February 4, 2015

The crime drama as metaphor

You've probably heard the one about how Cabot Cove, home of Murder, She Wrote's Jessica Fletcher, actually has a higher per-capita murder rate than any other city in the country, or how NCIS's naval murder victims would actually be safer serving in Iraq or Afghanistan than they are stateside.  Added to that is the college town of Oxford in England, home to the Brit dramas Inspector Morse and its sequel, Inspector Lewis.  If the actual murder rate there was anything like what it is on television (and keep in mind there's rarely just a single murder in those episodes; there are usually two or three per story), it would be the most dangerous place in Europe.  But while watching an old episode of Inspector Lewis last week, I came on a theory that suggests there's another way we could view this series, and perhaps others like it.

I say perhaps, because the Morse/Lewis franchise has an elegance about it that is quite unlike any of the procedurals on American television.  It's not just the English atmosphere, although I'll grant you it's a bit different from the mean streets of New York; it's everything from the penetrating music to the essentially tragic nature of its crimes to the quite dignity in which the protagonists go about solving yet another murder.  These are not the arrogant bullies of Law & Order, nor the quirkbots of NCIS, the glib romantics of Castle, the gimmicks of the USA Network's crime fighters, nor any of the rest.  No, they may have the world-weariness of other homicide detectives, but it's combined with a sense that there's still a job that needs to be done, justice that needs to be administered in order to maintain the essential balance of the universe, and the novel idea that civilians are neither automatically the enemy nor automatically guilty.  Solving the crime comes not with a push or two of a computer keyboard, but only after a lot of hard work, conjecture, investigation, and a pinch or two of luck.

It's with this sense of elegant literateness, then, that I propose this theory.  It came about during the latest academic fraud-turned-murder story ("The Lions of Nemea"), and though this time the academic fraud was not also the killer, it did prompt the missus to remark that it's always the same.  "There's just as much dishonesty in academia as there is in politics," she said.  "It always comes back to that, one way or another."  I thought on that for a moment, and then the theory came to me.

"You know," I said, "that explains it.  We're not meant to view Oxford as the murder capital of England.  It's a metaphor for the corruption that's inherent in academic life everywhere."  I spent a while longer mulling this over (after the killer was captured and the final credits had rolled, of course), smoothing out the rough edges, and it still seems plausible.

It's essential, in a series about homicide detectives, that there be a homicide in each episode.*  Unless you're developing an anthology series, you're going to have the same team of investigators each week.  Given the nature of police jurisdiction, it's likely that each case is going to take place in the same approximate geographical area.  So far, so good - I've succeeded only in describing just about every police show ever.

*Unless it's a serial like Broadchurch, which gives us a whole season to think about one.

But, given the aforementioned elegance and intelligent composition of Morse and Lewis*, it doesn't seem far-fetched to add the next layer, that of metaphor.  Specifically to Lewis, there's the suggestion that all institutions of higher learning are corrupt; the only difference being the corruption that becomes public versus that which remains private.  In other words, could you point to any university in the world that as being completely immune from it?  To the extent that crime outside of the university setting occurs in Lewis, the same holds - the crimes of a corrupt institution, whatever it might be, will eventually seep out into the greater community.  Therefore, it's only logical to assume that institutional corruption will in time taint everything into which it comes in contact.

*For my money, Inspector Lewis is the best, and most compelling, crime drama on television, in case I haven't made myself clear.  Right now, though, that's relevant only in the sense that the quality of the series provokes such theorizing.

Further, I'd contend that what we're talking about isn't cynicism, but something quite different. In looking at Oxford as a metaphor, the real point is that while geography changes, while accents and scenic views and all the rest can vary from place to place, what doesn't change is human nature.  Or, more specifically, the corruption of human nature through Original Sin.  No matter how pastoral or how grimy the neighborhood, there's always the fallen nature of man to contend with.  It's what makes good people do bad things, what makes an honest academician fudge the results of a scientific study, what makes a desperate soul see murder as the only way out.  You could do a crime series set in Washington, D.C. and see the government as having much the same effect.*

*I realize this comes close to describing NCIS, with the government and/or the military-industrial complex acting as the corrupting influence, but in this case I think the cynicism would outweigh the metaphor.  Their crimes are less tragic and more evil.

I don't think most of the shows on TV nowadays, either the ones I mentioned earlier, or any of the others, would give this much thought.  It would be implicit that people do bad things, else there'd be no need for the police - but beyond that, I think they're primarily concerned with meeting their annual quota of episodes.  Lewis is as well, but the nature of the stories - what I called the tragedy at the heart of them - suggests more depth, at the very least a subconscious awareness of the situation.  Lewis' superior is surnamed Innocent; could there be any more of a metaphorical name for a chief inspector than that?

The one possible exception to this, the American series that might have understood this, is Murder, She Wrote.  Now, that was a fun series, with a very likable lead (Angela Lansbury) and plots that were entertaining, if not grand mysteries.  But, viewed in the great American tradition of stories about small tows such as Peyton Place, there's at least the possibility that Murder, She Wrote presents us with a look at the seething passions that live just below the surface of small town life.*  Cabot Cove, Maine is no more dangerous than any small town; it's simply a stand-in for all small towns.  They may look tranquil on the outside, but once you've entered the town limits, you see the underbelly for what it is - that is, pretty much like any place where a handful of people try to live under the same community roof.  Watching the show as if it were Anytown, U.S.A. means you don't have to suspend your disbelief quite as much, although there is the question as to just how one person, a grandmotherly type at that, can leave such a wide swath of death in her wake, unless she was a serial killer herself.

*As a movie poster or the back cover of a paperback book might put it.

You can give this as much or as little thought as you want, but to me the most important thing is that shows like Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis or, for that matter, another British police drama called Foyle's War, can cause that kind of contemplation.  At heart there is always a sadness about crime, a sense that when an injustice is committed, the world weeps just a little bit.  Using a crime drama as a metaphor for a fallen world may seem a little extreme, but the show that can even cause one to consider it is the show well worth watching.


  1. May I take this opportunity to strike down one of the Great TV Urban Myths?

    When William Link, Richard Levinson, and Peter Fischer launched Murder, She Wrote, they set a few hard-and-fast rules for the production.
    The one we're concerned with here is this:
    Only five (5) episodes in any given season were to be set in Cabot Cove - no more and no less.
    The rest of the time, Jessica Fletcher was on the road or in New York City, where she started her university class midway through the run (and I think the Rule of 5 held there as well).
    Murder, She Wrote ran for twelve seasons as a weekly series, for a total of 261 episodes.
    Five Cabot Cove shows a year for twelve years comes out to sixty (60) murders in the town over more than a decade (multiples not counted here - I'd have to rewatch the whole series) - OK, that's quite a few, but well short of the slaughterhouse that the joke makes it out to be.

    The rest of your comment - I think you're taking it all just a touch too seriously.
    The Britectives that I've been watching most recently - principally Jonathan Creek, Dalziel & Pascoe, New Tricks - seem to run more in the classical mode, with angst held to a discreet minimum. (Dalziel may be a partial exception to this, at least the ones I've seen.)

    1. Oh, I think you're probably right - but then, when the book you're writing is destined to wind up in the Sociology section rather than TV/Media, it's bound to happen! :)


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!