Saturday, August 2, 2008

Melodrama, mystical justice, and TV crime shows

Melodrama is often associated simply with women and soap operas with good reason. Soap opera are dominated by romantic relationships where emotions dominate and reason dissipates. However, melodrama is not limited to soap operas. Perhaps surprising to some, it dominates action movies as well -- thus putting Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwartzenegger on a par with daytime soaps, much to the chagrin of guys who watch action flicks in an attempt to show off their masculinity (or at least to retain their identity as guys).

Here I explore some ways in which crime TV shows are melodramatic, and observe some shifts in these programs.

In a book about hard-boiled crime fiction in the United States, Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism (Durham: Duke UP, 2000), the Wesleyan University professor Sean McCann notes of the classical detective story:
Traditionally, the classic detective story celebrated the victory of public knowledge and civic solidarity over the dangers of private desire. It registered that victory formally by bringing the arcane knowledge and peculiar abilities wielded by the detective to bear on the challenge to the social order represented by the villain, suggesting thereby that there was no specialized knowledge that could not prove socially useful just as there was no strife or dissension that could not be absorbed by a healthy civil society (4).

The elements of the classic detective story, especially in McCann's terms, are a detective who has access to arcane knowledge and/or special abilities, a criminal who represents "private desire," and a social order that is threatened by the latter. The latter in fact is the cause of the crime, an act that destabilizes the social order, or at least threatens to do so, especially if private desire can overcome public knowledge and civic solidarity. This way, the victory of the detective is the victory of the society that he (normally) or she represents.

The classic version of this on TV is Dragnet, a show where the cops always solved the crime and where the criminals were almost always punished -- and were publicly identified. The original run of the show was in the 1950's after a debut on radio in 1949. It ran for 276 episodes in the 1950s, before another run of 100 episodes from 1967 to 1970. Perhaps nothing says more of its formula than its success: nearly 400 episodes over about 14 years, in addition to two different rebirths from the 1990s on. The show avoided issues of racial segregation in the Los Angeles police department and other hot topics in exchange for the endorsement of the LAPD (see wikipedia's article on the show here). Part of its formula for success were its straight-forward portrayal of police detectives who solve the crime. The show changes the formula of the classic detective story by making the detective a police officer -- in classic stories or novels the detective is often unwilling to participate or has no need to do so. Sherlock Holmes gives the appearance of not needing to work, though novels about him present an ambiguous portrait of this. Regardless, Sherlock is a bohemian and works only when the fancy strikes him. Police officers, however, have assigned shifts and represent a blue color version of the will of society to contain private desire. Indeed, arcane knowledge becomes markedly less arcane in Dragnet and other detective shows, especially in their police show incarnation.

In addition, Dragnet inspired other shows, perhaps most notably Law & Order. The original Law & Order, despite running for 18 seasons (19 beginning in January), was in danger recently of being canceled and it has inspired its own spin-offs, one of which (Law & Order: SVU) is currently the most popular of the franchise. It is a straight-forward plot-driven procedural, with the first half of the show usually dedicated to police investigation and the second half to the trial and legal issues. The biggest differences between LO and Dragnet are the inclusion of the legal issues and the significant change in that the criminals are not always found guilty. In this way, the show presents ways in which the private desire of criminals may subvert the social order. But the show's formula and the issues presented perhaps helped it achieve its peak popularity in the 2001-2002 season -- one that began a couple weeks after 9/11.

The threat that criminals pose, especially as when they manage to find loopholes in the system, is especially clear on SVU where sex offenders regularly escape justice and are free to threaten other victims -- frequently kids. The perpetrator's escape certainly seems to justify the perception that more cops are needed, but perhaps more importantly scare viewers, predisposing them to staying in and watching more TV. SVU is also more clearly melodramatic: Mariska Hargitay's character often paints the issues in terms of the victims and their feelings. Of course, Stabler represents this in masculine form and Munch routinely addresses the issues in terms of what they mean for Americans, either positively (more leeway for police mean less privacy for individual Americans, while more protection for victims means more threats for Americans). The show features different side characters and has a format that is more open than that of the original show; these characters -- especially the psychologist Huang (especially given the issues that the show raises) -- and its open format, in addition to its stronger melodramatic component, probably explain why it attains higher ratings than the original, even if its ratings are falling.

The melodrama of course continues: police detectives work to maintain and control private desire of criminals who strive to subvert the public order and place individuals in danger. Their inability to solve all crimes only adds to the tension: while they are often successful, a viewer does not know if they are going to solve the case or not.

Monk, as discussed earlier, fits the profile of a classic detective story. Monk is either unwilling or unable to solve crimes because of his lack of interest (despite his need for income) or because his many phobias interfere. However, it is his perception, heightened by his OCD, or his arcane knowledge (or a combination of the two) that allow him to solve crimes. His success rate signals a return to the classical model, where arcane knowledge trumps private desire, despite the obstacles that the detective's own mind create in the form of the OCD and its accompanying phobias (present from the pilot, where the criminal escapes due to Monk's fear of heights).

The popularity of these shows -- over 1000 shows in just these mentioned -- show the model to be a formula that works. Viewers evidently are happy to see justice work, even when they hear of criminals getting off in real life. While I have not watched enough of the CSI franchise to comment on its formula, the shows certainly present a positive role for technology to play a positive role in solving crimes. With the promise that technology offers, not only will all criminals be caught, but no innocent person will be sent to prison (or condemned to death, or executed, for that matter).

The melodramatic aspect of justice emphasizes one final point: the formula that justice often follows is a rational one, divorced from the emotions. This is perhaps most clearly represented by Jack McCoy's character on the original Law & Order who seeks justice -- and punishes those who seek revenge. But his emotional attachment to cases, perhaps best evidenced in his courtroom persona, betrays a commitment to what revenge represents: an emotional attachment.

This emotional attachment, even when in the form of revenge, is not something that should be ignored but embraces, argues the late philosopher Robert Solomon. Revenge has a long history and is found in the Bible. Its positive contribution to the topic of justice? Attachment to the cause of justice. While Derrida argues that justice is impossible based on the impossibility of creating laws that apply to its implementation in a legal system (and as such in a given application of those laws), he does not that the act of creating a legal system is a mystical act, one of a foundation. The mystical foundation of justice, however, is not just about the establishment of a legal code. It is about the foundation of a society to which one feels attached. One does not want to be an American because it's a rational choice: it is one that has a highly charged emotional one -- one that explains the fervor of patriotic and nationalist sentiments, evidenced especially in recent times (i.e., after 9/11).

I "feel" (sorry for the pun) that this explanation is rather brief. I will try to update in the future as it is part of my research (not that I have readers at this point...)

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