Primetime Crime

Posted on Categories Criminal Law & Process, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Popular Culture & Law

csiThe 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.    

4 thoughts on “Primetime Crime”

  1. David, I enjoy all of your posts, but in this case I take issue with one of your observations. In terms of a link between government policy and the popular conception of criminals, I would draw a distinction between Congress (which often passes laws that define crime while wearing economic blinders, as you suggest) and the Executive Branch (which designs law enforcement strategies that do indeed take such factors into account). Ever since Edwin Sutherland ( first postulated the existence of a tie between criminal activity and socio-economic factors, law enforcement has increasingly embraced this connection when designing crime preventation techniques.

    I also think that the Law & Order series, with its “ripped from the headlines” storylines, has its share of upper class criminals. Also, if I am correct, upper class criminals were the weekly target of Detective Columbo during the 1970s. He invariably went up against wealthy and sophisticated murderers who were quite sane. The fun was in watching the self-confident criminals get outsmarted by the rumpled and mumbling blue collar cop. Perhaps the entire show was a metaphor about the proletariat enacting its revenge upon the barons of capitalism.

  2. I think the focus of television police shows on specialized crime-solving methods is similar to the way television lawyers all have First Amendment cases and never do discovery. Routine police work, like routine legal practice, is not easy to turn into compelling television.

    One exception that comes to mind is “Homicide.” (I imagine “The Wire” is similar, but I haven’t seen it.) A significant part of the narrative tension, for at least the first several seasons, came not from abnormal crimes or unusual police techniques, but from the constant pressure to close cases and move on to the next one — to “keep the board in the black.” This added urgency to what might seem like more routine crimes and interrogation scenes. One jaded character in, I think, the first season compared the work of a homicide detective to “taking out the trash.” You clear out the trash one day, and there’s more trash the next. That’s not a series that’s going to do well in sweeps week.

  3. I agree that there is an interesting class-related tension in primetime crime shows when the “rumpled and mumbling blue collar cop” outthinks the bourgeois criminal. Even mainstream pop culture is “open” enough as text to allow mild resistance to the dominant ideology. However, there aren’t many of these cops around on network television these days.

    I was also a fan of “Homicide.” Since the show purported to be about cime “on the streets,” it manifested more of a class awareness than most current primetime programming. The latter, it seems to me, conveys a soothing “false bottom” as to the socioeconomic origins of crime. The shows are still potentially enjoyable, but we should watch them with a critical consciousness.

  4. I loved the show Homicide and, as far as I can tell, the way the detectives go about interrogating a suspect is the closest to how a real detective gets what he needs out of a suspect to make his case.

    I agree, Professor Papke, that these shows don’t really go into the socio- economic aspect of crime, perhaps playing into the prejudices and preconceptions of the audiences that watch these shows.

    The real influence of these shows is in jury pools, who do watch a lot of these CSI type shows, and are inevitably disappointed that real cases are seldom as airtight as these CSI cases make them out to be.

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