I confess. My favorite shows on television are Law and Order (all of the franchises), Criminal Minds,NCIS (the original with Mark Harmon), The Closer and, on occasion, I’ll watch James Spader portray the really twisted lead in The Blacklist.
I have to admit that one of the reasons I like to watch these shows is that the “perps” are usually white men, a few white women and seldom, if ever, black men or women. It is, I find, quite satisfying to be entertained by these scripted shows even though I know they defy the statistics and stereotypes about crime in America, underscored by the disproportionate number of minorities in prison.
When I watch those shows, I am also satisfied by the resolution at the end of each episode: The justice system almost always gets the bad person. The Closer is particularly satisfying because the lead character is a woman who likes to dress up in classy outfits and who eats chocolate. I identify with that.
That’s what television does. It gets the viewers to identify with the characters and leaves us satisfied with the experience or else the show is cancelled. Period.
In fact, writer Dick Wolf says, about his Law and Order brand, “episodic television is the triumph of the familiar.” Part of that consistency is to make most of the victims and the criminals white, which reflects the majority of the viewers.
But what is really happening here?
There is a great socio-economic divide in television viewers that spills over into the crime shows and, in certain shows, the image of crime and criminals is whitewashed. Literally.
One of my young friends, who is several generations from me, reminded me of the other, mostly non-scripted crime and punishment shows, such as 48 Hours, COPS and Lockup. I don’t watch them because they make me uncomfortable.
Why am I so uncomfortable watching the reality crime shows? Because most of the “criminal” targets are poor blacks, browns and women and, from where I sit, most of them are, themselves, victims.
Having said that, I must also state that I am not soft on crime; some people need to locked up, especially the sociopaths. I also believe that there ought to be special jail cells for adults who prey on children, the elderly, animals and the mentally challenged. I also believe that rapists should be castrated. But I don’t believe that anyone should be killed in the name of justice.
Both types of television crime shows – the scripted and the reality crime shows – continue to perpetuate false images that dull our thinking about crime in America and how it is being depicted by the entertainment industry.
On the one hand, no one does it better than the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit on Criminal Minds. Not only do they get the “unsub” but they also tell you what makes him tick. We are made to feel great that the law is in charge and that these really sick criminals, again mostly white men, are no match for the FBI. Adding to their appeal, several of these shows end without any violence by the law enforcers. It’s a very surgical operation – cerebral even.
On the other hand, the poor people getting busted by cops on the reality shows are often shown being brutalized by the well-armed, trained and large troops of police who often claim that the perps display superhuman strength from drugs; humiliating arrests and incarcerated beyond their proportion in the larger population. All of it is captured by digital cameras for television viewers’ entertainment.
The scripted and sanitized, the unsavory and salacious. They both enjoy high ratings.
One set of shows is as unrealistic as the other and neither advances the debate on how to decrease crime and ensure that the justice system is blind and balanced.
I think the real crime is that the reality shows presume to educate us about crime and criminals but fall far short in helping to alleviate the situation. They don’t help reduce crime or the number of criminals. They celebrate how the police and supportive legal system work at rounding up a lot of poor people who repeat mostly petty thefts and drug- and alcohol-fueled violence against one another and who become financial burdens to keep jailed.
Here’s the rub: Can, and should, crime be entertaining? Can I, a viewer demand better balance?
To the first question, I bet everyone has a favorite crime show and can recall why you liked it. The networks have provided us with such a wide variety, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Remember Dragnet? Hawaii Five-0? Miami Vice? Man from U.N.C.L.E.?Car 54? Burke’s Law? Kojak? That’s just a short list. What was the common denominator?
I slept better after watching them. How do the reality crime shows leave you feeling?
Antonia Williams-Gary may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org