overthinking the idiot box

May 2, 2005

In the world of television, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the writers and producers of hour-long crime dramas, and the viewers, who watch said dramas. These are their stories.

Be Careful Out There
The Networks Grimm

by Andreanna Ditton

When Bluebeard leaves his wife alone in the castle, he tells her she can go anywhere, explore to her hearts content with one stipulation. There is one room she must not enter. Overwhelmed by her curiosity, the lady opens the forbidden door soon after Bluebeard leaves only to find the remains of her husband's previous wives. She is horrified, but trapped. Worse, the key that opened the lock is covered indelibly in blood, which will reveal her guilt, betraying her perfidy to her husband, who will surely send her to join his other wives. When he returns, Bluebeard asks if she looked in the room. She denies her actions, but the key to the bloody chamber inevitably gives her away. Bluebeard prepares to commit matricide, but at the last minute, the lady's brothers storm the castle and rescue her. Bluebeard is killed, and the duplicitous wife inherits the castle and the not inconsiderable wealth.

Strip off the fancy dress, set up Bluebeard in a Vegas penthouse, Miami mansion or flat in Manhattan, give the wife some botox and an expensive pair of jeans, the kids prep school clothes and a bad attitude, the dad an overpriced car, and you've got the victims and perpetrators that litter the shows we see every week, every day. There's a twist though, a modern view. Instead of the beautiful princess escaping her fate, she's caught up in it, murdered and left with only those who come to investigate her case, those who aim to vindicate her, or him or them.

Our current cop shows play a dual role: both twenty-first century fairy tale and coda to the happily ever after. Bluebeard is surely the first forensic investigator, using blood as evidence of guilt, even if his motives were far from noble, and his story is surely all about the coda. Blood can be cleaned up, but as all of us have learned, put a little blue light or a little PH tester on it, and blood shines through. Curiosity almost killed the lady of the manor. She discovered the horror her husband was capable of investigating a locked room, finding it covered with blood, with the evidence of his monstrosity. She's both a representative of the new breed of victim and the new breed of investigator, following a trail of organic clues to the heart of a bloody mystery. And these old stories, with their threats and their warnings are mirrored by our new televised obsessions.

Cop shows and police procedurals have become our new morality guides - dark, bloody, grisly words of warning for those willing to pay attention. Which I suppose makes Bruckheimer, Wolf, Scott, et al the Brothers Grimm, the Perrault's and Anderson's of our day. These broadcast the gamut of our daily fears — rape, murder, incest, exploitation, betrayal and the ultimate sins of not heeding advice, of gossip and mistrust and the danger of not taking in old women, of not caring for family. We've been trained — by the endless repetition of incest, of molestation, of every unthinkable crime that Gil Grissom exposes in his lab, that Horatio Caine lowers his sunglasses to glare at — to look ahead towards the horror. And we can't look away.

Law and Order: SVU, with it's focus on cases that involve children or victims of sexual trauma is a particular purveyor of the new fairy tale. The venal nature of most of these criminals — the teenage soccer hero who's really a child murderer, the anthropology professor who murders a young child who's been part of the slave trade, the sibling who inadvertently slept with his sister, the Manhattan teenager who cons the wealthy, cons the cops, kills a child when he's little more than a boy, comes back to commit even more vile crimes — horrifies us, makes us look over our shoulder, look twice at the man walking down the street holding the hand of the little girl. They make us look twice at everything, bombarding us with the worst of possibilities. Make no mistake, these are stories of warning. They are meant to scare us, warn us of the dangers of sexuality and trust, of greed and commerce and politics, of being blinded by beauty, seduced by ambition, of giving in to the worst of our urges.

The difference between these stories and the old tales lie in the protagonists. The heroes and heroines are the ones who expose the sins, not those sinned against. The CSI's, the cops and lawyers, the psychics and mathematicians and visionaries have become the protagonists of the tales, the ones who get their hands dirty, who bloody their skin clawing out evidence — physical, psychological, and emotional — that will, if not save the victim, return these lost voices to the fray, offering up some sort of justice.

From my personal vantage point, I see The X-Files as being a precursor of this in the way that the story acted as the ultimate set of mixed message warnings and fairy tale archetypes. Mulder was both Chicken Little and Cassandra. Just because no one believed him didn't mean the sky wasn't falling. Dana Scully was the princess, the constant companion who went East of the Stars and West of Reality to save the prince, and more importantly to save humanity. The show explored the fairy tale hero/heroine as one who seeks, one who undertakes a journey, and also as one who acts on this journey as part of the law enforcement establishment. Our current cop shows draw as much from the quixotic paranoia of The X-Files as they do from any of their procedural forebearers.

Fairy tales, the real fairy tales, are full of humanity's basest nature. They are tales of rage and warning, tales told to haunt both adults and children. The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood has a happy ending — if you count getting married and knocked up at sixteen and living in the middle of nowhere a happy ending - but along the way it's about the dangers of sexual awakening and the devouring of innocence. The prince's mother wants to eat his children. Thwarted, she throws herself into a vat of serpents, toads and vipers out of spiteful rage when she finds out she's eaten lamb and kid instead of plump child. It's maternal involvement gone horribly wrong, mother in law as literal ogre, feeding off the desires of her child.

Cinderella's stepsisters cut off parts of their feet in order to win the prince, epitomes of jealousy and rage and desperation for their proper place in society. Again, it's a them we see played on in numerous procedurals — wealthy children committing desperate, heinous acts in order to maintain status. Donkeyskin is the story of a princess who is forced to flee from her father, who seeks to marry her. It's a story that sets the stage for incest and rape, for the way that power corrupts and warps the minds of the powerful. And Beauty and the Beast is the story of marriage, manipulation, the dangers of not listening to one's husband, the danger of not trusting one's instincts. Over and over, we see the L&O investigators pleading with the spouses of victims, asking for access to their personal information, working to convince these wives or husbands that no matter how well you think you know someone, there are always secrets, always hidden things.

The thing about fairy tales is that they're not simple allegories or just warnings, they're also showcases of possibility. Be careful who you trust, who you snub, who you marry. Be careful to ask the right questions, to not let curiosity rule your actions, not to be ruled by ambition instead of good judgment. Princes and princesses combat difficult odds in order to come out ahead, to find justice despite the circumstances they find themselves in. These days, no one wants to be a princess, end up as an Internet joke or last year's reality TV face, a name without a persona. Okay, maybe that's not true, maybe that's as much of an ambition as living in a castle with a hottie hairless prince and haute hairless dog, but regardless, the princess in the tower thing doesn't work out well nine times out of ten. Rapunzel had to grow her hair out the window, and ended up pregnant with twins as her prince wandered blind through the desert. Bleach blond wives often discover affairs after their spouse is murdered, find out about money spent, and services rendered and desperate acts that they may have helped to foster. The trade-off for sex is pain and punishment, both for Rapunzel and the underage, overly mature young women who end up victimized on Law and Order and CSI. These girls, much like their princess counterparts, are archetypes, as are their saviors. We're not required to know much more about these royal figures aside from their beauty and cleverness, their bravery and their ability to draw conclusions and follow instruction from either fairy godmothers or wise old women. This variety of procedural is about the warning, about the dark aspects of our societies and our personalities. It justifies police officers who have a life, but just enough of one to pull us in, to identify a name and a background with their pretty faces. We don't want our heroes to be unique. We need them to be archetypal, need to be able to slot our own psyches in behind their careful faces in order to guarantee that we'll end up the compassionate, competent investigator, not the dead girl in the alley.

What's particularly interesting to me is that in these new fairy tales, we've accepted the horrors: the crimes committed against children, the petty jealousies that lead to terrible betrayals, the way theft and lying and cheating on one's partner or spouse is a part of the norm, the jaded nature of the heroes, the jaded nature of the material. On the other hand, despite the relatively faceless nature of the detectives, they are undoubtedly the saviors. Even when faced with ambiguities that very few original fairy tales bothered to address — such as why it's okay to steal things from people just to serve one's own needs, or why it's okay to kill ogres and dragons and monsters just because they don't happen to share your world view — the heroes of our TV fairy tales follow through, are proactive about solutions, about balance and sin and what's right and wrong. They think about the complexities of a situation, and deal in irony and absurdity as often as they deal in evil. They help to show that even fairy tales aren't clean cut when they deal with human beings.

Email the author.

Return to Vol. 1, Episode 3.