What ticks me off in crime dramas, Part 1

Sometimes television crime dramas get the law right. Sometimes they get it wrong. Sometimes they promote a vision of policing that isn’t law and order — it’s order, straight up, and screw the law. I’m talking about American dramas here. That scene goes something like this, and it really, really ticks me off:

Law enforcement officers arrest a suspect. They demand he confess. The suspect says, “Don’t you have to read me my rights?”

And the cop stands tall and declares: “You’re under arrest for murder. You get nothing.” (Pause for audience at home to punch the air and shout, “Yeah!”) Or the cop says: “You’ve been arrested for terrorism. I am invoking the Patriot Act. You have no rights.” (Yes, still. Today. On a first-run prime time crime drama. Pause again so audience can whoop and chant, “USA! USA!”)

1. Bonus ticks-me-off points if the cop adds: “You don’t get a lawyer. You don’t get medical treatment. You get a one-way ticket to a seaside paradise called Gitmo. Too bad your family will never know where you’ve gone.” (Yee-haw.)

2. Extra bonus points if the cop promises that the suspect will rot in a cell too small to turn around in, with no daylight, and — unless he confesses this second — endless years of prison rape. (Snirk snirk hahahaha — it’s awesome because rape is funny and well deserved.)

More ways to get me snarling at the screen:

3. When interrogating the suspect, speak softly and carry a hammer and a scalpel and a selection of dental implements. Fondle them while saying, “Why’d you do it?”

4. When the suspect shudders uncontrollably and says, “Torture’s illegal — you can’t!” the cop should smile and say, “Oh, I won’t. But meet my little friend from Mossad.”

5. Really run up the score: make sure that the suspect is battered and bleeding heavily because the heroes have punched, kicked, or repeatedly slammed his head against a table. Super extra bonus points if this beating — excuse me, this righteous ass-kicking — takes place while the suspect is handcuffed and shackled to a bolt in the floor.

6. If a cop feels remorse for beating a suspect to within an inch of his life, make sure his colleagues comfort him and let him know it’s okay, because “emotions are running high.” Make sure his boss claps him on the shoulder and tells him to take a night off and hit the local bar to unwind.

7. If the scene takes place in an emergency room, then for extra hilarity — and that delicious catharsis that only revenge can provide — have the hero cops shove the doctor aside so they can stick a thumb or a ballpoint pen deep into the suspect’s wounds. The suspect will immediately confess, as he damn well should.

8. Reinforce the underlying idea that it’s both justified and necessary for the cops (or the feds or the MPs or the CIA) to threaten and torture suspects in custody, because the authorities are at an endless disadvantage against criminals. Remind viewers that authority is largely helpless and must use these methods until we all wake up and give them the true power they need.

9. Present these scenes as emblems of patriotism and common sense, not propaganda. Constantly send the message that these scenes depict righteousness — that good guys are vicious and we should love them for it. Never, ever whisper the words police state. Because, if you do it often enough, with enough flair and drama, you won’t have to.

End rant.

10 responses to “What ticks me off in crime dramas, Part 1

  1. I know they do it to increase drama, and I won’t deny I’ve enjoyed some of those scenes at times. However, it bothers me when people say they are willing to allow searches for no reason, or other invasions of privacy, saying things like, “I have nothing to hide, so why not?” As Ben said, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

  2. I think this is really a combination of poor writing, which I expect from Hollywood hacks, and tapping into our outrage that many high profile cases give us when people we deem guilty of something (anything?) are not made accountable for. (Think the original O.J. Simpson trial, Casey Anthony, Bernie Madoff, John Edwards…the list is long.)
    This is also built upon our love of the little guy taking on the system and winning no matter how it’s done. For example, I can go back to Steve McQueen’s character in Wanted: Dead Or Alive. The incarnation of one guy against the system continued with The Fugitive, The Prisoner, The Equalizer, up to now with Person Of Interest. It seems to be what we as Americans (still not so removed from the Wild West days that glorified the cowboy ala Shane or Gary Cooper in High Noon.
    At best, most Hollywood hackery is done to touch our reptilian natures no matter how far below the surface some of them go. But, where they lose me is in the triteness. The PI is always smarter than the police, the police are always smarter than the FBI or CIA, and The FBI is smarter than the most soulless of serial killers.
    I’m pretty tired of the lack of creativity being aired nightly and as a result I don’t watch nearly what I did years ago. The other thing is network television unerringly cancels anything I find interesting in general so there really isn’t much for me to tune into. Plus the gratuitous sex and violence is just not appealing, but then I’m old now.
    For a change of pace, I am enjoying the latest Kiefer Sutherland show, Touch. How it managed to not get cancelled, I don’t know, but as soon as someone tells them I like it…..

  3. I understand how well drama can give vent to people’s frustrations about the way justice works (or doesn’t) in real life. But the USA is the most incarceratin’ country around, and in many states, conviction rates at trial top 90%. For TV dramas to insinuate that the state needs fewer restrictions on police power, and that cops should “take the gloves off” and be free to lie, cheat, and abuse people in custody, doesn’t wash with me. I guess I’m just a law and order kind of gal.

    I love stories where the little guy takes on the system and wins. I was complaining about shows that try to make the system look like the little guy.

  4. Yes, I agree whole heartedly. Most people love a good David Vs Goliath tale. I certainly do. And I also agree completely that your examples are not what anyone should be cheering. I just think Hollywood in general misses the mark when it comes to top flight writing. I always cringe now when a book I love is threatened with a Hollywood treatment.
    One thing I am watching closely now is how many convictions are being overturned by DNA evidence. Talk about disgraceful. Some of these people have been locked up for 20 to 30 years. How they survive that is beyond me but would make a very interesting novel.

  5. Hmm, I totally see what you are saying, but at the same time I don’t equate tv shows with reality, to me tv is entertaiment, period, and has nothing to do with real life. What’s more, when I’m rooting for the cop on a show I’m not seeing him as a symbol of a underdog system, I see him as a symbol (on his own, or his unit, as a single entity) of good that is trying to overcome evil one day and one case at a time.
    To me so many shows (US or otherwise) overexagerate characters and situations to such a degree that they have no base in reality, so to me comparing tv shows to real live is like comparing apples and oranges, you just can’t do it beyond some elemental descriptions.
    At the moment my two fave shows are Hawaii Five-0 and Nikita. Nikita goes at this from a total different angle, but H50 is a typical cop show that totally fits in your description of a bad crime show. I don’t take it as a model of what law enforcement should be like, in fact if I read of some cop or police unit behaving this way I would be outraged, but I thoroughly love the show and faithfully watch it, perhaps weird, but like I said reality and entertainment are two separate things to me.

  6. What’s really bad about all this is when in real life, a jury is picked for a case and they expect the evidence to be obtained and processed like on TV. They expect podunk Idaho to have a forensic pathologist who oversees every case and Macgyver’s it to a conclusion. (I don’t know how to spell Macgyver and I’m too tired to go look.) You know what I mean.

  7. I agree, Dana Jean, especially since at least part of the TV technology doesn’t even exist yet. Michelle, I watched H50 last night, and noticed the techniques to which Meg refers being used to extract information on where the kids were being held hostage, justifying the violent rights violations with saving lives. This seems to be a common plot device, yet when was the last time this situation actually occurred? The last time I can think of was in Chowchilla CA in 1976.

  8. Hawaii 5-0 is one of the shows that has made me growl at the screen. I haven’t seen the most recent episode, but in one, Dano shot a friend of his because a kidnapper asked him to… and then shot the kidnapper in the knee to get him to reveal the location of his kidnapped daughter. With the kidnapper in custody, and the entire squad standing around. Just: BOOM.

    The lie is that torture immediately produces full and truthful confessions. Not so, and dramas that promote that idea really just… grr.

    However, Hawaii 5-0 has the most exceptionally good looking cast on television. I could watch them all night long. I mean, seriously — whenever I see the show, I think: Are these people genetically engineered to be so beautiful?

    • Hahaha, I know right, they are all seriously attractive!

      I agree with you on the incredulity of the plot lines, but it never bothers me. Sure it’s stupid and often defies common sense and if I were to focus on it it might bother me too, but I have always just focussed on the entertainment value (yes I am THAT shallow!).
      I have always wondered about whether violence illicits truthful confessions, I have always imagined that it depends on the situation, the type of questions that are asked, the person and also depending on how long the violence goes on.
      But maybe I’m confusing violence with torture?

  9. You know, I LOVE how civil everyone is on this blog! 🙂

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