overthinking the idiot box

February 13, 2006

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
Crime Across the Pond

by Andreanna Ditton

Let me start with a caveat: I am not by any stretch of the imagination an expert on British crime drama. I am, for one, not British and for two, not in possession of BBC America. Hell, we have enough trouble maintaining our basic cable. Adelphia would NEVER trust us with an upgrade. That being said, I have watched a hell of a lot of MYSTERY, so weÕll let that stand in for my expertise.

So, let's jump to the ultimate question. Do the Brits do it better? When Prime Suspect aired in 1991 on Masterpiece Theater it was an absolute phenomenon. Not only did it completely eradicate the pleasant Who Dunnit formula of little old ladies or strangely accented men putting together bloodless clues and catching the killer with a mix of wits and strong black tea, but it offered up a lead character who was bright, ambitious, ruthless and inexplicably, female. DCI Jane Tennison (the fabulous Helen Mirren) was an anomaly, as was the drama. It presented the absolutely draining search for a killer by a dedicated police force, but it also showcased both the glass ceiling and the sexual dynamics that had kept women from rising through the ranks of Scotland Yard. Not only did it show a new brand of police work, it gave an honest representation of how hard it was to be an ambitious professional woman in a profession dominated by men. Tennison wasn't particularly pretty, and the show was filmed with a deliberately realistic texture to emphasize that. No one was particularly pretty. Or thin. Or all that nice, at least on first glance. The crime was as ugly as the suit Tennison spent most of her time in.

Prime Suspect continued through six different series, each one showing Tennison negotiating relationships (mostly unsuccessfully), her career (mostly successfully), and the brutality of the crimes facing modern day Brits. She wasn't a stereotype — the loner with toned arms and a fabulous ass facing off against the police, female only by virtue of her breasts and the fact that she wanted to sleep with men. Her relationships didn't fail because she was a bitter alcoholic, her relationships failed because she was an ambitious woman doing a job that most people (male or female) would have trouble accepting. And Tennison was very, very good at her job — policing and politicking both.

They're pretty enough that I'd even let them play with the remote — and no that's not a euphemism. The remote is a highly valued commodity in this house!! I wouldn't make that offer to just anyone.

A variety of shows took advantage of the groundwork laid by Prime SuspectCracker, Touching Evil, Wire in the Blood, and Second Sight to name a few. In addition to featuring some very, very pretty men (yes, both Clive Owen and Robson Green would be welcome to come and lounge on my couch with the cats. They're pretty enough that I'd even let them play with the remote — and no that's not a euphemism. The remote is a highly valued commodity in this house!! I wouldn't make that offer to just anyone. Sorry, where was I?) Oh, right. In addition to the pretty, these series had equally gritty, and equally horrific crimes on par with any of our current crop of crime dramas — murder, mutilation, torture, child abuse, they cover it all. The shows also feature, to one degree or another, a focus on the psychological twists that made Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes household names, but amped up for a modern audience dealing with modern crimes. Criminals and detectives both have frayed psyches, questionable morals.

Now, here's where the comparison comes in. I don't think that the mysteries are better per se. CSI is still a choose your own adventure of newspaper headlines and fucked up psychology (hey if Rolling Stone can use that word, so can I. Liz, I'll totally pay the FCC fine, you so know I'm good for it! [We're not supposed to curse on the internet now? Shit. -Liz]). Law and Order's got itss turn the news on its head thing going on, and I distinctly remember mentioning the snakes in people's bodies from Criminal Minds, much as I've sought to erase that from my non-criminal mind. The British Cop Show crimes are equally grisly, equally exploitive of the audience's desire to be scared, to be disturbed — but when you're starting off as a culture with Jack the Ripper, there's really nowhere to go but bloody. But in the execution lies the difference.

Touching Evil a relatively standard genre thriller about a loner detective with a mind for crime, rises above its genre's stereotypes by the quietly nuanced performances of Nicola Walker and Robson Green. More to the point, there's an emphasis on character that allows the audience to care about the detectives as individuals, no matter how much of a stereotype they may have started out as. The show also gives an explanation for Creegan's quiet brooding — getting shot in the head and dying just to be brought back and become suicidal tends to make even the happiest guy anti-social.

Second Sight (Clive Owen and Claire Skinner) also showcases a talented loner, with the added benefit of having him slowly lose his vision and be forced to learn how to function as a detective while keeping his infirmity from his superiors with the help of a fellow detective. The set ups allow the two main detectives to brood, to long, to solve crime, to enact every genre convention developed over last 20 years on both side of the pond and yet we still believe in their abilities. We buy them because... well, in part, we buy it because theyÕre British. Because the entire production process sells us on the plausibility of their actions in a way that American shows no longer try to enact. And well, everything just sounds less ridiculous in British, doesn't it? Quiet expressions of concern? Talking down the killer? Don't you just buy it more when it's got a rise and a lilt? When there's no R in existence? Or is it that everyone just looks more real?

Is it easier to solve crime when you look like the people who really do?

I can't imagine anyone who looks like Mariska Hargitay deciding to be a sex crimes detective? And while Richard Belzer and Ice-T are not exactly the world's most handsome men, they are physically commanding. (I love you for your flaws boys!! I do!! Don't abandon me). Their physical presence is an important element in their L& O universe, and at the same time, Munch and Finn are not the focus of most episodes. Benson and Stabler are, perfect specimens each to match their counterparts in Vincent D'Onofrio and Chris Noth and Jessie Martin. Most British thrillers give us people who look like us, people we can believe as next door neighbors and serial killers, heroes and pedophiles. And yes, Clive Owen and Robson Green are attractive men, but they're attractive in non-traditional ways. They're attractive because of the lilt in their voices and the looks in their eyes. They look like they could be trouble, not like they're selling men's hair care products. The film quality, the props, the makeup: all of the details sell the concept of these people and these events happening in our midst. Now, I don't know if that effects translates to the audience these series' were designed for, don't know if the British viewing audience is just used to this type of production value, is as used to seeing these people on their screens as we are to seeing Alan Alda or Craig T. Nelson. But for an American audience (or at least this lone representative of the American audience), it feels more like watching a reality unfold than our own cop shows, even when I've recently read about a similar case in the paper(Homicide and Hill Street Blues being the obvious exceptions).

That's not how the American television business works, but I wonder how much more effective the stories we tell might be if we were willing to at least explore this format. It allows the characters to develop, but it also allows the story to spin out in fuller fashion.
The format may also have something to do with the impression of superiority. These particular series are small, contained chunks of story. They have a beginning, middle and end that develops over the course of three or four or five or six hours. The writers and producers are not forced to think up new plotlines and new villains every week. The story itself is key. That's not how the American television business works, but I wonder how much more effective the stories we tell might be if we were willing to at least explore this format. It allows the characters to develop, but it also allows the story to spin out in fuller fashion. I, as a viewer, am far more intrigued by David Creegan's pathology, by the crime he's trying to solve, when I'm not exposed to his quirks for a whole run of 22 episodes, when I have him in short bursts and when I have several hours to follow the mysteries he's trying to unravel instead of 42 minutes.

Touching Evil offers an interesting case study in the American vs. British crime drama by virtue of having been made into an unsuccessful America version that aired on USA. I watched a few of the episodes and I have to say I was more intrigued by the American Creegan than I expected to be. Jeffery Donovan had lovely chemistry with co-star Vera Farmiga, and I happened to see the final episode which was a direct remake of one of the sections of the British version's first series. The American version did a very respectable job with the mystery, with Creegan's doubts and abilities and angst, but the British version still has the advantage of a layer of subtlety that we as American viewers rarely appreciate. Donovan's Creegan would be required to display his neurosis hour after hour in a series of self-contained mysteries. Creegan's quirks had to be the star of the show. Green is able to let a few sly glances, a flash back or two, stand in for his madness. ItÕs a difference in approach, it's also a difference in expectation. I will say that I wish that the American version had caught on because I'd have traded it for Monk anyday. Someone please get Tony Shaloub a movie role!! (And don't tell my mother I said this!! She loves Monk!)

Regardless, I think the main difference between British and American crime drama has more to do with format than content. Despite the "gritty realism" of British crime drama, it's just as titillating, just as interested in pushing psychological buttons as American shows. However, the storytelling form changes and shapes the presentation in an interesting way, boxing up the drama so that the viewers get a complete story stretched out over several episodes, enough time to appreciate the features of the stars, but not so much time that they're ready to switch the channel out of disgust at the formula.

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