The new TV season just started. Although I’m no longer teaching screen and TV writing, I still feel an obligation to watch all the new shows. To have something to talk about perhaps. To know what I want to watch on those nights when none of my old favorites are on and I just need a TV fix.
One of my guilty pleasures—after Billy the Exterminator and Project Runway and all the other pseudo-reality shows—are detective stories: cop stories, private eye stories, private eye working with cop stories (think Castle, a definite favorite), PBS stories. Perhaps it’s a carryover from the time I auditioned for the role of Nancy Drew when I was a teenager. (I was really a Judy Bolton fan, but I would have gladly killed to play Nancy—a possible mystery plot there.)
The problem with these shows is that someone has to die. That’s what gets the story going. That’s why the cops are called in, the detective is hired, Mrs. Marple and Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes start poking around. Sometimes there is just a mystery in place—a missing jewel, a nasty family reunion—but even then, soon someone is found lying somewhere not breathing and oozing blood over the nicely polished floor, the cobblestone path, the expensive wedding gown.
Who are these people who are killed for our pleasure? They are someone’s father, mother, sister, brother, fiancé, cousin—isn’t everyone related to Angela’s Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher (Murder She Wrote)? Only rarely does the story deal with the pain these relations suffer, the emphasis is on finding the killer. That’s what the detectives do; they hunt down the killer and pursue justice.
Some shows, like Law & Order, deal with ambiguous outcome. After the detectives have identified the perpetrator, “perp” in the lingo of the shows, Law & Order shows us that justice is not always done.
Yet the detectives, private or publicly paid for, set out again the next day or next week to determinedly pursue the latest perp and bring about justice.
These detectives are not flawless themselves. They have hidden violence in their pasts that is allowed to leak out during the lifetime of the series. Jethro Gibbs’ wife and daughter were killed in a car crash after they had witnessed a murder (NCIS). Patrick Jane’s wife and daughter were killed by his nemesis Red John (The Mentalist). Temperance Brennan’s mother disappeared mysteriously, only to be found as a Jane Doe skeleton and victim of violence, and her father has been accused of violent crimes to protect his family (Bones). Kate Beckett’s mother was violently killed and she almost lost her life to the same killers (Castle). Even Sergeant Lewis’s wife had to die in a car crash for him to get a promotion to Inspector and his own show (Lewis).
I don’t think of myself as a bloodthirsty person. I skip over violence when I spot it while channel surfing. I did some research several years ago about the effect of violence on viewers, and the thinking at the time was that those who watch violence are the ones who are disposed towards it anyway rather than becoming violent through watching it.
But this violence is so artfully staged—we have all learned about bullet trajectory and blood spatter patterns—that we somehow don’t even realize that we are watching the aftermath of true violence. It’s just a plot device, a HItchcockian MacGuffin, so we can get on with the story and watch our favorite detective in action. We usually have little interest in the dead characters, but we do want to see justice done.
I learned years ago—and I can’t credit the source more than it being a talk on mystery stories at the NY Public Library—that there are essentially two types of mystery stories. The English Drawing Room story, in which the world has been torn asunder by the murder and it is the job of the detective to set it to rights, and the hard-boiled American film-noir narrative in which the detective is as corrupt as the society in which he operates. In these stories, the world can never be set to rights, but violence can be met with righteous violence and the murderer taken off the streets by a gunshot on the spot or a sentence to spend time amongst others just like himself in a place of violence. It’s also a world in which, as in Law & Order, the perpetrator may be let free to kill again.
Modern TV stories tend to bridge the gap. The detectives are usually the kind you would invite into your drawing room for a cup of tea—Patrick Jane often invites himself to tea with his suspects, although a few tend towards hard-boiled, but even they are softened with a touch of kindness—the family tragedy, the hidden kindness.
These shows are also unrelentingly optimistic. The crime will almost always be solved within 60 minutes, and the world is, at least momentarily, set to rights. The detective survives the most horrendous injuries in a cliff-hanger to return the next season to fight once again for truth and justice. The dark side is portrayed in the lingering subplot—the evil opponent who recurs every few episodes to threaten the stability of the detective’s world, the lingering mystery about origin and family secrets.
We are drawn to the men and women who examine the bodies we see laid out on gurneys in the autopsy room or pulled out of cabinets on the wall. We’ve become so inured to these sights, that where once the camera only showed the body and the sheet, we can now see the skin pulled back to display the organs.
What does it do to us to watch this much violence? Are we more afraid to roam the streets at night? Do we keep our families close and arm ourselves with the very weapons that cause so much mayhem on nighttime TV? I worry not so much that we become violent as that we no longer see violence when it is in front of us. I worry what it does to me, to my energy, to the way I see the world, when I can’t wait to turn on TV and see an attractive detective standing over the victim of a violent crime.