Commentary: The evolution of crime shows

Crime shows have evolved over the years, but is it for the better? Once upon a time, crime shows were simple. The team got a case, they solved it and they moved on. Each episode featured the same people, but a new crime. Every now and then, you’d get a crime that would carry over to create some extra drama.

But now the characters have become more evolved, and their lives are bleeding into the stories of the crimes.

Dawne Clarke is a professor at St. Thomas University and uses crime television shows and movies as part of her teaching, especially in her Crime in Popular Film class. She believes the shift started because fans were getting tired of the standard crime shows.

“When you look back to some of the earliest crime dramas like Perry Mason and the very legally-driven shows, and that worked for a while,” said Clarke.

“But by the ’80s there was a real shift in how those programs were being constructed. Partly because, by now, people were probably growing tired of the traditional type of good guy, usually white guy, catches the bad guy who’s not always white.”

With the introduction of shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation which present the forensic science side of crime, there has been an increase in crime television shows and movies. These shows tend to show more than just the cop or detective catching the bad guy.

This allows for more character development and has allowed producers to bring backstories into the plot.

This has now become almost mandatory for crime shows because they need a hook to keep viewers interested. With so many different crime shows out there, viewers need that personal intrigue to keep them watching and give the show sustenance.

Character development and backstories are an easy way for shows to do this.

NCIS did it well in its third season. After killing off Kate, one of its main characters, writers used her killer to bring in a new agent and show the connections she had made with her fellow teammates.

As the show went on they slowly revealed the back story of main character Agent Gibbs, played by Mark Harmon. They reveal that his first wife and daughter had been killed while he was serving in the military and he got revenge by killing their killer.

Criminal Minds used its different approach of following a team of FBI profilers and the affect it has on the team to keep their viewers hooked.

Clarke also wonders if the interest in crime shows and the lives of the characters has come from the events going on around people.

“I don’t have any empirical research to back this up, it’s more of a hunch. But when you look at all of the conflict that we see as a result of policing, going all the way back to the Rodney King riots and the [Los Angeles] Police Department, and riots in Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, and even in New Brunswick with the death of the Mounties, the police’s public profile has become quite damaged,” said Clarke.

“There had to be something different. There had to be something that expanded the opportunity to tell stories and one of them is looking at the lives of the people who engage in the police work.”

Clarke also believes it helps humanize the characters. Shows like Border Security humanize the characters because people believe they could see the person the next time they go to travel. Chicago Fire, Chicago PD and Chicago Med show the lives of first responders, and people that do jobs your neighbour could be doing. The news media doesn’t humanize and examine the lives of police officers and first responders, so television does. People are intrigued by crime and what happens, even if it is all fictional.

The problem is, there are only so many crimes that crime shows can cover. So, sustaining those shows can be difficult and they have to really depend on the characters to do so.

“If a show is successful, it appears like television networks will do whatever they can to keep it on as long as possible, even if its not remotely entertaining anymore,” said Clarke.

“So, I’m thinking of Criminal Minds, which probably should have ended three seasons ago. It’s done. It is so obvious how desperate they are in keeping up with stories that are new, and they can’t. They’ve covered everything and there is nothing left.”

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has gone on for 19 seasons and only covers sex crimes. They’ve managed to sustain the show by following the main character Olivia Benson as she works to climb the political ladder of the police system and her struggles to balance her career and being a single mother.

Another thing that has changed television as a whole is the way people watch it. Once upon a time, the only way to watch a show was to watch it as it was being broadcast on television. Now with frequent syndication, the rise of the internet and services like Netflix and Hulu, people can sit down and binge a show in a day, a week or a month. This means the show has to have that hook to keep the viewer interested in the whole show.

If a viewer is sitting there binging a show and is seeing the same thing over and over again without any new twists or changes, they often won’t finish the show and will move on to a new one.

Clarke said this makes the competition for producers and shows to keep their views very tough.

“Any attempt to try and catch the view, to hook the viewer, that’s the goal now because the competition for viewer’s attention is so fierce. Far more than it’s ever been since the introduction of the very first television.”

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