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.

By , Staff writer

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    Kiefer Sutherland, as Jack Bauer defends himself on a recent episode of ‘24,’ now in its final season.
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    Mark Harmon (r.), as special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, talks with a Mexican justice official played by Marco Sanchez (l.) in the
    season finale of CBS’s ‘NCIS’ May 25.
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    The cast of ‘CSI: Miami’ tries to unravel a killer’s clues on an episode airing May 24.
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Bang-bang, we're not dead yet. That's the message sounding from the broadcast television network executives who are selling their new shows to advertisers May 17 through May 20 in Manhattan – a schedule front-loaded with one of the genre's trustiest staples, the law-and-order procedural. From college-age backpackers working as CIA spies abroad to remakes of two TV classics, "The Rockford Files" and "Hawaii Five-O," 29 of the 37 primetime drama pilots commissioned by the networks are some form of crime, cop, or conspiracy caper.

This embrace of small-screen sleuthing – at a time when many media pundits, including NBC executives themselves, have dubbed the old broadcast television model dead on arrival – reflects what popular culture expert Robert Thompson calls basic laws of entertainment dynamics.

"If it works, you keep making it," says the Syracuse University professor, adding that anybody who says that the old network TV era is over "just isn't paying attention.

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"With all the genuflection to new media, people are watching just as much regular TV as they ever did," Professor Thompson says. "They may also be surfing the Internet, but the number of hours in front of regular TV has not gone down, it's even gone up an hour or two."

As the networks expand their reach into multimedia platforms such as Hulu.com and partner with cable outlets, crime shows are good business, says Mediaweek's Marc Berman. He points out that self-contained shows with a beginning, middle, and end sell well in US syndication, and action-packed programs do well overseas. Crime shows also tend to appeal to older audiences, and as networks struggle to hold onto younger viewers it makes sense to cement an older boomer demographic that flocks to shows with nostalgic appeal.

"I call these shows 'television comfort food,' " says Mr. Berman. "They've been around since the dawn of radio and television in some form, and everyone likes them. Audiences like to see justice served."

Over at NBC, the fourth-place network still reeling from its failed attempt to remake the 10 p.m. time slot as the home of "The Jay Leno Show," the strategy is clear. Five of the eight new pilots are crime-­related. Home to television's venerable and now canceled "Law & Order," which began during the first Bush presidency, the Peacock network has commissioned yet another spinoff of the 20-year-old mother ship – this one set in Los Angeles, mimicking CBS's strategy last fall when it made an L.A. version of its successful military crime show, "NCIS." That show, "NCIS: Los Angeles" was one of the top-rated new shows of the past year. NBC is also working to produce an American version of the hit British detective series, "Prime Suspect."

"For us right now," says Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, addressing reporters this past January in the wake of the Leno debacle, "instead of trying to reinvent, going back to basics is probably the smartest play."

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.

"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."

Related:

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'Lost,' 'Law & Order,' '24': finales and the legacy of big-drama TV

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