Fact vs Film: Explaining the Rise of Crime Shows

How can one explain the rise of crime shows? Who doesn’t love a good whodunnit? Why is there nothing like solving a grisly murder all from the safety and comfort of your living room sofa? There’s a reason why television crime shows consistently draw some of the largest audiences. There’s a reason why detective series have the power not only to invade popular culture but to change it.

But what’s the source of that crime show magic? And how does fiction compare with reality?

Crime Shows

Perseverance Pays Off

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons why crime shows are so popular is because there’s almost always a payoff in the end. No matter how hopeless the case, no matter how bleak the circumstances, a good detective always solves the mystery. A good cop always gets their man (or woman).

That’s a pretty comforting message, especially in turbulent times. But the reality is that closure is never so “complete,” and the outcome of a case is rarely so assured, no matter how diligent the effort or how talented the team.

Forensics in Many Forms on Crime Shows

If you spend any amount of time watching television crime shows, you probably think you’ve learned a lot about forensics. You might think of some quirky and breathtakingly smart forensic scientist toiling away in a high-tech lab, a la Abby Sciuto.

These nerdy superheroes are the ones with the expertise to do whatever their most bodaciously brilliant colleagues can’t. They’re the ones to discover that single piece of evidence that unlocks the entire case and ensures the miscreant gets exactly what they’ve got coming to them.

But the truth is that forensics is rarely so glamorous and it’s also not always so science-driven. The real heroes in crime solving are not usually chemists, biologists, or pathologists.

Usually, it’s the accountants and that’s because crime is usually where the money is. And forensic accountants are the ones with the skills to follow the money trail. They know the tech; they know the financial laws and regulations.

And they know how to use them. After all, it wasn’t murder that sent Al Capone up the river. It was tax evasion.

Dissing the Drugs

One of the biggest misconceptions that some crime shows, like the recent TNT hit Claws, trade in is that drug trafficking can be the key to the glamorous life if you’ve got the savvy and stomach for it.

But the reality is that drug crimes are rarely so lucrative. And those arrested for drug offences usually don’t live in multimillion-dollar mansions. They’re not dripping in gold and jewels; they’re not commuting from one drug scene to the next in their tricked-out Lamborghini, and they don’t employ an army of goons to keep themselves, their families, and their associates safe.

In fact, of the more than 1.6 million people arrested for drug crimes in the US in 2018, 600,000 of those were taken in for marijuana law violations. But punishment can be extreme. If you’re found with more than an ounce of marijuana, you may no longer be looking at a misdemeanour but a felony.

And some drug crimes can get you immediately booked on federal, not state, charges. You could be staring down the business end of a stint in a federal penitentiary rather than a state prison. In New Zealand, medicinal marijuana is legal, and on Oct. 30, the results of the latest referendum on full legalisation of the drug will be announced.

Legal status aside, crime shows that focus in particular on drug narratives can offer the ultimate form of escapism. You get to taste a life of fabulous wealth, of unapologetic excess. You get to live vicariously through irresistible anti-heroes. You may even get to savour a character like Walter White who has an honourable motive (a dying man seeks to secure his family’s financial future) for his dishonourable actions.

And yet you don’t have to fall too far down the rabbit hole of depravity. Because, even as you get to indulge the fantasy of being “bad” for a while, you also have the pleasure of knowing the cops are on the case and your safe, just, and moral world will be restored. After your fantasy foray into the dark glamour of these fictional drug worlds, you get the restoration and redemption that those charged with real-life drug crimes often do not.

The Takeaway

We all love a good story, and there are few stories better than a good crime saga. In a television crime show, you’ve got all the ingredients for captivating drama. There are good guys and bad guys, and those in between. There are violence and sex, murder and betrayal. There are heroes, antiheroes, and villains. You get to escape into seductive worlds of wealth and danger.

In crime dramas, nerds and brainiacs get transformed into heroes. And, above all, the world assumes stability and predictability that’s far too rare in real life. Something is comforting in the idea that hard work will always pay off and that justice, in the end, will always prevail.

Watch this space for updates in the Television category on Running Wolf’s Rant.

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Staff Writer

Running Wolf's Rant's correspondent who chooses to remain anonymous...

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