Masterpiece Mystery is airing the latest series of Lewis over the month of July, something which has me tickled pink, because I adore UK police procedurals. Meanwhile, US crime shows continue to leave me cold; I know we’ve got a whole slew of them returning in the fall, and I just can’t be bothered to care all that much. Producers and creative teams in both nations approach procedurals radically differently, and I find the UK version much more to my taste.
Thanks to the rise of CSI, the science is a big focus in the US. I love science and I love forensics, but a lot of the science in US shows is dubious at best, intended to be showy rather than accurate, and it takes the form of a lot of montages with flickering lights and beeping machines intended to impress the audience. Forensics results that take weeks or months in real life come back in seconds, painting a totally inaccurate picture of the reality of law enforcement.
And everything rounds back to the bloody body, the unsavory crime scene photographs, the violence and brutality. In US procedurals, there’s also a heavy glorification of law enforcement, with the police officers and forensics personnel as heroes striking out against the bad guys, and heavily stereotyped victims and criminals except for the occasional Very Special Episode. The sex worker who angered the wrong client serves as an object lesson about the dangers of sex work, while the mean Middle Eastern man is involved in a dirty bomb plot in downtown New York City.
With the need to write 23 or so episodes each season, US shows rapidly turn formulaic and dull. Each episode needs some sort of mystery, showy forensics, and simple characters that can be easily followed in the hour (with advertisements) allotted to the show. Storylines compress, writers take shortcuts, and the result is a highly unstable souffle. If poked at all, the entire thing collapses.
As simple entertainment, it seems to satisfy many audiences, judging from steady ratings, growing numbers of such shows, and the boom in interest in forensics in the general population. But for those who want a little more from their television, there’s something profoundly lacking in the US procedural.
UK procedurals, in contrast, are much more about human drama, not only among victims and criminals but also among the police themselves. Rather than being superheroes with occasional flaws, police officers in dramas like Inspector Morse are deeply human people who wrestle with personal and ethical issues not only in their work, but in their lives. I particularly adore the Oxford setting of Lewis, which explores tensions between town and gown not only with individual cases, but also through the relationship between Lewis and Hathaway. Some critical thinking is required to really enjoy the show.
The crimes in these programmes are deeply complex and cerebral, and the police rely more on actual detective work than flashy and inaccurate forensics. They beat the pavement conducting interviews and gathering clues, they utilise their deductive skills, and they work in ways that are sometimes unexpected, but effective. Some develop close relationships with the very people they should be investigating or holding at arm’s length, and in the course of their investigations, they turn over troubling things about themselves just as often as they do about the case.
With longer airing times, the writers have more time to develop a rich, complex story that not only advances the plot, but also develops the characters into richer, fuller, more realised people. The drama is not about a gory crime scene and shiny forensics, but about the actual human beings involved, and the way crime alters people; not just the families of the victims, but the perpetrators themselves, as well as the police who investigate the case. The ripple effect created in the aftermath of violent crime is shown more clearly than it is in the US.
On Endeavor, a prequel to Inspector Morse that just aired on PBS, we got to see a very young Endeavor Morse at the start of his career, learning that his idols had clay feet and that working as an investigator would inevitably lead to disappointments. It was a difficult and crushing investigation with a shocking conclusion, and it was one that was driven by intense human emotion; I was glued to the screen, rather than coming up with something to entertain myself while waiting for the end of the hour, as I am with many US dramas.
UK police procedurals seem to be picking up some interest in the United States, as British drama in general is, thanks to the wild success of Downton Abbey. I’m hoping that trend continues and Masterpiece Mystery experiences a resurgence as more viewers tune in to catch things they can’t get on US networks. It will be interesting to see if US television undergoes a shift in response, and if the procedural formula in the United States will perhaps evolve a bit to reflect an interest in more human drama with a cognitive and intellectual aspect instead of a purely entertaining one.
Something needs to stop the tide of CSI knockoffs in the United States, and it’s notable that attempts at branching out, creating more offbeat and intellectual procedurals, have thus far failed. Shows like The Unusuals and Life were doomed almost from the start. Perhaps they were a little too soon for their time, rather than something US audiences were utterly ill-equipped to handle, though.