Sunday, December 9, 2012

Disgrace to Sherlock

I liked the CSI series when it first came out. It was innovative in its incorporation of the latest technologies in crime-fighting and in the way it told the story of the Crime of the Week (TM). I distinctly remember a scene from an early episode where two characters... well, investigate the crime scene, and as they piece together what happened, ghosts of those events happen around them. For instance, they mention a car going out of control and a ghost car drives through the scene.

In other words, it was a gimmicky mess of a show.

Long before I stopped watching TV, I started getting bored with all these "police procedural" shows, not jusst CSI, but Law & Order, NCIS and I don't know what else. They just all looked the same to me, not just shows, but different episodes of the same show started blending together. They were all going by the same plot: they find a body, uncover some forensic clues, talk to some people, there's a twist, more clues, more people, until they arrest the guilty guy. I kow that I'm not being exactly fair here, after all that's how all detective stories work. I'm just trying to illustrate here how boring these shows were to me. Somewhat paradoxically, too, since I'm a casual fan of detective stories.

I only discovered what exactly my problem was much later, when I was doing a little research on Agatha Christie's stories (for totally unrelated reasons, I swear) and noticed the main difference between old-school whodunnit novels and modern crime shows. The novels place much greater importance onto the story, the relationships and fates of all the people influenced by the crime. For the most of the story, the detective's investigation only serves as a framing device to tie these stories together, uncover past plot details and occasionally push the story forward himself. It is only in the final summation that his work becomes important, when he uses everything he has learned to reveal the final twist and resolve the conflict that has started the story in the first place - the culprit's identity.

My problem with the "police procedural" shows lies within this term - that is, they focus less on the story and more on the procedures the protagonists use in order to find the truth. They do usually have some small semblance of a story with at least one twist per episode - maybe the victim was sleeping with his friend's wife or borrowed somebody a large sum of money - but those are all minor tired clich├ęs pushed into background to make space for all those shots of pretty people in labcoats looking into microscopes. The main question becomes "How exactly are they going to catch the criminal?", but unfortunately the answer is "The same way they always do." If you have seen, and let's be generous here, one season of any such series, you've seen them all.

But you know what they say, Tropes Are Not Bad, and I would be remiss if I didn't point out that even this sort of show can be good. Take Columbo, for example. The whole series is about the detective's journey to the crime's solution, to the point that the first scene actually shows you whodunnit. After that, the story is less about what exactly drove the killer to his awful deed and more about Columbo's bumbling around, driving the culprit into a false sense of security and letting them construct a pile of lies so large he can take it apart with his one final move. My point here is, if you write a story about how a detective catches his man, make it entertaining, not repetitive.

No comments:

Post a Comment