The 'CSI effect' gone wild in suburbia
Our appetite for TV violence seems to be growing. Is it having an effect on crime rates?
It's Jerry Bruckheimer's world – we just live in it. Actually, we don't live in it in the sense of participating in it. We watch it. Mr. Bruckheimer, the most dominant producer in television, has no fewer than 10 shows on the air.Skip to next paragraph
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For some, the Bruckheimer habit began in the cinemas with widescreen productions "Top Gun," "The Rock," "Con Air,'' "Pearl Harbor," "Remember the Titans," and "National Treasure,'' to name a few. He's still making movies – he's got a second "Pirates of the Caribbean'' ready to open in theaters and a third in postproduction. He is famous for his smash-it-up narratives where the good guys win and the spirit soars (if your spirit does that with these kinds of things).
Now, Bruckheimer has taken over our living rooms. It's here that the gray-bearded producer has really become a force, and where his TV world blurs the reality of our own. Through Bruckheimer's imagination we are becoming convinced that we (1) live in a violent place where being paranoid is normal and (2) most of the time, those who commit the violence will be brought to justice. Put them together and you come up with this: Be scared, but at least know the criminal who assaults you will probably be caught.
Consider Bruckheimer's first smash, "CSI,'' with star/coproducer William Petersen. Once buried on a Friday night, it's become America's top TV show. The episodes are all complex, slightly subversive and use injury and autopsy as forms of entertainment. Combined with other shows on the air, if we didn't know better, it would seem as if violent crime lurks everywhere as hundreds of serial killers stalk suburbia "Close to Home," and where friends and neighbors disappear "Without a Trace."
In real life, it's a jungle out there and only sometimes do the good guys win. Recently released statistics show that the number of violent crime offensives nationwide rose 2.5 percent in 2005 after a decade of a downward trend. Is life imitating art? Or is it like when the movie "Bonnie and Clyde" made bank robbery kind of cool?
And what about our courtrooms? The real-life jury wants what it sees on TV. Where's the DNA evidence? The smoking gun? The trace of rare poison? The intricate crime lab analysis?
Bruckheimer has made the study of forensic evidence hip, and he's given the FBI a cachet it hasn't had on TV since, well, "The FBI.'' And he's entertaining us by throwing chaos and violence up there for us to gulp down in big doses. In reality, the techniques "CSI" employs for evidence gathering far surpass those in the real world and, prosecutors bemoan the "CSI effect" as convictions slip away.
It seems there might just be a "Bruckheimer effect" on the state of American crime, making it seem more pervasive than it is. Knowing this might give you peace of mind when you do step outside your front door – so that you're not overcome by TV-induced agoraphobia.
• Jim Sullivan is a former arts writer and columnist for The Boston Globe.