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Investigating TV crime shows' success

Procedurals are popular among viewers. For some it's the story, for others it's the characters.

December 25, 2009|By Chuck Barney | Contra Costa Times

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, allow us to present compelling evidence that will prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that crime does indeed pay -- at least on television.

The No. 1 show this fall is "NCIS," Mark Harmon's military whodunit, which has defied TV's laws of gravity by drawing its largest audience (21.5 million) in its seventh season.

Meanwhile, the top-rated new show is "NCIS: Los Angeles," a spinoff that airs right after its patriarch on CBS. Speaking of CBS, the network continues to crush its rivals in total viewers, thanks mostly to a glut of successful crime procedurals, including the three-headed "CSI" franchise, "The Mentalist," "Criminal Minds" and others.

Clearly, no end is in sight for the TV procedural, loosely defined as shows that present a different heinous crime each week and solve it before the credits roll. They may not thrill the critics or bag a lot of Emmys, but they tantalize the masses.

To find out why, we sniffed out a long trail of clues:

Everyone loves a mystery

Jerry Bruckheimer, the über producer behind "CSI" and several other crime dramas, points out that the bestseller lists always are crammed with various forms of mysteries and that TV is simply tapping into that craving.

"People are enamored with crime and solving crime," he says. "I'm sure a lot of [people] have been touched by it in their lives and want somebody to come in and be the white knight to clean it up."

You say you want a resolution

Many viewers prefer procedurals because they typically offer stand-alone, close-ended episodes -- as opposed to serialized shows such as "Lost" that rely on dangling plot lines and cliffhangers.

"I hate to have to feel obligated to get back [to a show] and watch to see how it all turned out," says Earl Daggett of Concord, Calif., an avid follower of "Law & Order: SVU" and other crime shows. "That's why I never watched soaps. I like to have everything resolved before it's over."

The good guys rule

Underscoring Bruckheimer's "white knight" theory is the fact that, in TV's crime shows, good almost always trumps evil. And in fearful times, viewers cherish that sense of certainty.

"You read about so much real-life crime in the media and a lot of times you never even find out who did it," says Colette Farabaugh of San Jose. "In these shows, everything tends to end happily. I think the feeling that comes from watching the bad guys get caught is reassuring."

A trip to the dark side

We might love the good guys, but the dastardly behavior of serial killers and kidnappers also intrigues us. So says Neil Linden, a Brentwood schoolteacher who closely follows "Criminal Minds" and other procedurals.

" 'Criminal Minds' can get pretty dark and brutal. It doesn't pull any punches," he says. "And whether we want to admit it or not, it sucks us in. I would think it has a similar effect that horror movies do on some people. But perhaps the brutality [in the crime shows] is more realistic."

A little humor helps

Amid all this grim reality, we could use some levity. A key factor often cited in the success of "NCIS" is its lighter tone. The Naval gumshoes routinely engage in quip-laden exchanges that set the show apart, and, at times, make it feel like a sitcom with corpses.

"The banter that takes place among the cast is one of the most enjoyable parts of watching the show," says executive producer Shane Brennan. "It's good to lighten it up because I think that's the reality of life. Even in dramatic life-and-death situations, some humor still exists."

Character counts

Procedurals typically emphasize cases over characters. But that doesn't mean casting isn't vital. Try, for example, to imagine "The Mentalist" minus charming Simon Baker.

"He's just so cool," says Joann Huston of Pleasanton, Calif. "I love how he has a Columbo style about him. He doesn't let people know what he's thinking. But he always has a plan."

Ripped from the headlines

They're fiction, but crime procedurals can often confront hot-button topics in ways that other shows can't. "Law & Order," for example, recently focused on the abortion debate in an episode that creator Dick Wolf deemed the "most controversial" of the series.

Serving up eye candy

And sometimes it just comes down to a little sex appeal. It's noteworthy, after all, that a recent poll at tvguide.com revealed that the two characters readers most wanted to see hook up are Benson [Mariska Hargitay] and Stabler [Christopher Meloni] of "Law & Order: SVU."

And getting back to "NCIS," Harmon clearly still has the power to make hearts skip a beat. "He's very, very sexy," says Huston. "I love it whenever he smiles. He has really nice laugh lines around his eyes."

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