You Have The Right To Remain Entertained

Crime dramas are some of the highest rated and most popular shows.  Some of the most enduring shows of all time are about crime and the catching of criminals.  Murder She Wrote re-launched Angela Lansbury’s career.  Hill Street Blues made Stephen Bochco a household name (until he did Cop Rock).  LA Law put actors like Jimmy Smits, Corbin Bernsen and Harry Hamlin on the map.  Law and Order, one of the most bare bones looks at the legal system in action, is the longest running show ever.  Not just the longest running crime show, it’s the longest running show of any kind.  After 23 seasons Law and Order decided to lay down its gavel and gun much to the chagrin of the fans who would have gladly sat through another 23 seasons.  It was a respectable show with stories “ripped from the headlines” making each episode riveting and adding a “you can’t make this stuff up” kind of reality.  It had the unique distinction of being both a cop show and a courtroom drama filled with cameos from our favorite actors over the years. 

So why is our culture so obsessed with crime?  More importantly what about crime do we as a society seem to find so interesting and ultimately entertaining?  There doesn’t even seem to be a solid trend as to which side of the law we like our entertainment to be on.  We are both interested in criminals and the institutions that catch them.  Audiences love seeing characters in television shows getting away with things (House, The Sopranos, Lie to Me, Burn Notice, White Collar, Heroes, Lost, Weeds, Rescue Me, Supernatural, Breaking Bad) and also love likable characters serving justice to the wrong doers (Law and Order, The Wire, NCIS, CSI: all of them, NYPD Blue, Boston Legal, Psych, White Collar, The X-Files-sort of, Ghost Whisperer, Medium).  This isn’t even a recent trend.  Westerns, which were all the rage when tv dramas first started, are all about the law and justice. 

The one of the answers is really simple.  Crime stories lend themselves to story writing perfectly.  They involve a mystery to be solved (a problem) and an organization that focuses on nothing else (a solution).  It has a perfect arc built in.  All that is needed is some characterization and a clever crime.  A lot of these shows have a sub-plot that involves the characters’ personal lives that give an arc to the entire season.

The other answer is that it is satisfying to identify with both criminal and law enforcement.  It seems a common motivation to get away with whatever you can even if only on a small level (speeding, lying, and goofing off at work) by a large portion of our country’s residents.  We also love the satisfaction we feel knowing the “bad guy” is behind bars.  That’s why Lifetime movies are so popular; they are full of vindication for the victims.  Either side of this coin gives us something to cheer for.  And although real life is full of unsolved crimes (we even have shows dedicated to them – reality shows) you will rarely see this in your weekly drama.  Fiction needs to have an ending even if it is trying to emulate life as realistically as it can.  We want realism, just not that much.

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