Tabloid, middle-aged, and each the same as the next, network crime shows are exactly the kind of thing one wouldn’t want to bring up in young, polite company. An occasional exception is Dick Wolf’s long-running Law & Order: SVU, which comes explicitly labeled as a show about “sexually-based offenses” and the “elite squad” that investigates them—but when it comes down to it, the model of the ready-made one-hour murder plot quickly runs up against diminishing marginal returns.
Fourteen seasons in, fatal patterns come into relief. Suspects under interrogation before minute 30 are never guilty; if the victim is a child, Detective Stabler will probably throttle someone against a wall. Though eminently watchable, SVU is at its core like all TV crime simulations: contrived, artless, grasping for straws.
Luckily enough for avid crime-watchers, there exists a parallel phenomenon out there on the higher channels, full of art and never desperate for original material: the true crime show. However, because of such feely things as decency and fear of the uncanny, one is even less likely to hear about true crime shows from the young, highbrow crowd. But as a semi-regular consumer of such riveting titles as Cold Case Files, The New Detectives, and City Confidential for the last decade, I’m surprised that their viewership remains largely limited to middle-aged women in the heartland.
My first taste of the genre is preserved in a single memory, suspended in the amber of middle childhood and without specific context: the reenactment of an Elvis-masked man breaking into a suburban house, silencing his shotgun blasts with a bright-red pizza delivery box warmer. And here is the essence of the true crime show’s art: unburdened by the process of inventing a story anew for each production, producers get to focus on the business of making harrowing images that stick in the mind better than anything high-budget.
In this genre, which knew its pre-rerun peak between 1999 and 2006, every episode is a knowing cascade of potential nightmare frames. To be sure, the material makes short work of the task of believability: From babies in boxes to prom queens slain on their way back from the dance, each story deals with real lives snuffed out, real gruesome details, and real loved ones to complete the documentary circle with tearful narration.
But the art of the true crime show is not made by verisimilitude alone. As for anything moving and yet tasteful, there exists a careful method to crafting just the right true crime segment, as defined chiefly by its images. When the following parts are assembled correctly, they can haunt like nothing else on cable TV—and for far cheaper, too:
Narration: The true crime show presents itself as a documentary of sorts. And whether it’s Bill Kurtis’ dry tones or Paul Winfield’s frighteningly cool affect, narration makes the mood and frames the scenes. There is no banter, only urgency.
Music: Unlike the breezy themes of network shows, true crime music is always dark, dissonant, and evocative of murder—never hopeful. Witness the gloomy, autumnal bars that usher in each scene of Cold Case Files, or the crescendo-filled horror show that opens The New Detectives. During particularly disturbing scenes, the score turns warped and nauseous, subtly beckoning listeners to vomit.
Period: While one will find some cases from as early as the mid-seventies and as late as the early aughts, true crime shows give the impression that creepiness was the exclusive province of 1986 to 1993—complete with an associated web of hairstyles and fashions.
Mise-en-scene: Nothing can explain why such a decisive majority of televised murder cases take place in either the Upper Midwest or California, and principally in the suburbs. New York and Miami, for all their popularity in network crime shows, are scarcely to be seen.
Demographics: See JonBenet Ramsey, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, etc. Our true crime shows don’t skip a beat: lamentably, a solid three-quarters of victims are female, at least nine in 10 are white. And besides the odd hooker episode, the overwhelming balance are middle-class and well-bred, out of trouble and victims of pure, cruel circumstance.
The product is a visceral, thoughtful, and gritty journey—about as close as one would ever like to get to violent crime for 30 to 60 minutes. Moreover, shorn of the need to suspend disbelief, the true crime watching experience is exceptionally easy: just sit back, enter a realm of dates and places, and be taken in by the images.
And if you aren’t normally game for on-air crime, make an exception one of these nights for one of the aforementioned programs. If my analysis is correct, you’ll be struck by just how much art there is to be found in this oft-dismissed genre. At the very least, you won’t be able to sleep soundly for the next few evenings.
Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays. Follow him on Twitter @Josh_Lipson