Crime Shows Overemphasize Threat
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, crime shows are increasingly under the microscope. Areas of criticism include how cop shows endorse and/or normalize police brutality and misconduct, the limited diversity in writers’ rooms and the stories they tell, and the myth of the hero cop. Equally important, but often less talked about, is that to draw attention and viewers, crime shows overemphasize the violent threats in their ‘real’ worlds.
Season two of the cop drama 19–2 opens with a school shooting that consumes most of the episode. It is brilliantly choregraphed, gripping, and absolutely horrific. For a show that seems to want to continuously up how heart-wrenching it can be, the episode is the perfect beginning to season two. There is just one incongruity: the show takes place in Canada where school shootings are exceedingly rare. The last school shooting occurred in 2016 when four people were killed and seven injured in the La Roche shooting. However, this happened after the episode was aired in 2015. To find a comparable shooting before the episode, one must go back to 1989 where 15 people were killed and 14 injured.
The episode encapsulates a widespread problem for crime shows. Gripping television often involves distorting reality to make it far scarier than it really is. After all, creating shock in the aftermath of horrible events and constantly upping the stakes are basic storytelling tactics. In the Icelandic show The Valhalla Murders, multiple people are murdered as the result of abuse at a boarding school for boys. In Iceland, less than two people are murdered on average each year. A single murder has the potential to shock the country. In the BBC series Bodyguard, the home secretary’s life is threatened by terrorists. The shocking violence in some of its scenes was a marketing tactic (warning: graphic images). Needless to say, the home secretary has never been shot at by a sniper in the heart of London.
The problem here is that unlike other genres — nobody actually thinks they’re going to die because Thanos snapped his fingers — the appeal of crime shows is that they purport to reflect reality. Part of the appeal of a show like Law and Order is that its stories are ripped from the headlines. Shows like 19–2, The Valhalla Murders, and Bodyguard take a curious approach to their horror and violence, but one that makes perfect sense in terms of drawing viewership. The events are, of course, portrayed as shockingly as can be. At the same time, their rarity feels downplayed. There is a sense that the world is inherently dangerous, that these events are always ready to happen. In the words of the showrunner for Bodyguard, they operate in a ‘heightened reality’. And why not? It makes the show scarier and more intense, which is exactly what the creators — and the viewers — want.
The Valhalla Murders encapsulates this ‘heightened reality’. Boys were indeed abused at a boarding school in Iceland in the 1940’s. However, no murders took place as a result. The murders were added, presumably, to make the show more engaging and thrilling.
Why it Matters
Despite crime falling steadily in America, a significant majority of Americans believe that it is rising. Our media, with its over-reporting on crime, very likely influences this worldview. Crime shows feed this altered reality, rather than working to correct it.
This outsized fear of crime likely has a political impact. Many republicans, like Trump, campaign on this fear. And it works too. According to exit polls, 71% of voters who thought crime and safety were the most important issues in America voted for Donald Trump. The bigger the fear of crime, the better Republicans seem to do in elections.
What to Do
I find this to be a very unique dilemma because it represents a rare case where good-storytelling instincts lead directly to real world consequences. For procedural crime shows like SVU, where there is a new crime almost every episode, the problem is particularly large. Each crime must be diabolical and/or terrible to maintain interest and so must overemphasize the amount of crime happening in a single area. And the problem isn’t going away any time soon — crime shows are very successful.
More shows could emphasize how policing is often systemically broken and how that impacts people (the Vox piece cited is closely aligned to mine). They could emphasize the emotional toll this places on police officers (to its credit 19–2 does this) and shift focus away from law enforcement to show how law enforcement hurts the people that the system sets its sights on.
These ideas and more should be built on acknowledging the inherent fictionality of crime shows. The idea that crime shows reveal aspects of our society through exaggeration needs to be retired. Instead, the desire to shock and create dread works to obscure rather than reveal reality. This understanding is essential if crime shows are to evolve into entertainment that helps us to move past our fears rather than succumb to them.