Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #256: Crime Drama, Dramatic Crime...

A critic over at the conservative film/culture site Big Hollywood wrote a little piece about how TV crime shows don't really reflect the real statistics behind real major crimes. Now the subtle point of his thesis was that political correctness keeps TV from delving too deep into the fact that 80% of violent crimes are drug/street gang related and usually involve a member of a minority hurting or killing a fellow member of the same minority.

He may have a point, Hollywood is obsessively politically correct, even the "politically incorrect" shows like
Family Guy pretty much stick to politically correct targets long after all the humor's been milked out of them, but I think there's another, shallower reason for this phenomenon.

Gang-bangers are boring television.

When people turn on a TV cop show, they look for mystery, suspense, and a soupcon of escapism.

To boil it down, crime drama needs dramatic crime.

They need complicated (at least complicated enough for 44 minutes of story) crimes with complicated motives, methods, and suspects. That's why Agatha Christie would have Lord Autumnbottom offed with strychnine at the Vicar's garden party, because this situation is rife with complex methods of execution, colourful suspects, and delightfully melodramatic motives involving buried secrets, sex, and scandal.

Thug-A shooting Thug-B while ripping off a kilo of crystal meth, has no real mystery behind the method (gunshot to the head), the motive (greed), and the suspect (the guy dressed in the colours of the rival gang with the words "Thug-B Killah" tattooed on his forehead).

Such crimes are tragedies, not melodrama.

Now you're probably ready to jump on me about the show Homicide: Life On The Street, which dealt with gang violence quite a lot, and because you remember the show because I posted pics from it in this blog.

True, it was one of the best cop shows ever made, if not the best in my opinion, and yes, it did deal a lot with gang members shooting each other. But there was a difference. Homicide's purpose was to illustrate the tragic banality of such crimes, and the sheer pointlessness of it all.

However, even Homicide bowed to the altar of melodrama by delving occasionally into cases of a more complicated nature, and with their gang related investigations when it involved fictional Baltimore drug lord Luther Mahoney and his clan. Mahoney was a hell of a lot smarter and subtler than most real-life gansters, and he had to be, because he was a fictional character, and fiction required someone with the intelligence and ruthlessness required to give a little excitement to the story of his rise and fall.

Also, you should remember, that Homicide was a cult show at best during its run, having never been considered a highly-rated hit.

Even Dashiell Hammett, who broke away from the "cozy" confines of mystery fiction and put crime in the back alley with the folks who knew how to do it, didn't have it as hard as modern writers to exploit gang-related crime as drama. Gangsters (at least in their scope of operations) were a relatively new phenomenon thanks to Prohibition, so there was an element of novelty to them. Real gangsters themselves were much more colourful, and each one tried to put their own unique stamp on crime as they built powerful empires that went beyond their own neighbourhoods, and even built a city (Las Vegas) almost from scratch. That's a recipe for good melodrama, modern gangbangers, are strictly tragedy, and even their soundtrack of hip-hop has become tedious in both style and content.

So while avoiding the banality of drug/gang related crime in favour of more melodramic crimes isn't a bad thing when it comes to TV, it can be a cheap excuse for bad story-telling. I pretty much gave up on most of the Law & Order franchises when their storylines became more interested in political points than quality story-telling. I have nothing against making political points, it's a free country, do what you like, but I don't care for it being used as an excuse for lazy writing. What I mean was that any time I saw a potential suspect being interviewed and if they had some sign of being patriotic or religious (specifically Christian) I knew they had to be the guilty party, and that their religion or patriotism had deranged them to the point of committing homicide.

At least Law & Order: Criminal Intent keeps that to a bearable minimum, since they're a more traditional mystery show than an "important drama" like the other two.

Anyway, I guess I can sum this whole thing up by saying that the main reason TV crime drama doesn't really reflect real life crime, is that their business is to entertain, not depress.


  1. In a related point, studies indicate that most criminals are pretty dumb, and lets face it, dumb people are just not that entertaining, especially violent, dangerous dumb people.


  2. Tschafer:

    The majority of criminals actually come from abusive, neglected backgrounds. It is difficult to rise to one's full intellectual potential when one is held down by cruelty and/or indifference. I believe it is true that crime viewing is best kept melodramatic, because none of us really want to understand the truth behind the refuse of society.