we like lists: things we learn from tv detective and murder mystery shows

If you enjoy detective shows, murder mysteries, and legal dramas, you learn a lot of things that don't necessarily reflect reality. Here are some things you may learn from these shows.

1. Women are crazy and kill people.

I have already blogged about and disproportionate percentage of female murderers on TV detective shows.

In reality, about 90% of homicides are committed by men. I don't know what percent of TV murderers are women, but on some shows it's well over half.

2. Defense lawyers are all scum.

On quality police and legal dramas, most categories of people are portrayed as both good and bad. There are honest prosecutors and corrupt prosecutors. There are valiant feminist crusaders and wacko women schemers. But only one character is uniformly and consistently portrayed in a negative light: the defense attorney. On TV, there are no honest defense lawyers. They are all evil magicians who use the law - often dismissed as "a technicality" - to subvert justice.

In the modern justice system, everyone is entitled to a defense. The revelation of scores of wrongful convictions points to the need for such a system. Yet in the world of TV detective shows, when a suspect "lawyers up," she is practically admitting guilt.

The award for the most scummy TV defense attorney of all time goes to Maurice Levy (played by Michael Kostroff), who defends the Baltimore drug dealers and murderers who populate "The Wire". Levy is also the only Jewish character on the show.

In "The Wire," as in many quality shows, characters have a lot of nuance. The good guys are deeply flawed, the bad guys sometimes show compassion, and sometimes it's not so clear who is good and who is bad. Except for defense attorneys. There is only one. And he is very bad.

3. CCTV is an important and useful law-enforcement tool.

The entire UK - and, of course, much of the US, Canada, and elsewhere - is now blanketed in surveillance cameras. Study after study shows that CCTV does very little to prevent crime, except in limited, closed environments such as parking lots or stores. You'd never know this from watching detective shows, in which CCTV is often a crucial link in apprehending very bad people who do very bad things. Yet another cultural trope to remind us that if you have nothing to hide, you have no reason to oppose surveillance - that is, to value your privacy.

Anything else?


laura k said...

People who recommended Broadchurch - johngoldfine and M@, I believe: I loved it. I binged watched it and am going to re-watch it with Allan.

UU4077 said...

I assume your #2 refers to today's TV depictions. I don't think Perry Mason fits your descriptor.

laura k said...

I assume your #2 refers to today's TV depictions.

That is correct.

Your Perry Mason example is a good indicator of what I'm describing. Is there any contemporary equivalent?

Yesterday's Marcus Welby is today's Dr. House. Yesterday's Perry Mason is... nonexistent, to my knowledge.

James Redekop said...

CSI -- at least in the original run -- did have at least a couple of episodes where the defence attorney turned out to be right, and not on a technicality.

That was back when the show was quite strongly a "forensic science" show, rather than a procedural -- and one of the things about science is that scientists can fool themselves if they aren't careful. It was great to see a couple of stories where the good guys went down false trails and had to be pulled up short.

Of course, once you do that a couple of times, you have to drop it as a plot point, or your characters end up looking like idiots...

laura k said...

Law & Order also had episodes where the prosecutors were wrong. But still, on those episodes, the defense attorney was not portrayed as a positive character doing an important job.

This isn't who's right, it's who's good.

laura k said...

That is good to know about CSI, though. :)

James Redekop said...

The CSI episode I'm thinking of -- and this was quite a while ago, so I don't remember any specifics and I may be conflating a couple of episodes -- actually started out with the usual trope of the defence attorney seeming to be the standard slimy "defends evil gang members" types (his client had had a previous conviction for some gang-related thing, and so was not that sympathetic a character). But the great thing was that they subverted the trope completely -- in the third act it turned out that the suspect had reformed, had turned into a model citizen, and was completely innocent, and that the defence attorney was, in fact, an upstanding person who the leads had unfairly judged at the outset.

It stuck in my memory because it was such a reversal from the usual story structure.

laura k said...

I recently started watching The Good Wife, and it includes some very positive portrayals of defense attorneys. And that made me realize the correct response to UU4077's comment above.

Perry Mason was, I believe, courtroom and legal drama. The Good Wife is also that. But this blog post refers to detective/murder mysteries, a different TV genre.