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Forensic Drama

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Dead men tell all sorts of tales.

"I'm telling you, DeGroot, keep Crime Scene Unit out until you're done and not before. They've all seen CSI and suddenly they're all Sherlock Holmes now. Magic words for dealing with CSU: 'shut up and lift the fucking fingerprint, lab monkey'."
Frank Ironwine, Ironwine

Police detectives, private detectives, amateur detectives, beat police, retired police, lawyers, reporters and judges... almost every major career that could have something to do with crime has been used at one point or another as inspiration for a Police Procedural, so it was inevitable that TV would eventually turn to the lesser-known elements of police investigation for material.

As a result, we get the Forensic Drama. Most commonly this genre follows forensic pathologists — they're the ones that cut up and/or examine the corpses — but will also include shows or characters that specialise in general forensic science (lifting fingerprints and the like), forensic psychology and forensic toxicology among a dozen other specialisations. Basically, if you can put "forensic" on the front of it, there's probably a pilot episode in existence somewhere.

As dull as this may seem, viewers do actually turn on in droves to see the adventures of a bunch of people who mostly spend their time sitting in laboratories or offices rather than chasing armed criminals. Some series get around this by having the investigator get caught up in the murderer's private life, or by bending the rules a bit to allow him or her to interview and arrest suspects. In real life, though, they're mostly just The Lab Rat.

See also The Profiler.


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    Film — Live-Action 

  • R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke mysteries might very well be the trope codifier.
  • The Elizabeth MacPherson series by Sharyn McCrumb.
  • The Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell is an incredibly popular range of books about a forensic pathologist.
  • John Rhode's long-running Lancelot Priestly series was made as as spiritual successor to the Thorndyke books.
  • Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy was supposedly inspired by someone who complained that in this sort of story for all a lay person could understand, they might as well be doing their detecting with magic spells. Garrett said to himself, "Hmmm. . . ."
  • The Tempe Brennan series by Kathy Reichs, on which the TV show Bones is (very loosely) based.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The French series Alexandra Ehle follows the eponymous quirky, stubborn and brilliant red-headed thanatologist/coroner and her hapless trainee as they double as Amateur Sleuths.
  • Body of Proof is House if he was a female medical examiner played by Dana Delany.
  • Bones. Technically, it's a Forensic Dramedy. Unlike many of the other examples, they actually have an explanation for WHY the labrat leaves the lab: She's the absolute best in her field and it was her condition for providing her services to the FBI.
  • Cracker was a British television series about a forensic psychologist who 'cracks' suspects. It was later made into a rather poor US series.
  • Crossing Jordan is a dramedy about the workers in Boston's coroner's office, but it morphed into a CSI clone about halfway through season 2.
  • Probably the best known example is CSI, which became hugely popular and engendered a slew of spin-off TV series, books, games and comics. Follow the Leader means it's probably responsible for a lot of the current wave of these shows since 2000.
  • Dexter throws in a few aspects of this, though you can't really call the show a Forensic Drama; Dexter himself is a forensic investigator, though, and there is a lot of swabbing and lab-checking at least once an episode, sometimes even as an important plot point.
  • Hannibal is a mix of this and Gothic Horror. The main characters are a mix of FBI Special Agents, lab rats, profilers and psychologists who use forensic science to track and apprehend serial killers, as in the source material. The focus shifts away from these forensic aspects during the second half of season 2 and the first half of season 3, and the lab rat characters subsequently take a back seat.
  • Harrow tells the story of Dr. Daniel Harrow, a forensic pathologist with a total disregard for authority.
  • Hec Ramsey: Forensic science meets cowboys.
    • The short lived USA Network drama Peacemakerscould also be described as forensic science meets cowboys.
  • The TV Asahi drama Kasouken no Onna (known to KIKU viewers in Hawaii as Investigator Mariko) is a Japanese version of CSI, although its first episode was aired in Japan in October 1999, a year before CBS debuted CSI. (info link)
  • Medical Investigation was NBC's Follow the Leader entry to CSI.
  • NCIS: Only a few of the characters are forensic specialists (Abby, Ducky), one's a computer expert (McGee), one's an Action Girl (Ziva), one's The Ace (Tony), and one's the Team Dad. As such the show blends multiple formulas of Police Procedural and Forensic Drama, and much of the fun comes from the cast arguing about how to go about solving the crime.
  • NUMB3RS is a TV series about solving crime with math!
  • The 1992-3 Australian series Phoenix (1992) also combined this with Police Procedural, with the husband-and-wife team of Ian "The Goose" Cochrane and his wife Carol trying to find out who set off a carbomb that killed two police officers, while trying to get the Major Crime Squad detectives to take their part of the job seriously.
    Inspector Brennan: We're not ready for you blokes yet.
    The Goose: Oh, is that a fact? I don't know why you called us out here at all.
    Inspector Brennan: (getting in his face) You got a problem?
    The Goose: Hell no, there's only fifteen people wandering all over the scene. I mean, it's hopelessly contaminated; whatever was there is not there now—what could possibly be a problem?
    Inspector Brennan: Who is this prick?
    Detective: A public service prick, Mr. Brennan.
    Inspector Brennan: Explain the facts of life to him. (leaves)
    Detective: He wants me to explain police procedure to you, boss.
    The Goose: Go ahead. I'd like to hear "piss off" explained in depth.
  • Profiler is a 90's beta version of over-the-top, stylistic shows like Criminal Minds.
  • Quincy, M.E., the granddaddy of them all.
  • Rosewood is another example of this mixed with the Police Procedural.
  • Sign is a Korean forensic drama modeled after CSI
  • Silent Witness is a TV series about a trio of forensic pathologist and actually pre-dates CSI.
  • Trace is Russian forensic show set in Moscow, which is one of the longest-running shows in the world (more than 2700 episodes since 2007).
  • Tru Calling had elements of this.
  • Waking the Dead, narrowly pre-dating CSI

    Video Games 
  • In Final Fantasy XIV, players who become alchemists use their alchemical knowledge to solve peculiar murder cases in two separate storylines. In Heavensward, the alchemist helps to solve a Locked Room Mystery and in Stormblood, they uncover the mystery of two murder victims whose bodies have not decomposed.

    Web Original 
  • Official SecurityMonkey Case File claims to be true stories from the career of a computer security consultant who also writes a blog. They are written in a Perry Mason style (complete with alliterative titles). In each one the narrator and his sidekick solve crimes and mysteries by careful computer forensics.