Friday, June 19, 2015

TV Crime Dramas: Morality Plays and Modern Myths

The number of crime, detective, serial killer shows on TV is mind boggling. In the last 60 years there have been about 650 different crime series on TV worldwide. Many ran for a number of years.  And it does not stop with television. There are also movies, video games, popular novels, documentaries, and true crime dramas. Even older stories and novels are being downloaded in huge numbers such as the original Sherlock Holmes stories. This phenomena is global from North America to Europe, South America, Asia, Australia etc., etc. So I have to ask: Just what is going on here?

A picture of a crime scene from 1905 in France, 
showing the public's long time fascination with crime stories. (

While I would like to blame the media for pushing this steady diet of murder and mayhem on us -- that simply is not true. These stories are popular because this is what people want to see. Law & Order ran for twenty years because it was popular and the same can be said for CSI. Since the year 2000, Criminal Minds has been running continuously and the show was just renewed for another season.
 As of May 13, 2015, 777 episodes of the CSI franchise have aired.
"CSI's worldwide audience was estimated to be over 73.8 million viewers in 2009. In 2011, CSI is the most watched drama series in the world, again.”
I have already suggested part of the answer in another of my blogs on Patterns and MemoryIn this blog I state that as humans we are driven to look for patterns and to create order. So even in our leisure hours, we enjoy looking for patterns -- crime being one of the difficult puzzles to solve.

But there is much more going on in these dramas.


I believe these shows are morality plays that assure us good will triumph over evil.
Crime dramas are morality plays which feature struggles between good and evil, between heroes who stand for moral authority and villains who challenge that authority (Rafter, 2006). 
Gray Cavender and Sarah K. Deutsch 
CSI and moral authority: The police and science 
But even more than the eternal struggle between good and evil, we are told a story that civilization itself will triumph. These shows are designed to reassure us that civilized values prevail -- that civilized society works -- that civilized society will catch people who break the law and try to live outside the rules. These shows offer us a modern mythology.
According to one well-known formulation, culture consists of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves (Geertz, 1973). The stories provide an interpretative framework through which we are encouraged to understand various aspects of culture (McCullagh, 2002)...Today, these stories are told on television. Television circulates the cultural images through which we understand aspects of our social world ranging from our own identities to our concepts of right and wrong (Wilson, 2000; Wittebols, 2004; Wykes and Gunter, 2005). 
Gray Cavender and Sarah K. Deutsch
CSI and moral authority: The police and science 

This 1945 comic book cover has many of the elements of a morality play. 
While being told that the comic contains "TRUE stories of COLD-BLOODED KILLERS!" 
we are also assured that "CRIME NEVER PAYS." (

For example, the basic plot of virtually every 'police procedural' drama, as the police investigative stories are called, is almost always the same. In the opening minutes we find that a serious crime has been committed. This means that the normal order of civilized society has been upset. Then in one hour we go from cataloging and recording  this mysterious crime -- which is almost always a murder -- to gathering evidence that could point to hundreds of people. This investigative process often involves the full force and resources of the police whose powerful tools and skills are then brought into play. Through a process of elimination investigators zero in on the most likely suspects, until finally, bingo we know which one it is and we have got our man. Then we cut to the chase, locate where the criminal might be, track him down and, more often than not, get him or her to blurt out their guilt -- relieved that they can unburden themselves of this awful deed. At the end, usually at  night after a hard day's work, the investigators can put their feet up, relax a bit, sip a drink, watch TV and eat a pizza because civilized order has been restored. All is right with the world.

In the broadest terms, these shows are about a threat to order and the reestablishment of order. The message is clear. Civilization must maintain order or our primitive savage instincts might get the upper hand.  The longest running crime show even had the word "order", i.e. the show Law & Order, as one of its main themes. These shows reassure us that civilization can handle these threats quite nicely -- especially given the powerful tools of science and forensics and the money that civilization has allocated for police and other authorities -- but of course, it does take work, vigilance and determination.

Photograph of an episode of Law & Order SVU being shot. (

Serial killers are a special case -- and have taken center stage in a number of crime dramas. Generally serial killers have no guilt, they have no remorse, and more often than not they are proud of the victims they have killed, even keeping trophies from each episode. These people are a particular threat to civilization because they not only break the rules, they don't care about the rules. These killers are like 'mad dogs' who must be locked up or "put down". Here the pattern-finding aspect of these shows goes through a bit of a change, as investigators must learn to think like serial killers in order to find them. And they will be found by following their own twisted logic.

In TV programs such as The F.B.I. of 1965, 
we are reassured that the authorities will do their work 
and keep the criminal forces in check. 
"Photo of Stephen Brooks as agent Jim Rhodes from 
the television program The F.B.I." (

I started thinking about writing this particular blog because of my concern about time. Time is a key element in any investigation. A reliable timeline of events leading up to the crime must be established. Yet we are reassured that with today's cell phone records, cell phone tower locations, receipts with time stamps, credit card purchases, GPS, and the ability to access an electronic paper trail of a person's spending, police can easily reconstruct the past with a high degree of accuracy. We are led to believe a criminal cannot hide his or her actions in the fog of the past. And we are also led to believe that more often than not, clever perpetrators, who think they have covered their tracks, have made or will make a small mistake which will expose them and reveal their guilt.

These shows make good drama -- as death, murder, evil people and action will get our attention. But the reality presented is generally false. I call it 'TV reality' because what you see on TV and also in court room scenes has almost no relation to the real world.


Most crimes that come to trial, for example, are circumstantial and have little or no direct evidence and little hi-tech scientific evidence. The size and resources of the police force are much smaller than generally depicted on TV. Virtually no criminal with a lawyer present will confess to a crime. Many crimes are not solved or they go undetected until it is too late to investigate them properly. A huge amount of evidence has never been entered into databases, meaning it cannot be searched or connected with other evidence or crimes. Reconstructing what happened in the past is particularly difficult. Video surveillance is often nonexistent or poor quality or useless -- such as not showing a person's face. And BTW it is almost impossible to get usable fingerprints off of a gun.
Forensic scientist Thomas Mauriello estimated that 40 percent of the scientific techniques depicted on CSI do not exist.  
Cole, Simon; Dioso, Rachel (13 May 2005). "Law and the Lab". The Wall Street Journal.

An actual crime scene footprint. (

A friend of mine, who had been a judge for over 30 years, told me that he had to turn off the courtroom scenes in crime dramas as they had no basis in fact -- and misrepresented the courtroom process.
People who watch forensic and crime dramas on TV are more likely than non-viewers to have a distorted perception of America's criminal justice system, according to new research from Purdue University....Viewers of crime shows also misjudged the number of law enforcement officers and attorneys in the total work force. Lawyers and police officers each make up less than 1 percent of the work force, but those surveyed estimated it at more than 16 percent and 18 percent, respectively......The reality is that few crimes have hard, scientific evidence such as ballistics, gunshot residue or DNA evidence. 
Researchers rest their case:
TV consumption predicts opinions about criminal justice system

Here is a list of some of the things in TV crime dramas which are not true -- from an experienced prosecutor: 
For more background about this see these links: 

Yet the popularity of these crime dramas has created its own reality. Known as the 'CSI effect' jurors often need to be educated to the realities of crime and put away their assumptions that they have gleaned from TV programs.
There’s actually a phenomenon created by these shows called the CSI Effect. Jurors today want to see some kind of high-tech crime-fighting science, because they’ve seen it on TV: DNA off an eyelash left at the scene, or a magical fingerprint detecting camera. As a prosecutor, a large part of my job was bringing the jury’s expectations into line with reality, despite these TV shows. 
Allison Leotta


The modern ability to obtain DNA evidence has both helped bring about more convictions and also provided a greater likelihood that the person accused is the offender. DNA is so important that law enforcement officers talk about the pre-DNA era and the post-DNA era. And most types of crimes are significantly down in the United States over the last 20 years.

Crime statistics from the FBI, USA: