The identifying and catching of criminals continues to dominate the peak hours of primetime network television, but a change has taken place in the make-up and methods of the crime-stoppers. Gone are the hard-nosed detectives who occupied the squad room in “NYPD Blue” and physically battled crime in the rougher parts of town. The recent “Southland” had comparable detectives and a similar mission, but the show could not make it to a second season. Instead, crime-stoppers of a more cerebral and less physical type reign. Modern-day crime-stoppers include not only forensic scientists and brainy psychologists but also mathematicians, clairvoyants, and even mind-readers.
I watch and enjoy these shows more than the average person, but I also remind myself that they have almost nothing to say about actual crime. In particular, the shows are oblivious to the relationship between crime and socioeconomic class.
The majority of the men and women our system deems to be “criminals” and an even larger majority of those victimized by crime come from poor families and poor neighborhoods. However, to the extent primetime shows present underclass criminals, they do so without exploring the linkages between crime and poverty. If a member of the underclass chooses to commit crime, the shows suggest, it is because that person is either fundamentally psychotic or convinced crime is easier and more profitable than working.
These shows can be dismissed as mindless entertainment, but I wonder if the shows in their own specialized way reinforce government policy. The crafty detectives and police officials in the shows assure us that crime can be stopped, and the shows present crime itself as if it had no social moorings. During the Reagan-Bush years, the country’s upper classes abandoned the “War on Poverty” in favor of a “War on Crime.” The latter policy continues to makes sense to the bourgeois sectors of society.