Why TV police dramas can be criminally bad
In last week’s column I revealed my obsession with TV crime dramas. So I thought that this week I’d share with you some of the evidence I’ve uncovered during my fingertip search of the TV schedules.
When you investigate so many different dramas simultaneously you begin to notice a certain pattern or ‘M.O.’ — if you will — in the sequence of events. Whether it’s a feel-bad Scandi Noir or a slick CSI, or good old ham-fisted Silent Witness, you can always depend on certain elements to present themselves for scrutiny like an identity parade of televisual cliches.
For example, certain phrases will almost always crop up, at least once per series:
“There’s no time to explain, just come with me/do as I say” — this line is an absolute classic in all forms of drama, but particularly in police investigations. Of course, in real life, there is always time to explain, but that just doesn’t work on telly.
“There’s something you need to see ...” — this is always said by the sidekick to the top cop in order to change scene quickly. Of course, in real life, they would just blurt it out. For example: “You’ll never guess what, the two suspects have the same DNA composition so they must be twins!” Hell no. Where’s the drama in that? We need to be whisked away to a complex computer screen or a confidential report or CCTV footage which is then painstakingly explained for the viewer’s benefit.
“What am I not seeing here? What am I missing?” This is said by a investigator while staring at a wall filled with photographs of victims cross-referenced with suspects using pieces of string and drawing pins or marker pens on a whiteboard.
“What is this place?” This is when victims awake from being kidnapped and drugged or cops awake from being punched unconscious. They will always use this phrase. Anyway “this place” is usually a deserted barn in the middle of nowhere, or a cellar in a disused building, or a dungeon fitted out like a torture chamber, complete with a table filled with forceps, knives, syringes and other items.
“I’m taking you off the case/hand over your badge”. This is what the chief of police says to the renegade cop when he takes the law into his own hands and breaks with protocol. Our man then continues his investigation, takes the law into his own hands, catches the criminal and is then reinstated and (sometimes) awarded a badge of honour for his sterling work.
“You and I, we’re not so unalike after all”. This is what the killer tells the cop as he prepares to kill him/her in the final episode before being foiled at the last minute by the rookie sidekick sneaking up behind with a gun or a special forces sniper in the opposite building.
As far as visual cliches are concerned, you can also look out for the following in telly dramas and tick them off the list while you’re watching: the blowing curtain that always heralds an intruder; the glance into the rear-view mirror that always reveals an assailant in the back seat; the serial killer who chooses his victims using Greek mythology/the old testament/the complete works of Shakespeare/Dante’s Inferno as a reference; the nerdy scientist who explains a theory in technical jargon to which the cop replies “What’s that in English please?”; the deserted car park that always conceals a lurking baddie; the television in the background that is reporting on our crime providing us with extra details; the neglected wife at home who gives our cop an ultimatum, complains he’s “married to the job” immediately before the phone rings and he has to rush out to a murder scene; the chief of police who complains that the DA is “on his a**”; the brain-injured, autistic, clinically depressed or terminally ill brother being looked after by our cop because their folks are both dead; the Feds who are greeted with hostility at the crime scene; and the filing cabinet which gets broken into at night by a baddie with a torch in his mouth, looking for confidential information, even though data of that kind would be stored on a computer in this day and age.