In Grantland earlier this week, the critic Andy Greenwald published a long meditation on the declining artistic returns of extraordinarily violent television dramas. While much of the hand-wringing about violence in the media has been directed at the impact such depictions are supposed to have on children, Greenwald writes, “my primary concern these days is for my fellow adults. Television, particularly the high-minded prime-time television I often write about, is awash in death. NBC, once famous for its “The More You Know” PSAs, now demonstrates how best to impale a female torso on deer antlers. Fox dresses up dime-store gore in undergrad pretension. And on HBO’s prestige dramas, blood burbles and sprays like water in the Trevi Fountain. Some of this carnage is artistic and some of it is gratuitous, but eventually all of it takes a toll.”
Some of the solution to this problem is to develop stories about other kinds of stakes, whether by shifting settings and timelines like Orange Is The New Black has, following characters after they’ve been convicted of their crimes, or exploring the anxieties of essentially happy people, as has been the case in NBC’s hugely refreshing family drama Parenthood. But if you still want to tell stories about crime and police work, you have another option, and one that two Fox shows debuting this fall are exploring: you can tell stories about smaller crimes than murder, and about motivations other than murderous or sexual obsession.
First, there’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a police comedy from Parks and Recreation creator Michael Schur and Parks and Recreation writer and Late Night With Conan O’Brien veteran Dan Goor. Parks and Recreation is a show that’s thrived in the small tasks of government. And Goor suggested that Brooklyn Nine-Nine would do the same.
“There are a lot of different aspects of being in the police,” he said. “You know, they could be on parade duty and frustrated that they’re not solving a crime.”
He acknowledged that “when we do a crime, it’s important that there will be some very high stakes kind of murder-y crimes.” But he said that wouldn’t be the only kind of crime, but that the show wanted to balance the light tone of the characters’ interactions with the nature of the crimes themselves. “It’s always about finding the line,” Goor suggested, “because if the crime in the first place is too silly, it’s very hard to write a compelling story because the audience just checks out. They don’t care if you solve the crime.”
Then, there’s Almost Human, the network’s futuristic cop drama, in which human cops are paired with robot backup. Creator J.H. Wyman said that it was important to him to find crimes and motivations for crimes that were rooted in the show’s vision of a relatively near future.
“We have a criteria that’s basically if the crime is not committed by something at least futuristic that’s plausible or is not committed for reasons that I’m saying or caused by something, we are not really interested in telling the story,” he said. “we are all promised this incredible version of the future with technology, and here it comes. It’s going to make our lives better. But there’s another side to that. There’s a side where criminals use that technology for their own gain. So, as smart as the cops get the criminals have that much more to use against us.”
It remains to be seen how both Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Almost Human will develop their characters’ caseloads over the course of their first seasons. But as they move beyond their pilots, both shows might do well to look at The Unusuals, ABC’s short-lived but deeply-felt cop drama. That show managed to find both compelling stakes and even surprisingly beautiful moments in smaller crimes and smaller obligations. Characters went on crime sprees to pay for medical bills, or to finance weddings before someone they loved. A man suffering from Alzheimers who wandered off from his nursing home and was mistaken for a zombie prompted a surprisingly tender meditation on our attachments to our childhoods. And the relationships between the cops were procedurals unto themselves that got almost as much time and attention as the cases of the week.
None of this is to say that murder isn’t important, or that our society doesn’t need to meditate deeply on crimes against women.Ariel Castro sentencing to a thousand years in prison for imprisoning three young women in his own home and sexually assaulting them was a vivid reminder that baroque crimes against women are all too real, and that outside of television, limited police resources and private funds means that not all women have dedicated investigators working to save their lives or honor their memories with successful convictions. But there are many other kinds of crimes we commit against each other, and many other kinds of stories to tell about the motivations for those crimes, the way they’re carried out, the way we solve them or reasons we don’t, and the ways we deal with the offenders. Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Almost Human could be promising steps in the directions of those new kinds of stories.