As Crime Declines, Why Do We Keep Watching Procedurals

June Thomas has what I think is a largely convincing critique of this fall’s procedurals, noting that many shows have abandoned a focus on the core case in each episode to pursue larger mysteries related to the investigators:

Why are TV writers making their mysteries less mysterious? I think it’s because lots of new procedurals try to fit more than just a case of the week into the 44-minute running time. Most shows also have a serial element, a mystery — usually a quest for elusive information — that lasts throughout the whole series. In the case of Unforgettable, it’s Carrie’s attempt to remember the day her sister was murdered; on Person of Interest, it’s a driven cop’s attempt to capture Reese, who is wanted for a number of serious crimes around the world. Person of Interest’s writers are also trying to draw our attention to that Big Brother machine and the principals’ back stories: Why does Finch have a terrible back injury, and why is Reese such a loner? These larger arcs are supposed to encourage fans to keep tuning in each week, but they can’t be so intrusive that they alienate casual viewers and send them stretching for the remote. That’s why most shows relegate the serial to a tacked-on coda.

Inadvertently, I also think this suggests something about the persistence of procedurals in an age of declining crime.

To back it up a second, when I moved to Washington, I was living by myself for the first time, in a bigger city than I’d ever lived in before. And shortly after I moved here, I was in the public library when a woman had a violent psychotic breakdown an aisle over. I may have been a little anxious. Over time, I got vastly more comfortable, but I will admit that part of what helped was watching enormous amounts of Law & Order and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I recognize the ridiculousness of that, but they reassured me that as long as I took cabs home after midnight, locked my fire-escape-adjacent windows, and obeyed my instincts in relationships, I would probably not end up dead in an alley or locked in a sex dungeon. This 2002 Michael Kinsley column about women and Law & Order? That was basically me.


But my nerves were basically about the overall challenges of adjusting to a new situation, with all the commuting and budgeting and everything else adult life implies, not about realistic concerns about violent crime. Between 1991 and 2010, violent crimes overall went down from 758.2 per 100,000 to 403.6 per 100,000. Murders and non-negligent homicides fell from 9.8 per 100,000 to 4.8, and the rates of forcible rape (which, really? Is there voluntary rape?) went down from 42.3 per 100,000 to 27.5 per 100,000. Perceptions of crime risk haven’t gone down quite as consistently. In Gallup polling on whether respondents thought their was more crime in their “area than there was a year ago, or less?” the last year where a majority thought their region had gotten more dangerous from year to year was 1992, hitting a low of 26 percent in October 2001, and heading back up to 47 percent in 2005. In that same survey, 67 percent of respondents said they thought crime was rising across the country, a number that hadn’t been that high since 1996, when 71 percent of respondents said they thought crime was increasing.

But the point remains: as the actual risk of being a violent crime victim has declined, and as people perceive themselves to live in safer or at least neutral eras, it makes sense that our procedurals would move to a place where we’re less concerned with the resolution of the case and the incarceration of individual criminals and more concerned with the people who provide this bulwark of safety. I’d really like to see more successful mainstream shows that meditate on the tactics that those people use (I need to check out Person of Interest, which I’m told is surveillance-y, and also based on a dear friend’s work). If you’re going to have a long-running mystery or issue a cop or doctor has to resolve, why not have it be the reaction they got after working in Internal Affairs, a la Commissioner Gordon? Or for killing abusing or killing suspect, which could very well be part of Deena Pilgrim’s arc in Powers? One tends to think that the worst parts of our criminal justice system affect the people who commit its wrongs, as well as are the subjects of them. Not all shows about cops have to depict them as bad people. But it might make sense to draw drama from actual problems, instead of inventing absolutely ridiculous ones.