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Why it's always crime time on TV

A slew of new law-and-order dramas ordered up by the TV networks show the genre's enduring appeal.

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Crime shows are basic building blocks of mass entertainment, says June Dunn, pop culture expert at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Conn., and they flourish during times of social unease, she says, pointing to everything from the 1930s radio shows such as "The Shadow" and "Dick Tracy," the 1950s television shows "Dragnet" and "The Untouchables," to today's "CSI:" and "Law & Order" and their progeny.

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"Whether Prohibition-induced gang violence, Cold War angst, or the fallout from 'The War on Terror' or the 'Great Recession,' Americans turn to television to provide the psychic balm to cure our social ills," Ms. Dunn writes in an e-mail. "Where else can the Osama bin Ladens and Bernie Madoffs of this world be caught and punished in less than an hour's time?"

The venues and characters may change, adds Dunn, "but the basic formula for crime-themed drama remains the same. One need not have been around in the 1970s and have watched 'Hawaii 5-0' to hear Detective McGarrett's pronouncement, 'Book 'em, Danno!' to understand the inherent comfort of his words on our American collective unconscious."

Crime shows may be as old as the medium, points out Christopher Sharrett, professor of film and media studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., but each generation updates them to suit the mood of the time. Today's shows, with pedophilia and serial killers, have a dark fatalism in them, he notes, "something you would not have seen in 'Dragnet' or 'Kojak' all those years ago."

But as they meld the neuroses of the characters to current concerns, they are a sign of our times, he says, adding, "they have captured the pulse of the nation."

None have done so more than Fox's terrorism-thriller series, "24," due to wrap its eight-season run on May 24.

The creative team behind it says the show – which debuted in November 2001, two months after the World Trade towers fell – found a resonance with audiences, one that was unintentional but powerful enough to propel the series into the heart of the national debate over such hot-button issues as torture.

"At some level of '24' there's a cathartic aspect to it," says executive producer Howard Gordon, "or a wish-fulfillment aspect to it."

The proliferation of crime procedurals tells us that the genre is reaching a robust middle period like that of the western in the 1950s with shows like "Gunsmoke" and "Have Gun, Will Travel," says Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture at Arizona State University in Tempe.

The sheer range of the modern crime procedural, including gritty shows such as "The Wire" and psychopathic leads as in "Dexter," tells us that the arena allows writers and producers a form in which they can explore a variety of themes and situations that reverberate meaningfully for a wide TV audience, Mr. Lehman says.

"It also tells me, however, that we are reaching a zenith and that soon the public will tire of police procedurals," he writes in an e-mail. "The sheer number and repetition of them will at least temporarily send people to a new genre which will appear more innovative. Too many police procedurals may ironically lead to the downfall of the entire genre."

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