Since the early 2000s, crime thrillers have been the big thing in television. Forensic science, electronics and living in the era of terrorism has made these shows engrossing, interesting and reassuring.
I watch or have watched quite a few of these and I thought that I might do a quick roundup of some of them, in the age of Netflix, if you want to find one that suits your palette.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: The original. The misfits of the Las Vegas Crime Lab night shift hunt for criminals using trace particles, DNA and fingerprints to reconstruct the doings of SinCity’s seedy underworld.
This series stood out as having the nerdy member of the team, Grissom, as the leader. He eventually left the series and has been replaced first by Laurence Fishburne and then Sam from Cheers. All CSI shows are plot-driven, not character-driven. Each character has an archetypal slot to fill, and they fill it. Character drama sometimes runs parallel to the case, but tends to be more wearisome than fascinating for my money.
The mysteries and the dialogue are quite enjoyable and the whole series is a love letter to science nerds. Although widely thought of as the best CSI, I got tired of it soonest because every other crime seems to involve some sexual fetish community or other subculture, and even the relatively harmless if strange ones become distastefully stereotyped and objectified.
CSI: Miami: The first CSI spinoff, Miami is the Batman of our day. And by that, I mean the 1960s Batman. Lt. Horatio Caine leads the Miami-Dade Crime Lab, charging, guns blazing through the steamy glamour of Florida on the tail of international gangsters, jet-setting crooks and decadent crimes of passion.
CSI: Miami is pure camp, and it’s pointless to claim otherwise. The crimes are spectacular, dealing with large sums of money, the filthy rich, and dramatic shootouts with drug cartels. Most of the actors are ruggedly attractive men or jaw-droppingly gorgeous women. Most of the reason I started watching it was to see Emily Procter smile. David Caruso’s idiosyncratic performance as the unflappable Horatio will earn him a place alongside such iconic over-the-top actors as Adam West, William Shatner and Kevin Sorbo. So it’s vacuous but exciting and lacks the oppressively grim atmosphere of the original CSI. Worth a look on a rainy day or after a really dreadful day at work.
CSI: NY: This is probably my favourite of the three. Mac Taylor and his team make the connections that lead to criminals in the Big Apple.
CSI: NY takes itself more seriously than Miami and has a greater diversity in its cases than Crime Scene Investigation. Mac Taylor has Horatio’s hard-headed detective spirit and Grissom’s intellectual curiosity and encyclopaedic knowledge. In short, it’s probably the best balanced of the three. The characters exhibit variations of the classic New York detective image, accents, attitudes and all. Indeed, I think part of the appeal is that New York City itself has more character than either Vegas or Miami. As a leading man, Gary Sinise is probably the best actor, and he’s given the most to work with by the writers. The personalities of the characters are also the most believable, which helps you connect with them, even while the same half-hearted soap-opera character arcs as in the other CSI’s drift by, half-noticed.
Bones: Dr. Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan, a forensic anthropologist at the JeffersonianMuseum, leads her own team of eccentrics in the pursuit of criminals alongside the goofy but gung-ho FBI Agent Booth.
This show exalts forensic science even more than CSI, with a focus on the human body itself. It produces some seriously weird and wonderful mysteries. It is more character-driven than CSI, though. Dr. Brennan is an eccentric genius, good hearted, keen-minded but drawing a blank on social interaction. All fair enough (and neither I nor many of my family can throw stones there) but the writers seem to virtually fetishise her oddness. Some episodes seem to stress flaunting it over the murder mystery. It is nice to see David Boreanaz in a new role after Angel, especially one where he can show off his comedic skills. The other characters are all endearingly odd but in a very by-the-numbers way. It got off to a good start but didn’t really strike me as having the zest of some of its contemporaries.
Castle: Richard Castle is the author of a popular detective series. When a killer begins emulating the crimes in his books, he offers his help to Detective Kate Beckett. Kate discovers both his vibrant imagination and investigative mind and his relentlessly smart-ass and quirky, not to say totally mad, personality. She is dismayed when he’s made a permanent consultant to the NYPD and partnered with her, but they begin to grow close as they form a yin-yang detective team.
The partnering of a police detective and a hack writer stretches suspension of disbelief pretty far even for me. The cases are perfectly solid, though and the characters have genuine depth. When I found out Castle had a teenaged daughter, I was convinced that we were going to have a dark comedy of an inveterate lout who had achieved fame and fortune but had a horribly dysfunctional family. I was both relieved and delighted to find that Castle and his daughter love one another to pieces. Plus Castle himself is played by Nathan Fillion, late of Firefly, who is, for my money, the funniest man on television.
NCIS: The abrasive and eccentric Jethro Gibbs and his team investigate crimes committed by or against members of the United States Navy and Marines.
The scale of the crimes range from international terror plots to domestic violence. NCIS also takes the ‘quirky team of crime solvers’ dynamic to a whole new level. Gibbs, hotshot Toni, nerdy McGee, lethal Ziva, worldly-wise Dr. Mallard and of course, perky Goth Abby make up probably the most colourful and appealing cadre of crime-solvers on TV today.
The writers delve into the culture of the US military, but they’re smart enough not descend into pro-America chest pounding. The moral ambiguities of the United States are neither excused nor dwelt on. Toni remains the weakest link, more so in earlier seasons; the intent was to make him a loveable rogue but they got a smug bully instead. Kate, an early team member, made it worse by playing a juvenile game of one-upmanship; putting Toni down and then holding herself up as a moral paragon despite being pretentious and rude in her own right. Her character was killed off in season 3 and replaced by Ziva, who just cheerfully reminds Toni that, as a former Mossad assassin, she is far more badass than he could ever be.
All this seems a little out there, but an acquaintance of my father’s who has worked with the real NCIS actually vouches for the show’s depiction of the team dynamic, and so I take comfort in that as I enjoy these weirdoes going about their duty. Semper fi, and all that.
Criminal Minds: Rather than using forensic evidence like in CSI, the FBI Behavioural Analysis Unit predicts the actions of serial killers (‘unsubs’ as the show calls them) using psychological analysis of the crimes to discover the pattern and catch the killer before more harm is done.
While most crime shows would save serial killers for season finales and the like, Criminal Minds is only about catching serial killers. Its other claim to novelty is covering events from the killer’s perspective (and/or the victim if kidnapping is involved), letting us see their motivations and history, which is used skilfully to depict them as scary monsters or as tragic victims, as the situation demands. It probably shows the subtlety and grey areas of the human condition best of all these shows. Each actor plays their part well and the gender equality, friendship and camaraderie is bettered only by Flashpoint. The downside is that the weirdness of the crimes can vary a lot; sometimes you’re gripping your seat with the suspense and other times you’d rather turn it off because you feel a bit sick.
Flashpoint: The police Strategic Response Unit is tasked to take on hostage situations, spree killers and other high-tension situations.
The cast sets a great standard for gender and racial diversity that only Bones can match. Gender equality also seems to be strong in the production side, if a casual examination of the credits is any clue. The male characters have emotions other than stoic aloofness or tough-guy anger. Suspense, psychology and tough decisions make for great dramatic tension. The emphasis on negotiation with suspects and appeals to the better part of human nature give it a depth and a gentle side that other crime shows lack. The writing is solid, and the camaraderie of the main characters is very powerful.
Lots of TV shows and films are made in Toronto. It’s easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for. Flashpoint is not only made in Toronto but actually set in Toronto. Important city landmarks and streets play roles in the show, and anyone who ever lived there will be jumping up and saying ‘hey I’ve been there’ every now and again. Lots of fun so far!
Willing suspension of disbelief will always be needed with shows like this. Whether it is the speedy progress of DNA tests in CSI or the fact that the FBI only seems to have one team for serial-killer-catching in the whole country in Criminal Minds, limits are always stretched for dramatic reasons. Solving mysteries is the main thing, though, and better still if the people solving them are deep and relatable, or at least fun to watch.
It’s an interesting time for mystery and suspense fans, and there are lots