Realism Remains Elusive in TV Crime Genre

by Shannon Baldo

“Realism” can refer to countless things. In a purely literary context, “realism” refers to the 19th-century movement toward accurate depictions of society, from the critical works of Charles Dickens to the less-than-enthralling novels of William Dean Howells. In a more contemporary and colloquial context, “realism” seems to define anything that seems plausible to the subjective viewer.

Taking this definition of “realism” – as the first is rather annoying, even to us English folks – offers at least somewhere to start when thinking about realism in modern, mainstream television. What in modern television culture strikes us as the most plausible, honest depiction of life today? The answer, it seems to me, lies in crime dramas, such as “CSI:,” “Bones,” “Criminal Minds,” “Law & Order” and even “The Mentalist.” Even “24” fits into this model, though Jack Bauer’s plausibility as a character remains problematic at best. With such a long list of shows – an incomplete one at that – clearly something enthralling lies in the crime drama, an element of this new version of “realism.”

Perhaps this can be found in the shows’ formula, the trademark of these procedurals: A strange and interesting corpse is found; the detectives discover clues no one else would find; this evidence leads them to multiple suspects; and, after several more investigations, the detectives realize that the seemingly innocent suspect is truly the murderer. With so many shows repeating the model, this pattern has become so standard that one can recognize the villain from his or her first moments on the screen.

Yet, with this same plot structure every week, what do these shows possess that keep viewers tuned in for years on end? Some try to answer this question by pointing out the variation in the crimes, yet the dramas’ success stops depending on the individual plotlines as they inevitably repeat themselves between programs and networks. Others defend the shows on their character development, yet the characterization is almost always so buried beneath the plot structure that at times one can barely distinguish between series.

It seems to me, dear readers, that the fascination with these dramas is the happy ending. We sit comfortably on our couches, munch on candy we shouldn’t be eating and witness a grisly murder, fully equipped with bloody corpses, shocking scandals and vicious motives. We fulfill all our sensationalism with 45 minutes of horror, and then it’s over: The police catch the bad guy, and the threat is eliminated.

With the danger out of the way, we can pretend that our fascination is purely recreational. We can watch horrible crimes happen to innocent people and sleep well under the belief that the killer will always be caught, that justice will always win, that good will triumph over evil. We know that these absolute ideas are false, but our nightly indulgences allow us to believe that everything will be okay, a mass media lullaby in a one-hour time slot.

And other programs and networks have noticed this success, starting their own crime dramas or even applying the happy ending to their own shows, like “House,” “Ugly Betty” and “Glee.” With happy endings pervading television, any show which fails to tie up loose ends every week is deemed depressing, unsuccessful and even “unrealistic.”

So, in the wake of these unrealistic morals embedded in programs so commonly labeled realistic, it seems that the term “realism” has begun to apply to the shows we as a culture wish were real rather than those that are. We no longer look for an honest depiction of ourselves; we look into the screen to see what we want to be. What this means for our culture at hand, dear readers, can be determined by far better scholars than me – but when we flip over to our favorite procedural, perhaps we should remember that reality lies far from our criminal fantasy.


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