of these crime shows--you might ad this to your research.


Cheers, K-


I also agree that the programs are becoming darker. I tend to believe that this reflects the coarsening of our culture. We are no longer shocked by a lot of crime because we see so many details of actual crimes in the newspaper or on the television. Whenever there is a "shocking" crime of some sort we get all the gory details and with cable news we get them over and over.
PS. It's only the origional L&O that I watch. I agree with others that the SVU one is nasty. And, the Criminal Intent one is ridiculous, although I'm wanting to check out the new ones with Jeff Goldblum.

Catherine Larson

So since the last time I sat down and watched an entire "crime drama" was probably "Murder She Wrote" I'm curious how people would rate what is currently on tv. Which are the darkest ones? And how much of a percentage of the crime shows on television do you think the dark shows compose? I know folks are guestimating here, but let me hear your educated guess.


Okay, Catherine, here's my take:

Some of the darkest ones would include L&O: SVU (focus on sexual crimes), the original CSI (seems to be intent on showing more and more perversion, often sexual, in "Sin City"), and shows like Showtime's Dexter, about a crime lab tech who moonlights as a serial killer/vigilante. Criminal Minds can also be very dark, since the main premise is a specialized FBI team of profilers who try and get inside the heads of serial killers or other criminals. In fact, in order to explain Mandy Patinkin's abrupt departure from the show his character, the team lead, is implied to have become overwhelmed and committed suicide. I've seen a few of the earlier SVU, CSI and Criminal Minds episodes and won't watch them anymore; I've never seen Dexter and find the whole premise horrifying.

Toward the middle of the spectrum would be the other L&Os and CSIs, and NCIS - can sometimes show more "gore" than is probably necessary, but don't tend to live in the dark places. Bones would maybe fall in this category too.

A little further over would be shows like The Closer, Without a Trace (dealing with missing persons, so much less with the bodies, etc.), and Cold Case (which focuses on unsolved murders from years or decades earlier). Some violence, but the focus is mostly on the procedure of solving the mystery and the lives of the people involved in the crime. Cold Case, in particular, I find to show a strong regard for human life as a driving motivation. The new series Castle would probably fit here, too, although it tends to have more humorous moments than the others. All of these I enjoy at times, although they all occasionally have episodes that I think go a little too far.

On the lighter end of the spectrum are shows like Psych and Monk - solving a mystery, but in almost a goofy way and with little to no blood or gore to be seen. These are some of my favorites.

Long answer, but there you go.

Catherine Larson

Many thanks Kristin! Would others agree?


I haven't seen all the shows mentioned, but from what I've heard, that sounds about right.



Big Hollywood's S.T. Karnick recently reviewed a Law & Order episode that explores Christianity:


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