Crime Show Tropes by ESPN:

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Jonah Falcon
Time to play a new game: Identify the Tropes:

New Show Coming Next Fall: "Procedurals Squad!" Television is swamped in police dramas. During a recent week, 14 of the 45 Big Three prime-time hours were crime shows. Except they no longer are called that — the genre is now "procedurals." In theory this means the shows depict police procedure. In practice, being a procedural means a formula. Here it is:

1. Brief depiction of a shocking crime, half-seen shadowy shots of a horribly butchered body. Ideally, the criminal is a serial killer and his victim is a young woman.

2. Good-looking, wisecracking cops or detectives report for duty. They arrive holding Starbucks-style coffee cups. The prop cups are obviously empty — the actors wave them around. Everyone defers to the heroes, allowing viewers to fantasize about the power involved in a badge and a gun. In the 1970s and '80s, TV crime drama featured private detectives — lone outsiders bucking the system. Today's procedurals offer law enforcement officers almost exclusively. Post 9/11, Americans seem to prefer fictions about power.

3. The cops are shocked to discover they have no leads. Next time you hear this phrase on a news report — "police said they do not have a motive in the crime" — bear in mind, of course the police don't have a motive. The police didn't do it.

4. The body is taken to a medical examiner's office, where it lies for the entire episode not in refrigeration, as detectives wisecrack with a medical examiner who acts an awful lot like a detective. Loaded with gleaming high-tech equipment, the medical examiner's office is just down the hall from the squad room, since cops wander in and out. In the real world, medical examiners' offices are rundown and usually in a separate facility.

5. An amusing subplot is introduced, involving an eccentric hobby or the sudden appearance of an old friend/boyfriend/girlfriend.

6. The detectives require mere hours to zero in on a suspect. "Get me a list of all illegal card games in the Boston area," a detective barks on "Rizzoli & Isles," learning the killer has a gambling problem. Within minutes, the good guys not only have "a list of all illegal card games the Boston area," and they know, without explanation, which game the killer is at. Then they burst through the door without calling for backup.

Bursting through the door can lead to surprises. If a bad guy gets the drop on a TV good guy, he or she simply snatches the gun from the bad guy's hands. An episode of the "Charlie's Angels" remake featured three scenes of detectives snatching pointed guns out of the hands of criminals. In crime shows, it's easy to snatch a gun faster than the person holding the gun can pull the trigger.

7. The good guys arrest the subject and think the case is closed — only to discover the suspect they "liked" for the crime is innocent!

If filler is required, an old friend of a lead character's father will appear and reveal cryptic hints about how the father really died. The old friend will hint there is more — really sensitive information that can only be revealed if, say, the series is renewed. The departed parent is always the father. In procedurals all gun-wielding heroes, male or female, subconsciously are trying to impress their fathers. If they were subconsciously trying to impress their mothers, they would have become art historians.

NCIS: "I'll just attach this molecular analyzer to the tricorder …"

8. An ominous subplot is introduced, involving Internal Affairs, the Feds or a mysterious conspiracy staged by An Agency Far, Far More Secret Than the CIA. Note to readers new to TMQ: That is the formal name of the secret organization involved in many Hollywood plotlines. AAFFMSTTCIA agents do mysterious things without much explanation. This may be because they are safeguarding the nation's attempt to develop an antimatter-powered N-dimensional MacGuffin.

9. A wisecracking officer has a flash of insight. On a recent episode of "NCIS," the nation's No. 1 "scripted" (non-reality, non-football) show, a detective glances at a blurry security cam photo from Islamabad and instantly realizes a person in the picture is wearing a rare model of cell earpiece.

10. Super-advanced technology requires mere seconds to obtain critical details. On "NCIS," almost immediately the team had a list of every owner of the rare earpieces in the world. "Cross-reference all known cell accounts," a good-looking detective orders. In seconds a computer displays all numbers called by all such earpieces. The detectives click on Islamabad, and the computer instantly shows the wearer's exact location. Initially, the rare earpiece was said to be very expensive because it is "impossible to compromise." Let's hope the bad guy gets a refund!

A sidekick character is introduced, who specializes in high-tech and esoteric knowledge. The sidekick never requires more than seconds to complete seemingly impossible tasks. Example, from "Criminal Minds": "I need the names of all high-IQ individuals in San Francisco." The sidekick has some peculiarity — obsessive-compulsive disorder, Goth fashion, a tattooed tongue — that society views as off-putting, but the detectives recognize as a sign of mental prowess.

Not content with imaginary technology, some procedurals give detectives superpowers. "Millennium" featured a cop who could read minds; the protagonist of "Life on Mars" was a detective who traveled in time; "Tru Calling" starred a medical examiner who could bring the dead back to life temporarily; "Unforgettable" centers on a detective who has total recall and extremely acute senses; "Person of Interest" offers detectives with a computer that predicts the future; "New Amsterdam," a 2008 crime show, was about an immortal detective. Immortal — until the show was canceled.

11. The killer is revealed to be the last person you'd ever suspect!

12. The good guys drive to the killer's location and find a vacant parking space directly by the front door.

13. The detectives taunt the killer with the info they know, but don't first declare an arrest and don't record the conversation, thus jeopardizing their chance of a conviction.

14. Previously a super-sophisticated master criminal, the killer either immediately confesses, surrendering all legal leverage, or starts a gunfight, though shooting a law enforcement officer is signing your own death warrant.

If the killer is a crime boss — ideally a Russian mobster, an ethnic category currently loved by Hollywood because it is slander-proof — his henchmen will be dressed in expensive Italian business suits. When the gunfight starts, the well-dressed henchmen will step directly into the line of fire, to be hit by the cops' first shot. Never, ever will they use cover. The henchmen will fly backward when hit, then die instantaneously, not applying pressure to their own wounds and never attempting a revenge shot as they fall. If becoming a well-dressed henchman for a crime boss seems to you like an appealing career option, don't do it! You will die instantly after stepping directly into the line of fire for no clear reason.

Hawaii 5-0: In actual Hawaii, killing is rare. On "Hawaii Five-0," every day is World War III.

All shots fired by good guys hit bad guys square in the chest, even if the good guys are running or lunging as they shoot. Good guys will, inexplicably, dash from one point of cover to another, exposing themselves to avoidable fire, but all the bad guys' shots will miss. Afterward, no one's ears ring. People converse normally, though they've just been right next to guns discharging in an enclosed environment.

A kickboxing confrontation or foot chase may ensue. In procedurals, a slender female detective easily can knock unconscious several muscular men. In one "Hawaii Five-0" scene, a detective played by actress Grace Park, who might weigh 120 pounds, needs 10 seconds to beat senseless an enormous armed thug — while her hands are shackled behind her back.

15. In the denouement, there is a heartwarming buddy-bonding scene during which detectives lament having no love lives, despite being extremely good-looking.

Got the formula? Pitch the networks a show — say, about a defrocked priest turned detective who solves crimes by transubstantiating DNA fragments. Now for some fine point on the formula:.

1. On procedurals, murders happen left and right; in the real world, murder has declined so much that homicide no longer makes the top 15 causes of death. In 2011, an American was more likely to die in a hospital of pneumonitis than be murdered. But that's not compelling: there is no "Law & Order: Nursing Station." So television presents murder as far more common than it is.

Instance of serial killing, especially, is inflated. The FBI reports serial murder is "less than 1 percent of all murders." There were 14,748 homicides in the United States in 2010. This suggests fewer than 150 actual serial killings in the most recent year for which statistics are available. But hundreds of serial murders were depicted in TV procedurals and at the movies.

The military procedurals, "JAG" and its spinoffs "NCIS" and "NCIS Los Angeles," exaggerate instance of murders of military officers, plus traitors inside the military. Actual murders of naval officers, and actual traitors, are rare. In the reality depicted by these shows, both happen so often the characters race from crime scene to crime scene.

Generally, procedurals depict murders that involve the well-off, glamorous or powerful, though these too are rare. Shows like "Southland" or "The Wire," which depict routine crimes involving average people, are on cable, not network, because routine crimes are not entertaining. "The Chicago Code" lasted one season. It was well-written, realistic and magnificently filmed on location — but a ratings bust because the subject was detectives tracking urban corruption, not vice among the powerful or beautiful.

2. On TV, cops exist in constant jeopardy of life and limb. This, though "most police officers retire at the end of a 20- or 25-year career without ever having fired a weapon other than at the practice range." Despite the bullets ricocheting around them, TV detectives are NEVER frightened. Most are spoiling to charge headlong into obvious danger.

3. Arriving at a taped-off crime scene, TV detectives bend over the body, take a quick glance and say things like, "This was done with a Sumatran Badek knife."

CSI: Crime would decline if only criminals understood that law enforcement has flashlights.

They spot clues instantly. In a recent "CSI," Ted Danson needed about 10 seconds to notice an important clue — though the thing amiss was extremely small and Danson was wearing sunglasses indoors.

Once the crime is discerned, the more exotic the better. Criminals in procedurals aren't merely seeking money or merely depraved. Plots will involve an adopted child who's now an astronaut with bipolar disorder who killed an endangered-species smuggler because he was trying to stop her from freeing her amnesiac birth mother from a religious cult. That sort of thing.

4. In the countless "CSI/NCIS" spinoffs, the medical examiners have unlimited max-tech that may or may not actually exist, such as a device that projects real-time 3D holographic images of the inside of the brain. (The production companies behind "CSI" and "NCIS" are different, but the shows are so similar no one can tell; "NCIS" began as a television franchise designed to sound as much as possible like "CSI.") Television medical examiners seem to know more than the editorial board of the technical journal Cell, yet chose low-paid civil service work. Most amusing: In the Dana Delany vehicle "Body of Proof," the medical examiner interrogates suspects and goes on stakeouts.

Procedurals employ so many scenes in the unrefrigerated medical examiner's offices — detectives eating pizza as the mutilated body of a gorgeous young women lies on the examining table — that agents must be calling producers about corpse roles, since they involve significant screen time. An agent might say, "Hire my client. She looks great dead."

5. Script classes tell TV crime writers to produce a serious main plot plus an offbeat subplot. This mirrors life, if your life occurs on a sound stage. The arrival of an old boyfriend/girlfriend will lead to mawkish ruminations. The arrival of an old best friend of either gender is a bad sign. In procedurals, old best friends always turn out to have gone Dark Side.

6. Real-world cases may take decades to solve; on television, you've got 43 minutes. The wisecracking officers have a suspect by lunchtime and drive to the suspect's home or workplace, where there is always evidence in plain view. Detectives enter an office, open a drawer or file cabinet at random and the key document not only is in the first place they try, it is easily recognized by someone who has no idea what to look for. Presumably the file-folder cover says "INCRIMINATING EVIDENCE."

7. The good guys arrest the suspect, fist-bump, wisecrack about their lack of love lives despite being extremely good-looking, and shift to indulging a charming habit. A TV detective must own an albino ocelot or live in an abandoned slag tower or build bark canoes.

Miami Vice Movie: Wouldn't you hold a meeting outdoors on the roof of a tall building? It's such an obvious choice.

Then they discover the suspect is innocent. This is always a "twist."

8. Oily superior officers, or The Feds, try to assume control of the case. Courageous street cops could save the city if only the big shots would stay out of the way! Tension with The Feds is a low point in procedurals, since most crimes are local-law offenses where The Feds cannot step in. A good place to have a meeting if you're unsure about jurisdiction is on the roof of a skyscraper, which happens in the "Miami Vice" movie.

Internal Affairs is the most frequent mid-episode complication. In the real world, Internal Affairs departments avert their eyes from misconduct; on procedurals, the Rat Squad is devoted single-mindedly to shutting down cops. In "The Closer," a final-season subplot is the effort of Internal Affairs to take away the badge of the protagonist — though she has cleared every case she's ever been assigned, and pretty much single-handedly rid Los Angeles of crime.

Interference from higher-ups validates viewer desire to think of government as full of officious miscreants. Since the good-looking, brave police heroes are themselves government officials, they must be balanced by government bad guys.

Another running subplot is the malevolence of the media, which in procedurals always take the side of criminals. The media is on the side of criminals — have the scriptwriters heard of Fox News? In "Blue Bloods," the New York City media relentlessly hound the gallant police commissioner played by Tom Selleck, though he has pretty much singlehandedly rid Manhattan of crime. That prime-time dramas depict news organizations as inept or irresponsible is vexing, considering the shows appear on ABC, CBS and NBC, which have news divisions they want viewers to find credible. Fun fact: Selleck's father is portrayed by an actor six years older than Selleck.

9. Staring at a jerky decades-old 8 mm film, one of the cops suddenly realizes the third guy from the left is wearing the crest of the Carpatho-Ruthenian royal family. Or that a hubcap found in the victim's garage could only have come from one of the original Mustang 2+2s made in 1964 at the Metuchen, N.J., plant, a fact the detective just casually knows.

Blue Bloods: The sensationalist media are out to get him, for the crime of solving crimes.

10. In no time, the detectives find searchable documents from the 1964 factory, including live links to current titles of the cars.

Within procedurals, all possible information — say, the Social Security numbers of teachers from the suspect's kindergarten — easily is obtained using a laptop. The Web is presented as all-knowing: Enter "serial killer with bunny rabbit tattoo" in the search box and you'll get his birth certificate on screen in 0.36 seconds, along with a Google Earth view of the street in front of his apartment. Breaking into encrypted files is accomplished on TV by reaching the password screen, typing really fast and saying, "I'm in." The next screen will be whatever you're looking for.

Procedurals may depict crime-scene investigators with super-advanced technology that doesn't exist, such as tricorder-like devices that sense trace cellular samples. On "CSI: NY," a technician puts a playing card into a "molecular analyzer." The "molecular analyzer" instantly determines that a stain on the card is from a specialty root beer made by a specific firm in Wisconsin. On "Hawaii Five-0," a detective snaps a photo of a suspect and in seconds a "facial recognition database" sorts through all 308 million Americans to pull up his ID. Actual facial recognition, such as Apple's project to get iPhones to recognize their owners, has been somewhat less zoomy.

Procedurals speak of CODIS, the FBI's gene database, as omniscient. CODIS mainly contains DNA marker information on people who have been convicted of felonies. In most cases a person who is arrested is not required to give a DNA swab; privacy rights groups are opposing legislation to require DNA swabs from those merely arrested. Regardless of how this debate plays out, today's CODIS contains far less information than TV crime shows suggest.

In "CSI: Miami," the good guys find a sniper rifle used by a killer wearing gloves. "Because he looked through the scope, we can get his DNA reading off the lens," a character says. They shine a gizmo on the scope and in minutes know who held the rifle — without even having a genetic sample! Actual DNA matching under ideal conditions has taken years to identify just a few people.

11. The crying neighbor, the kindly headmaster at the private school, the graying cop who came out of retirement to close a cold case — OMG, that's the real killer! If an early scene introduces a sympathetic, straight-arrow character not seen in any previous episode, that will turn out to be the killer.

12. Suddenly the officers know where the killer is. Do they wait for backup? They charge in the front door, often without taking basic precautions. At the conclusion of the pilot of "Unforgettable," the heroic female detective realizes who the killer is. She goes alone to meet him at a warehouse late at night, and goes unarmed.

13. The good guys come through the door shining flashlights, even if it's broad daylight. They grasp them in the wrist-up position that producers think converts flashlight-holding into a macho activity: "Criminals can't hide from us. We are the law and we have flashlights!" Flashlight beams shining through dust in an abandoned warehouse has become a cliché of procedurals. Tactical note: If you charge into a dark warehouse pointing a flashlight, you make yourself a target.

At least TV detectives have stopped holding their Glocks sideways. Producers thought this looked really cool. Holding a pistol sideways dramatically reduces accuracy.

Perry Mason: They always confessed on the stand on "Perry Mason."

In standard policework, before anyone enters the front door, an officer is posted at the back. In procedurals, no officer ever goes to the back door. This allows the killer to escape, setting up a down-the-alleys chase scene.

14. The good guys confront the killer, who may instantly confess. The old "Perry Mason" show built to a conclusion where Mason says to a witness, "Mr. Swampscott, do you recognize this monogrammed fish slice?" He would gasp, then confess. In procedurals, spontaneous full confessions happen all the time — suspects know the closing credits are about to roll. In the real world the guilty almost always say, "I want a lawyer."

If the killer doesn't confess, he starts shooting. Gunfights happen far more often on cinema than in reality. In 2010, one New York City officer in 700 fired a weapon in the line of duty. On TV, officers fire their weapons almost daily. A recent NYPD report showed a total of 236 bullets fired by all police in 2010, less than one shot per day across a city of 8 million people. The two cops in the "Lethal Weapon" flicks fired more bullets on a single radio call.

Procedurals exaggerate the frequency of bad guys being killed by police. The above link shows that all law enforcement agencies combined killed eight suspects in New York City in 2010. More bad guys are depicted as shot and killed in a season by any TV detective team. So far as I could determine from newspaper reports, one person was killed by a law enforcement officer in Hawaii in 2011. Over on "Hawaii Five-0," in this season's episodes alone, the five agents of the Five-0 task force have shot and killed dozens of creepy criminals. Besides extreme unrealism — good luck finding anything resembling the Five-0 squad in the actual Hawaii Department of Public Safety — on procedurals, detectives shoot and kill bad guys then go right back on patrol, not even pausing for paperwork.

Once in a while on a procedural, a good character will be shot — but the hit will always be in the arm. No bleeding, no hospitalization, no gangrene. The officer will be shown instantly recovered, his or her arm in a sling, joking with colleagues. TV producers have it in their heads that being shot in the arm is a like a bee sting.

Sometimes the bad guy and chief hero exchange insults before the action scene begins. The sequence where the good guy wastes time flapping his gums with the bad guy has become one of Hollywood's most hackneyed. If you really were face to face with a vicious killer, you would be 100 percent focused on getting him cuffed.

Unforgettable: On "Unforgettable," the protagonist has total recall, which turns out to be almost as good as an Iron Man suit and heat vision.

15. The killer escapes into the alley! In cop shows, even suburbs have alleys. No matter how many alleyways they run down or fire escapes they climb, detectives never sweat, and their outfits stay perfectly pressed. Pudgy middle-aged officers in business suits, sexy female officers in slit skirts, suddenly become track stars. The bad guy always loses valuable time by pausing to hurl a garbage can.

In an episode-ending chase scene in "Unforgettable," the protagonist, wearing leather boots with four-inch stiletto heels, leaps into the air and runs across the hood of a parked car — why not just run around it? — then throws a man to the ground while firing a perfect shot that kills a bad guy, as two bad guys blast away and miss her at point-blank range.

The bad guy always is caught. Now that backup is no longer needed, dozens of police cruisers and a helicopter arrive.

16. At home, the hero female detective stares at a glass of scotch and laments that she has no husband or lover, despite being spectacularly good-looking. At a fern bar, the hero male detective sips a craft-brewed ale, watches "SportsCenter" on his iPhone, munches lobster mac-and-cheese with edamame and laments that police work isn't like in the old days.

Before the credits on this item role, consider the sociology of prime-time crime. Bad enough that scenes of helpless people being tortured to death, as in "Saw" and similar movies, are now presented as entertainment in suburban shopping malls. One must make an active choice to attend such a movie. The spread of graphic violence as entertainment to prime-time television via the modern procedural, shows that are beamed into every home, is another matter.

A recent "Criminal Minds" episode included two splatter-flick scenes, first of a terrified young woman being graphically shot to death by a smirking killer, then of another young woman pleading as she was ritualistically stabbed to death. Of course the violence is fake. But a screaming young woman graphically shown being stabbed to death, that's entertainment?

In procedurals, mutilated bodies of the innocent lie on the medical examiner's table as characters yuk it up about the local Italian restaurant. Victims are just "vics" — "who's today's vic?" is a typical line of dialogue. Police officers and medical personnel never display moral outrage, as if being murdered were a lifestyle choice.

American Idol: Football, procedurals and contests — will these be all that's left on network television?

A numbing toward violence is promoted by much of Hollywood. One need not be Dr. Freud to wonder what it means that the major corporations behind most TV shows and movies want to depict the slaying of the helpless as entertainment.

But isn't the violence realism? In the world of TV, murder and mayhem are an epidemic. Actually crime is in generation-long cycle of decline. Today, strollers are safer in Central Park after dark than in the 1950s. Last year, Central Park averaged slightly more than one robbery a month, versus two robberies a day a generation ago. Yet on procedurals, crime is getting worse. This plays to preconceived notions about the nation falling apart, especially such notions held by senior citizens, who watch a lot of television.

And on procedurals, the police always catch the bad guy. Actually a significant number of homicides are never solved, while most burglaries never even lead to an arrest. Of course, procedurals are just Hollywood nonsense. But procedurals get it wrong both ways: making crime seem more common than it is, but also making crime seem never to pay.
Jonah Falcon
2 C0mraid7th Feb 2012 04:05:03 PM from Here and there
I wish they'd bring back Homicide:Lot S.
Am I a good man or a bad man?
Long Live the King
I didn't click the link... but I'm willing to guess it's written by Gregg Easterbrook(Tuesday Morning Quarterback)...

The writing style along the lines of of "this happened in one aspect of the genre, so the entire genre is about it" and "I'm going to use half-truths and illogical conclusions to show why modern TV is bad" is awfully similar...

I don't believe you mentioned the part where they acquire evidence by using tactics that would easily get cases thrown out of court or, failing that, would almost certainly get the case overturned in appeals.

The "suspects have no rights, which is vindicated because the detectives are always right in the end" trope is one of the reasons I've never liked Law & Order, where the cops use trickery and blatant coercion all the damn time.

Granted, it is New York City...

edited 7th Feb '12 4:42:12 PM by KnownUnknown

"The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense."
- Tom Clancy, paraphrasing Mark Twain.
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