Crime drama behaving badly?

It’s safe to say that we are obsessed, and this obsession isn’t healthy. Our appetites for murder and serious crimes have greatly increased: we want more and we want it now.

The TV market in recent times has become saturated with crime dramas in their various forms, exposing a new trend in the interests of the general public. Even since December there has been not one but two different reinterpretations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s epic Sherlock Holmes. One displays the flamboyance of Robert Downey Jnr in response to the protective and charismatic Dr Watson of Jude Law, the other a socially challenged Benedict Cumberbatch grounded in reality by the devoted Martin Freeman. However different their characterizations both encompass exactly the mutating demands of the license payer: we have become virtually obsessed with the intelligence of crimes.

It is now not enough to follow through the classic Miss Marple or Poirot example of a “whodunit” situated around a large group of suspicious persons who all conveniently have a secret to conceal. We crave the massive plot inversions, the times where we are taken completely and utterly by surprise just waiting for the perfect moment of suspense followed by the communal gasp and the “I didn’t see that one coming”. These are the episodes that you watch attempting to run ahead of the plot and determine the perpetrator before said Sherlock can get there and where there is always that irritating family member that believes they have already cracked the case and whose smugness is only smashed when their criminal is inevitably discovered as a victim the following scene. These are the episodes that we cannot crack alone because there is no simple explanation. We love that.

The reasons for this new obsession arise partly from a reaction against the success of the American giants of crime drama such as NCIS, CSI, Rizzoli & Isles and Body of Proof and the British counterparts of Waking the Dead and The Body Farm. These shows base their episodes around the wonders of forensics and emphasize the scientific strengths of modern technology. Whilst this has led to considerable success (CSI has been running since 2000 and has two spin-offs: CSI: Miami, which has been running since 2002 and CSI: NY released in 2004) they are now falling victim to a growing trend of new dramas which focus around people and the psychology of not only criminals but their prosecutors too. Whilst CSI and NCIS are resigned to the lunchtime re-run slot on FX or Five USA, new dramas such as Lie to Me, Castle and The Mentalist are being given prime time viewing priority. This and the much anticipated hype over Stephen Moffat’s Sherlock all reinforce our new psychological obsession.

The demands for this higher level of intellectual interaction whilst crime solving is perfectly embodied in the Sky Living favourite Criminal Minds. This isn’t a new show and has been bucking the trend for just over half a decade: generations in the life of a television show. The team led by Aaron Hotchner utilises the tech expertise of Penelope Garcia only minimally relying principally on the behavioural science genius of Dr Reid, Morgan, JJ and Prentiss in the BAU. The episodes invert the “whodunit” concept by revealing to the viewer at the beginning the identity of the criminal, their location, their MO and their next victim. This creates a chilling exposition of serial killers as each and every episode is spent on tenterhooks as we watch the team desperately try and track down the culprit to save the next victim we know to be in mortal danger. They’re not always successful.  This kind of intelligent, full of suspense drama keeps us coming back for more as we are never disappointed with the genius of the criminal plot.

The latest Sherlock figure to emerge is Patrick Jane in The Mentalist on Channel 5. These episodes are more predictable than Criminal Minds but it is the way in which Patrick solves them which breathes life into the series. He can trick people into thinking he can read their minds, when in fact he is following the Sherlock example of merely paying attention to intense and often obscure details. Just as Sherlock battles Moriarty his intellectual equal, so Patrick battles Red John, a cunning serial killer who has evaded capture for 12 years, counting among his victims Patrick’s wife and daughter. The distinct MO of Red John leaving behind a smiley face drawn in the victim’s blood chills the viewer and leads to an unravelling of Patrick as he cannot achieve his sought after revenge as Red John remains always one step ahead.

It is perhaps when these genius figures are thwarted or challenged by extreme cases that our interest is at its greatest. There is a small part of us that relishes the exposition of a weakness in these figures as it brings them down into the realms of ordinary humanity. But even if they go completely unchallenged we will still watch them, as we remain utterly fascinated by their careless and detached method of dealing with truly horrific yet wonderfully intelligent crimes.

Cara Battle