Sunday, March 11, 2007

Five TV Shows About Crime I'm Glad Somebody Made

A lot of television shows about crime and punishment these days are pure schlock - from prosecutor glamorizing blockbusters like Law & Order to shows like Boston Legal that empathize with the defense, too many TV shows about crime and law basically rely on silly, repetitive stereotyping, recycling hackneyed plots featuring barely watchable acting by people with six-pack abs and news-anchor looks.

On the other hand, there are several TV shows running now on the topic that I wouldn't miss, and that in many instances are breaking new ground in old genres. So without further ado I thought I'd present my semi-topical list of "Five TV Shows About Crime I'm Glad Somebody Made."

The Wire
The Best. Epic. Crime. Drama. Ever. Since the advent of television. If you haven't seen it on HBO, I'm not kidding. From the brutality and humanity on the street corners to snitching, the corrupting influence of undercover work, and the impotence of numbers-driven police tactics, this show ably demonstrates many of the most obvious shortcomings in current law enforcement approaches to drugs and violent crime. The Wire is a modern masterpiece, IMO, a Dickensian triumph, well worth the DVD purchase. Start from the beginning and watch all of it.

The Sopranos:
I could go on an on about what this show did for TV drama as a genre, but I think it has also influenced the crime debate in America. While the mafioso depicted are a dying breed (today the "mafia" speak Spanish as their first or second language instead of Italian, and are more likely to run drugs up I-35 than steal trucks off I-95), the Sopranos demonstrates to liberals that crime is brutal, self-interested, and cannot be reasoned away, while simultaneously demonstrating to conservatives that crime is a business, not a psychosis, for most who engage in it, and that there are limits to the effectiveness of law enforcement against the worst of the worst. As a bonus: the writing and acting are so good you can barely take your eyes off the show, particular in the early seasons.

Prison Break:
This one I'm mostly glad they made because I enjoy it. Much of it last season was filmed around the Dallas area, including in small towns where I've spent a little time. But on the criminal justice front it also emphasizes and popularizes a fictional innocence case - the older brother awaiting execution for capital murder - and shows prisoners as people with a range of complex motives who act in their self interest. To that extent it's unusual for network TV, though the now defunct (and much better) HBO series Oz obviously did that in a less comic-book like fashion. Some of the early plot twists involving the plans of the prison escape tattooed on the protagonist's back were ingenious. I think as long as people yearn in their soul to be free, people will love prison break movies.

This one is Kathy's favorite. On the USA Network, Tony Shalhoub brilliantly plays Adrian Monk, a semi-retired detective in San Francisco with extreme obsessive compulsive disorder and an almost savant-like crime solving ability. Monk reminds me of a twitchy version of the old detective shows like Columbo or McMillan and Wife, a throwback to when everyone was polite and crimes were finally, predictably, yet somehow still unpredictably solved at the end of each episode, with everyone including the villain in the room. This show uses an otherwise stale, outdated detective story trope and mildly satirizes it, offering the wonderful Shalhoub a chance to indulge development of this curious character he's created.

Reno 911:
This satirical TV show from Comedy Central cracks all the jokes about cops that you really can't say when they're hovering over the driver's side window of your car in their mirrored sunglasses on the side of the road. So in that sense it's easy to understand why it's popular. Humor belittling authority figures is as natural as the sunrise, and it's a great benefit of living in a free country that such humor can be expressed on the public airwaves. Besides, if you pay attention you find that there are sources out in the real world mirroring much of the humor, or it wouldn't be so funny. I mean, who among us can't laugh at a dog bite in the crotch? ... Oh, yeah ... state Senator Jeff Wentworth.

What TV shows about crime and punishment do you watch? What should have gone on the top five list, and where did I miss the boat? Remember, I'm talking about currently running TV shows, not ones that have gone off the air. Let me know what you think.


Anonymous said...

I love Boston Legal...because Shatner is such a hoot now that he's comfortable parodying himself. The whole "mad cow" thing was funny and poignant at the same time.

Granted, I do get a little tired of some of the more soap opera-ish moments. But, since broadcast tv is awash with crime shows from the state/prosecution pov (the Law and Order and CSI franschises most notably), I think it is a very good thing to have at least one show from the defense perspective as well.

Anonymous said...

You're spot on about "The Wire," which, besides being an artistic triumph in every respect, is probably the most damning refutation of the current approach to this country's enormous drug problem I can think of.

Anonymous said...

You saved yourself with your last qualifier from being burned at the stake for not including the A-Team...

Seriously, though, Law & Order ("doink doink!") should be on the list. It perfectly captures the procedural, and justice isn't always successful (in either direction).

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Kyle, I haven't been able to sit through an episode of Law&Order for quite some time. I view the original series as the best of a tired genre overtaken (and in my TV watching habits, replaced) by some of these other shows. The spinoffs I find unwatchable.

My complaint about L&O is the same as my attorney father's was about Perry Mason when I was a kid - it's easy to win all your cases, he commonly said, when all your clients are innocent. You could say the reverse for Law and Order - when everybody is guilty and all your mistakes are made with the best intentions, it's easy to look as dashing as Jack McCoy. Doink doink, indeed!

On Boston Legal, I find it watchable and occasionally funny, but not interesting or new or challenging as an artistic work the way these others are. The five I mentioned, IMO, are really changing the crime drama or targeting sacred cows for humor in ways that take the medium to new places.

I'm pretty bored with the formula dramas where every villain is vanquished and every case wrapped up at the end. Watch The Wire, if you haven't, to see what I mean when I say crime in the real world doesn't work like that.

Thanks for the comments! What else do folks watch?

Anonymous said...

I wasn't trying to break your link. It was an experiment. I've been getting a ton of hits for that image from MySpace, and the quick and easy way to see how much bandwidth we're talking was to change the name of the file. I'll change it back in a couple of days, as it broke the link to it on my own site, too! :o) I'm probably going to put an .htaccess file in my images folder and deny access from MySpace. But please don't think I did it because of you.

Anonymous said...

The Wire is definitely snitching off how screwed up law enforcement and big city politics are.
"Juking the stats" is why the drug war is lost.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jonathon, I apologize for sponging bandwidth. Thanks for the note.

Rob said...

Hey, I can't believe nobody has called you out for not including "The Shield" in your list. Vic is the modern-day Dirty Harry who turns bad cop more often than good - but usually for the right reasons.

Renees Take said...

I'm also a Boston Legal fan. Yes our firm always wins, but it's really not so much about that as it is a chance to watch many of my favorite actors having fun at the expense of America. Bill Shatner, Candy Bergen and my crush since 15 for being a true bad boy SPADER. I love the conservative/liberal slant with the spot on civil liberties rants. Not serious, not realistic, but pure unadulterated political romp for those of us West Wing junkies who were jonesin'.

I haven't seen The Wire yet, although I do have HBO and so will check it out.

Monk is not funny to me because I worked with a guy for 12 hours a day on the road for months at a time organizing unions who had severe OCD. It could be funny at times and he and I laughed endlessly about it together when it got out of control, but mostly, I saw a brilliant friend, colleague and someone I cared for suffer from a severely debilitating disease with all its frustrations, humiliations and often painful reprecussions. I remember one time, he just stopped driving at a green light, turned off the car and turned it back on in the middle of heavy traffic... I was terrified, he was horrified at himself and luckily, we survived. He could not always control when these things would happen and it was so difficult to function when his brain started to misfire.

Somehow, although trying to find the humor, Monk manages to remind me of that side of it more than the fun and I just get sad... I can't watch it.

I do need a giggle in between the sheets to watch a show regularly, though, so the others just aren't my style.