May 9, 2013

Wither TV's private detectives?

In our last episode, I'd tentatively explored the idea that today's TV police procedurals* were subtly influencing the viewing public to accept the idea of a stronger government control over personal liberty.  Which is a highfaluting way of saying that we cheer when the good guys trample over the rights of the bad guys because we know the bad guys are bad, but things aren't quite that easy in real life.

*Let's admit it - I trashed NCIS but good.  Upon further review, I probably should have included 24 in that list as well.  It's not strictly a procedural, but if you're talking about conditioning the public to accept a certain way of thought, it would certainly qualify.

As I said at the time, this was just a theory - a good one, but merely my own opinion.  But in a roundabout way it lead me to consider another question I've had lately: the absence of the traditional private detective from television. 

The catalyst for the linking of these two seemingly disparate thoughts was Steven Stark's Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today.  I've been reading over parts of it lately, primarily because it's the only TV book I have that's not packed away in a box pending our upcoming move. I may have mentioned this book before; if not, I'll undoubtedly mention it again in the future, because it's the kind of book I wish I'd written.  I don't mean to suggest that I agree with everything he writes, or that I wouldn't have said or done some things differently.  But it's the idea of looking at television with an eye to American culture, of identifying how particular television shows have influenced not only other shows but the culture as a whole, that I really like.

Returning to the discussion, Stark writes of the undeniable influence of the 1952 premiere of Jack Webb's Dragnet in how the public viewed police.

Until the advent of television, however, popular culture had traditionally romanticized crime, with the police (or their equivalents) often treated as villains not heroes. A strong antiestablishment distrust of formal legal authority used to run through our popular culture.

Stark quotes a student of American culture who wrote, "If the United States could be said to have a national literature, it is crime melodrama"  The form in which the crime drama took, however, relied less on the institutional police and more on the outsider:

[T]raditional pop-culture crime-solvers before television - Edgar Allen Poe's Auguste Dupin (America's first literary detective), Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, and Philip Marlowe - were often private detectives tracking down criminals while outwitting the police  Westerns, too, retained this ideology, with justice often carried out by a single, highly individualistic sheriff or cowboy who disdained the traditional mechanisms of the law.

This all changed with the advent of Dragnet.  Webb's stark, documentary-like portrayal of police work as a job, done well and often without the glamor and intrigue of the mind's eye, made heroes out of the men in blue, investing them with a moral authority that would extend well into the countercultural era of the 70s.

That's not to say that the private eye disappeared from television, however.  From Richard Diamond and Peter Gunn to Remington Steele, The Rockford Files and Magnum, P.I., private detectives were a staple of television drama.  They were rebels, working outside the law (and frequently violating it), carrying an antiestablishment sense of justice with which we could identify - after all, how many times had we been burned by "The Man" in our daily lives?  And yet today they're virtually invisible on television, and those non-police investigators who do show up have a completely different relationship to legal authority than their television progenitors.

For example, shows such as Castle, Psych and The Mentalist feature "consultants" embedded within the police department.*  As consultants, they're free to exercise the kind of outside-the-box thinking that the cops have always been ridiculed as lacking, while still being able to take advantage of the forensic technology of the modern department, and use police muscle to apprehend the criminal.  (They're also free to disregard civil liberties in an even more flagrant, emotionally satisfying way than the police.)  Bored to Death's Jonathan Ames and Burn Notice's Michael Westen are closer to Lord Peter Wimsey and Jessica Fletcher, as unlicensed, "amateur" detectives, than they are to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. 

*There's also Monk, whose protagonist was on leave from the department, but still working as a consultant in conjunction with duly commissioned authorities. 

Private eyes have almost always had a detective on the force, an ally/adversary* who would provide them with a crucial piece of evidence, bail them out of a legal jam, or occasionally save their sorry asses by showing up in the nick of time, just before the criminal's about to blast our hero (and, often, his girlfriend) to kingdom come.  But I'd have to think that Jim Rockford (as well as his detective sidekick Becker) would blanch at the thought of any kind of official relationship between PI and PD.

*I'm told the kids call them frenemies.

Now, I'd always assumed that the private eye had nearly disappeared primarily because forensic technology, as opposed to good old-fashioned legwork, has become the predominant mode of plot advancement in today's procedurals.  Unless you're Sherlock Holmes, as in CBS's reimagining*, you're not apt to have access to that kind of technology on your own. But after reading Stark, and thinking on the cultural role of the procedural, I now wonder if there's even more to it than that. Could it be that the individualism epitomized by the private detective is being discouraged as well?

*Lie to Me's Cal Lightman is a technical wizard as well, perhaps the closest thing to a professional detective we've had in recent years.  Like the PIs of yore, Lightman actually has, you know, clients.

Rockford's no stinkin' cop
Take Stark's description of the pre-Dragnet crimefighter as one who's essentially a rebel, an individualist who goes his own way.  They still exist on TV today, but the difference is they're not on their own.  NCIS' Gibbs, for example, does not play well with authority.  In an earlier era, he would have made a perfect private detective.  But nowadays he'd miss out on Abby's lab work, on McGee's computer wizardry, and on the quirky charm that's made the ensemble cast so lovable to TV viewers.*  Not only isn't TV built for non-technological crimefighters, it's increasingly eliminating the idea of a show built around one central character.  In an era when ensembles rule, the loner that is the traditional private detective is virtually extinct.

*That's sarcasm, in case you were wondering.

Modern society is a strange, schizophrenic thing.  On the one had we hold up certain personal freedoms as if they'd come inscribed on the mountain and carried down by Moses.  On the other, we're constantly told how we have to give up certain other freedoms in the name of safety, security, the public good.  A lone wolf like the private detective challenges the authority of the government (in the person of the police) as the sole arbitrator of right and wrong, the legitimate bearer of the knowledge necessary to make such judgement decisions.  The private detective casts aside the idea that you need certain resources in order to solve certain problems.  He or she suggests that one person can solve problems that those of an elite position cannot solve.

As usual, I don' t want to put too fine a point on this.  After all, the police (at least on cable) are often portrayed as corrupt and/or incompetent. The lone wolf PI is now often a lone wolf sheriff who has to fight against a system rigged against them.  In that sense, the idealistic justice of Dragnet has been replaced by a world-weary cynicism.  And criminals are still glorified, even if they're now anit-heroes.

But still I wonder about how the genre has, if not completely disappeared, at least mutated into something quite different. Is there a social meaning to it, a subtle, perhaps unconscious message behind it?  Hard to say - but not hard to speculate on. 


  1. Hello --

    So glad to have found your site and this commentary. I am a long time fan of the Steven Stark book you reference and a long time fan of the old PI shows.

    I think you are absolutely right when you talk about the cultural shift and the idea of an audience rooting for a PI against a corrupt or inept police force.

    As a screenwriter, I've often thought that a modern day PI show would have to be set in a place like New Orleans that is notorious for corruption, so that the audience could root for the PI unabashedly.

    The late '80s show Remington Steele showed some of the tension around this concept. They had corrupt or inept cops in many episodes, but also took pains to point out that Laura Holt was a "licensed" PI, who had to follow state sanctioned rules. Of course many times she didn't, and faced no repercussions, but it added tension. And in that show the audience had to suspend all kinds of judgment about the legality of the heroes tactics (lying, breaking and entering, stealing) because they were always on the side of the greater good, and always going to get the bad guy before the episode ended.

    As I write, I wonder if the trend towards anti-heroes and ambiguous endings (something Stark and others trace to Hill Street Blues) plays into this phenomenon as well. We get more shades of grey from our police detectives -- they don't always get the bad guy -- they bend rules in pursuit of their own definition of justice. Not sure I have a concise conclusion here -- just raising the question.

    Or perhaps, as Glen Gordon Caron of Moonlighting has said, by the mid to late '80s there was a strong desire to kill the genre from the inside.

    In short, I agree that there has been a cultural shift, but I think it would take a longer conversation to tease out all the factors contributing to the shift.


  2. Great insight, Lynn. I'd like to have that conversation to dig deeper into it as well. I think we can see pressures both from within the industry, and from society at large. Whatever, the PI show is a genre I do miss.

    Thanks for the kind words! I may be contacting you offline with a question re: screenwriting.



Thanks for writing! Drive safely!