The new bad guys: What’s changing in crime on television, and what’s exactly the same

September 21, 2016

Jack McCoy of Law and Order may have pushed too hard for the death penalty and slept with his Assistant District Attorneys, but I don’t remember him coercing an innocent teenager with an intellectual disability into a false confession or sexually harassing a domestic violence victim, like the cops and prosecutors of Making a Murderer.

Those attorneys on The Practice may have made too many long speeches about being true to themselves (criminally long speeches) but I don’t remember any of them popping viagra so they could sleep with prostitutes or sticking drugs in their vaginas to bring to prisoners, like the attorneys of The Night Of.

There have always been bad cops in television, as in The Shield. But that show stood out as radical for promoting an anti-heroic police officer.  In the last two years, crime and punishment in television has shifted from a paradigm of good clean cops taking on sweaty bad guys to a focus on systemic issues and shared complicity. It is also moving from fictional crime to true crime, or fictional crime that seems realistic.

That said, one aspect of crime entertainment has not shifted much: Women, especially young women, are primarily being killed, and each case is still regarded as a unique phenomenon. In this way, the Law and Order franchise might be more forward-thinking than what has come since.

The popularity of Serial and Making a Murderer have contributed to an explosion in crime entertainment focused on failures in the system of law and orderWrongful conviction has become one major theme, in documentary shows like MTV’s Unlocking the Truth, fictional shows like HBO’s The Night Of and ABC’s Conviction, and a long list of podcasts.

Audiences are also revisiting cases like the O.J. Simpson killings and the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, with an interest not just in fingering the bad guy but uncovering flaws in the investigations and prosecutions. Viewers no longer just want to know if someone’s brother had a secret mistress, but how race, wealth, politics, and media have played into each case.

Within this new wave of crime entertainment, there are still traditional villains, like O.J. Simpson and Robert Durst, but the interest in their villainy is matched by the focus on flawed systems that allowed them to get away with it.

The godfather of this spate of true or “realistic” crime drama is HBO’s The Wire. Arguably the G.O.A.T. of crime television, The Wire still relied on some traditional crime tropes: A band of unlikely outsiders, stuck in the basement, does real police work against the odds, led by a flawed but righteous white man. Structurally, The Wire was not unlike Dodgeball or Old School, and that’s not an insult. Made today, its framework of good and evil might’ve been even more complicated, as David Simon’s later work has been. (Show Me a Hero‘s Nick Wasicsko is a more flawed counterpart to Jimmy McNulty of The Wire.)

I see this shift in crime entertainment as positive and progressive. It appears to coincide with a political shift away from the war on drugs and mass incarceration. Our shared media vocabulary now includes “prosecutorial misconduct” and “prison-industrial complex” alongside “lone wolf gunman.” I credit this shift largely to evolutions in technology. Through cell phones, police cameras, streaming services, podcasts, and social media, we have access to more information about how our system works and opportunities for viral outrage and participation in the investigative process.

Yet, the more things change…

One thing that hasn’t changed in crime media is the popular exploitation of the murder of women, especially young women. Not every case that captures the public imagination involves the killing of a woman by a man, but most do. The thrill of uncovering a possible wrongful conviction or failed investigation – intertwined with that other thrill of the classic whodunnit – both overshadow two darker realities: that women and girls are still walking targets because of how they were born and that their victimization is a major source of popular entertainment.

When unarmed African-Americans are killed by police, we discuss the history of racism and police control; we recognize a hate crime. I think the sheer volume of unsolved or scandalous cases of violence against women merits a similar broader discussion. Instead, the stories are often told as if what matters most are the relationships – the husbands, boyfriends, exes, fathers, brothers, Johns, crazy stalkers, bosses, strangers, and even mothers – in other words, everyone in the victims’ lives. (Violence against women can still be political even if women kill women, just as African-American police officers are not immune to systemic racism.)

We regard the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile as part of the same phenomenon, even though there were thousands of miles between them. So too, I draw a link between the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and the deaths of those two ladies who died falling down the stairs while alone with the same man (The Staircase).

The broader discussion of violence against women is largely absent from the shows and podcasts listed above. Maybe the issue doesn’t belong in every piece of fictional entertainment. But can’t one character in The Night Of comment on the fact that the female victim encounters up to five hostile men on any given day that could easily be her killer? Are we that immune to this reality it bears no mention, or is it just that entertaining to see females terrorized from all sides? There are so many unprovoked murders of women that even the fictional world demands it as a trope.

The argument I have seen against recognizing each act of violence against women within the greater political context is that men are murdered more often than women. Fair enough, but they are not usually murdered for their maleness; they are not murdered by women at nearly a comparable rate as the reverse. Women are more often murdered, raped, and assaulted because they are female, whether the perpetrator recognizes that prejudice or not. Women are much less likely to have committed violent acts themselves.

One of the only pieces of popular crime entertainment that successfully incorporates this broader view is Law and Order SVU. Otherwise, it’s a fairly old school style of crime show, with classic good and bad guys. Later seasons have exposed abuses within the legal system, but those abuses are usually righted within an hour by the impossibly virtuous main cast. The show is not a beacon of non-exploitation, by any means. At worst, it feeds the appetite for seeing attractive women hurt; that’s how most SVU episodes start. But the show makes a point via its expertly creepy story lines.

On the issue of violence against women, SVU is progressive in the way that soap operas or shows like Sex in the City have told the political stories of women for decades without trumpeting their politics. SVU portrays systemic mass violence against women, pointing out what is common among cases. The cumulative effect after twelve years seems almost genocidal. By contrast, our recent spate of popular true and realistic crime media is still focused on each case as distinct from each other.

I may not know for sure who killed Hae Min Lee, Jon Benet Ramsey, or Teresa Halbrook, but I know what killed them. I’m still waiting for that Lifetime movie.

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