Watching To My Heart’s Contempt

My earliest and most enduring strategy for riding out the pandemic was marathoning procedural crime shows. It wasn’t until almost a year and a half later that I would begin to question why I was doing it and what it was doing to me (other than making all of my dreams about murder).

For example, I keep having this one dream about a guy who is hot on the heels of a serial killer, but then realizes he’s going to be murdered before he is able to assemble the final pieces of the puzzle. He’s sitting in the nearly empty police station (because everyone went home hours ago) with the notes spread out in front of him on the desk. There’s an epiphany, and then the realization that he’s too late. The killer is already in the room, waiting to emerge from some dark, silent corner of the room. Sometimes in the dream I’ve arrived to find his body there and am trying to understand what happened. Sometimes I’m the guy with a bullet-hole in his head.

I rang in the first mandated lockdown in March of 2020 with a lot of CSI and didn’t stop. I watched every single episode of that show and a few of the spinoffs. Criminal Minds wore thin after a few too many “in the nick of time” moments — even so, I made it deep into Season 6. I dabbled in Law & Order, which seemed to hit all of the same nostalgic notes as my childhood favorite, Murder She Wrote. The Wire and True Detective were great, but couldn’t match the pace I wanted (one solved crime/episode). Psych, Monk, and Castle and a variety of other oddball-consultant-to-the-police-force shows were too sanguine and silly for my taste. Bones was basically Friends but with… well… bones. Agatha Christia’s Poirot, which I remembered first watching on a small black and white television in the mid-90s, was predictably excellent on rewatch. NCIS, on the other hand, was enjoyable specifically because of how bad it was.

The crime show itself is not new, of course. The trend could be traced back to radio serials, but began on television as early as 1949 with a CBS show called Man Against Crime. I watched a few episodes of this show as well. Mike Barnett is a well-dressed PI who solves crimes without doing much actual investigation or observation. He benefits a great deal from bad guys who love a good soliloquy. The rest of the show is saturated with campy humor and puns.

“I can see you’re a businessman. Are you in oil?” one character asks.

“No. I’m mostly in hot water,” Mike responds.

The plot isn’t generally what we’ve come to expect from a crime drama (it doesn’t start with a body and follow a familiar pattern from there). Detective Barnett’s noire-like narration handles the exposition, of which there is entirely too much. Any significant action seems to happen off camera or not at all. In one scene, Mike Barnett stands at a window and says “Oh. I don’t believe it — don’t believe my eyes. It must be a mirage. Look over there. They’re robbing the train on horseback.”

The lack of exclamation marks in my transcription is no accident. His delivery is so deadpan that I can’t imagine anything being “over there,” let alone an armed robbery.

But we don’t watch this sort of show for the acting gravitas. In fact, when an actor is able to achieve something profound in a role — Mahershala Ali in Season 3 of True Detective, for example — I find myself not wanting to think of the show as a crime show at all. There is a place for this sort of thing, but it’s crime-adjacent at best. In a way, I almost want the performances to be bad.

This perhaps, is the most pronounced quality of an excellent crime show: it is a preposterous fiction, but pretends it is not. There is no laugh track or studio audience, but it doesn’t flinch to suggest that a jovial, elderly fiction writer from Cabot Cove just happens to have been a material witness in almost 300 murders. I’m not sure what to make of shows that want to make me feel afraid, but then shows me Supervisory Special Agent Gibbs stopping a hacker by unplugging a computer monitor.

This tenuous relationship with reality is only weakened (and deliciously so) by the unexpected appearance of some celebrity in a poorly acted role. On sheer abundance of cameos, it’s difficult to beat Murder She Wrote. George Clooney, Courtney Cox, Joaquin Phoenix all appeared on the show as Jessica Fletcher’s not-too-distant relatives (as did, oddly enough, Angela Lansbury herself). LeVar Burton was an aspiring newspaper writer in one episode that also featured Adam West, Ernest Borgnine, and Jerry Orbach. Joseph Gordon-Levitt appeared on the show, but his non-speaking background cameo (as “Boy #1”) only qualifies by technicality.

Both Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift ended up murdered or killed on the show CSI (John Mayer also appeared, but as John Mayer, so it doesn’t count). There seemed to be a thing with duos. Rainn Wilson and John Krasinski (The Office), Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine (Star Trek), Michael B. Jordan and Jeremy Renner (The Avengers), and Lisa Rinna and Kyle Richards (Real Housewives of Beverly Hills) all made appearances. Liev Schreiber’s multi-episode arc showed promise but would have turned the show into something it was not meant to be (it was serious introspective work about a dirty cop’s inability to escape his own guilt). I should probably ask myself why, other than confirming that Rainn is spelled with two Ns, I don’t have to google any of this.

I’m not unique in my love for these shows. What I’m calling “crime shows” made up almost 25% of all scripted shows on network TV in the 2019–20 season. The two longest-running dramas currently on the air (Law & Order: SVU and NCIS) are both crime shows, as were seven of the 15 most-watched scripted series last year. This doesn’t include carriers like Netflix, whose view numbers are a proprietary secret. Their heavy financial investment into crime (and crime-adjacent) shows, however, is not.

The last time the Top 5 shows on television did not include a crime procedural was over a decade ago. In May of 2001 Law & Order was only the 6th most popular show on television. The last time there wasn’t a crime show in the top 30 was April of 1966, when shows like Walt Disney’s World of Color and westerns like The Virginian dominated the airwaves.

For much longer than I have been alive, the flavor du jour has been solving crimes. But just wait. It gets worse.

These shows are so prevalent and so pupular and so ubiquitous that they have fundamentally changed what we believe an investigation is and what policing should be. HBO’s Last Week Tonight dedicated almost a full 20 minutes to exploring forensics evidence and what we have come to expect from it. Academics have researched an impact on jurors called “The CSI Effect,” which has artificially raised the standard of proof for prosecutors. A juror who has seen an investigator recreate the sound of a room by using a super computer to analyze the movements of leaves in a video feed (CSI Season 15 Episode 18), might not be as impressed with silly fingerprints or eyewitness accounts.

OK. The algorithm that watches leaves and produces an audio recording might be a stretch for dramatic effect, but jurors do expect forensic evidence to be much more plentiful and scientifically accurate because they’ve seen it on TV. They are also more likely to aquit when they don’t see it. John Alldredge, a PhD candidate at San Jose State University, wrote his graduate thesis on the CSI Effect and argued the bias is so prevalent that “Do you enjoy crime shows?” might be useful as a juror screening question.

I would never make it onto such a jury.

Crime shows may represent a distorted reality, but is it any wonder then that I sought them out in the pandemic year? Marriage Story, Moonlight, and Call Me by Your Name were all in my queue in March of 2020, but as serious films that ask serious questions, they’ve remained there, unwatched. In my “real life,” I was suddenly trying to understand, for example, what it meant when the consequences an individual’s choice (about masks and vaccines) landed paradoxically on the community, and whether or not and how the community could morally excise that individual. Or wasn’t the purpose of the community inclusion? I just knew that I didn’t need a show or movie that was going to pull me deeper down that rabbit hole.

I preferred simpler questions. I wanted to ask and understand, for example, why there was rock salt residue in in the trunk of the abandoned car, or who stood to benefit financially from the death of this traveling salesman.

Having said all of this, I wouldn’t consider myself someone who watches a lot of television. According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day (other studies have suggested that during the pandemic, this number went up to as high as 5.5 hours/day). I didn’t keep a calendar or some sort of watching journal, so I don’t know how long it took me to watch every episode of the CSI from start to finish, but at that 4 hour/day pace, I could have finished all 337 episodes of CSI in just 63 days. To put that in COVID timeline terms, this would be some time after Gal Gadot sang “Imagine” and just before the State Department Inspector General got fired for pursuing an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s $8B arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

You missed that headline? It’s OK. There were a lot of more pressing things to worry about at the time and Netflix kept asking if we were still watching. Yes of course we’re still watching, Netflix.

If I had maintained that 4 hour/day average pace (4 hours is long enough to encounter the Netflix prompt at least twice, by the way), I could now be starting the 139th season of CSI. About three weeks ago, I would have watched a crime scene investigator stand above a corpse for the 3,000th time. Dr. Glenn Sparks, a Purdue University journalism professor who studies the effects of media violence, has suggested that watching these sorts of shows “can leave ‘lingering fear’ that can cause sleep disturbances and other problems.” It’s no wonder that my dreams have become so violent.

None of this is a surpise to me. I’m not even necessarily upset when I wake up in a cold sweat. If I try and eat an entire ice cream cone all at once, I can’t be upset at the ice cream cone when I get brain freeze. I know it’s my fault. But ice cream is delicious. And so is solving crime.

The particular “deliciousness” of a crime show is something I’ve thought about a great deal. There’s a neuroscience element to it, which I’ll get into eventually, but there’s a more fundamental philosophical pull as well. I don’t mean to be reductive or simplistic when I say this, but I think the pull of a crime shows is that they solve death. The assembly of clues and a murderer in cuffs means that we can understand this particular death and find some resolution for it. These two things, understanding and resolution, do not seem to readily accompany death out here in the real world. There certainly was a complete lack of understanding and resolution when it came to the Coronavirus.

Criminal Minds played this angle particularly heavily, especially in the earliest seasons. It wanted to be a show that told us more about what it meant to be human and trying to make meaning out of death and whether or not solving a murder would lessen the sting of loss and so on. In the early seasons, you can almost feel the writers trying so hard to be more than just another crime show.

Does understanding murder bring us into the light? Or does it drag us further into darkness. I don’t know, Criminal Minds. I’m just here to see you build the profile.

Jason Gideon (played by Mandy Patinkin) used to mark the show’s denouement with a voice over, reciting one quotation or another. At the end of the pilot, having successfully profiled the unsub, but having so far failed to find him, Gideon pulls over at a rural gas station. “Nietzsche once said,” he starts, “‘When you look long into the abyss, the abyss looks into you.’”

Gideon heads inside the small store to pay for his gas. As he slides some cash across the counter, he makes eye contact with the store’s lone employee. The man speaks with a stutter — part of the profile — and we understand now that Gideon has, by pure coincidence, ended up face to face with the killer he’s been hunting. They both stare at each other. Looking into the abyss, indeed. A cliffhanger leads us into episode 2.

The full quotation is from Nietzsche’s Jenseits von Gut und Böse (or Beyond Good and Evil) and begins with a much more blunt observation: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.”

Criminal Minds is entangled in a never-ending struggle with this concept. On a superficial level, characters wrestle with the fact that they have to put themselves into the mind of a killer to catch one. One character struggles with having to use his weapon to kill a killer. On a deeper level, the show doesn’t know how to take the formula of a crime show without becoming formulaic itself.

Jason Gideon spends just two short seasons struggling with the ways in which he is becoming the monster before leaving the Behavioral Analysis Unit suddenly, breaking his gaze with the abyss and thereby, we hope, saving himself.

Patinkin has not minced words about the exit, saying the show was “the biggest public mistake I ever made […] It was very destructive to my soul and my personality.” As far as he was concerned, the show itself had become the monster.

I disagree on the show being a mistake, and I’m sorry that he feels it was damaging. Patinkin acted the hell out of that role even when the script didn’t give him much. I understand where he’s coming from, though. He didn’t care for the violence and couldn’t seem to see past it for anything else the show was doing or trying to do. Regarding the genre as a whole, Patinkin would later say “This isn’t what you need to be dreaming about.”

It’s just as easy to imagine Jason Gideon saying these words as it is Mandy Patinkin — and so I wonder where one ends and the other begins. There is, of course, this tenuous and odd relationship between the reality of the show (“their world”) and reality itself (“ours”). The same laws seem to exist, as do the same cities and neighborhoods. We share trends and subcultures and popular music. Their world has a John Mayer and so does ours, for example. Now and then a news story will even cross over. To pick just one, CSI’s Season 6 Episode 4 seemed to have been lifted directly from news articles about the UFO cult Heaven’s Gate.

If these shows seem to so readily dance across the arbitrary lines we want to draw between “their world” and “ours”, it should be no surprise that the shows themselves sometimes weave into each other. Jessica Fletcher (Murder She Wrote) once cleared Thomas Magnum’s (Magnum PI) name when he was accused of murder. For what it’s worth, Jessica Walter’s performance as the femme fatale in those two episodes is outstanding.

The John Munch character portrayed by Richard Belzer on Law & Order began on Homicide: Life on the Street and has since crossed over into everything from X-Files to The Wire and Sesame Street, where he appeared as a green muppet with the signature silver hair and sunglasses in a short called “Law & Order: Special Letters Unit.” The letter M had gone missing and Munch was fooled by the letter’s simple disguise — a mustache.

Season 2 Episode 22 of CSI is a crossover episode between CSI and CSI: Miami. The latter would eventually become the most popular television show in the world. For all of the intrigue and interest about Lost and Desperate Housewives, there were still more people watching CSI: Miami in 2006. In fact, it wasn’t even close. I prefer the original series, but as the central figure of Miami, Horatio Caine is far more interesting than the enigmatic, socially inept Gil Grissom whose personality does not extend beyond his encyclopedic knowledge of bugs.

In the crossover episode, “Cross Jurisdictions”, Caine is chasing a serial killer and discovers a car that has been dumped into a canal. Officers tow it out of the water and open the back door. Water sloshes out and suddenly we can see there is something more in the car. A woman, duct tape over her mouth, is in the back seat. She falls lifelessly toward the opening. She isn’t wearing much.

“Is that her?” Caine asks.

“Yeah,” says CSI Willows from Las Vegas.

Caine walks away, clearly disturbed by the scene. He takes off his sunglasses and stares at nothing, then says with all the conviction of PI Mike Barnett watching an armed robbery unfold, “Our killer is still in the wind, people.”

The scene itself is only memorable to me because the woman in the car is distinctly and obviously very much alive. For the short moment that she appears on screen, her bare stomach rises and falls. It is unmistakeable. She is breathing.

One of the reasons I think about this scene is that it immediately reveals the complete artifice of the entire endeavor. One minute we’re investigating a murderer. The next, these are not crime scene investigators and these are not police officers and these are not murdered bodies. It’s just a group of actors on a set in front of cameras.

The breathing corpse is on par with another favorite moment of mine from Season 6, Episode 4 (the aforementioned Heaven’s Gate episode), in which Gil Grissom holds up a crow bar, looks at it very carefully, and says the words “Like this tire iron.”

I’m not sure what to call it when this happens. It’s not just an inaccuracy or a mistake in the script. The world of the show crumbles. It is broken.

For what it’s worth, no show has ever broken for me in the absurdity of an investigation or bad dialogue. It didn’t break once in all the times I watched pixellated photos be magically rendered into full HD. It didn’t break when a murder arrest hinged on someone having not looked very hard for coffee cups. It didn’t break whenever we investigated a scene with flashlights instead of simply turning on the lights. Hell. It didn’t even break when a record stylus was placed on the side of a clay pot that had been spinning on a potter’s wheel when the killer confessed. Somehow, the vibrations of the voice made their way into the clay and then were recovered and played back (and probably enhanced several times), and my faith never faltered.

The show doesn’t break because I don’t want it to break.

There is, of course, a scientific explanation to all of this. Neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti first identified a type of neuron in the early 90s called the “mirror neuron.” Essentially, if we are watching an activity, the mirror neurons replicate the brain activity in our own minds. It was first discovered in brain scans of monkeys reaching for peanuts (and anticipating the taste of a peanut) and monkeys watching another monkey reach for a peanut. At its core, mirror neurons give us a the same genuine emotional experience as the person we are watching. As far as my brain is concerned, when Gil Grissom solves a crime, so do I.

When the investigator’s hunch pans out, or when the lab results come in, and when we get a new lead, my dopamine production increases. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps us develop the ability to plan and think ahead, but also delivers a sense of reward and motivation. A similar dopamine release is found in individuals who watch sports when their team wins. But unlike those viewers, who have no control over the outcome and whose brains also release cortisol (a neurochemical that creates a stress response), my watching CSI is unfettered by a concern about whether or not we’ll eventually catch the bad guy.

I don’t understand much about brain science and shouldn’t be taken as the final word on any of this, but I’d like to think that I’d watch even without the dopamine. To me, these shows are strangely hopeful. They’re about finding predictability and meaning and answers in a world that often provides none of these.

In Season 15 Episode 18, CSI Nick Stokes, a character who has been with the show since its first episode, stands in front of a large board that records the assignments. Each CSI is assigned a series of crimes. There is a “Floater” assigned to Greg and a “Missing Person” assigned to Morgan. CSI Finlay, it seems, has had a successful night. A home invasion, robbery, and assault assignment under her name are all covered with a large magnet with the word SOLVED in bright red letters.

We’ve never seen the board before, and it is, for a brief moment, strikingly out of place in the otherwise familiar and dark mise-en-scène of the night shift’s crime lab. Nick stands in front of the board and pauses. He’s just solved the Gig Harbor Killer case. “I lived” by OneRepublic is playing. It’s a terrible song that doesn’t seem to fit the moment at all, but still manages not to spoil it. We are treated to a series of scenes from the past 15 seasons of Nick following the evidence, catching the bad guys, and escaping sometimes by the narrowest of margins. Finally, we return to Nick at the board. He slowly lifts a “solved” magnet and then places it over his own name. He smiles, turns on his heels, and leaves the show.

This is my favorite moment in any series I’ve seen so far. It is ridiculous and saccharine, but the perfect encapsulation of why, in spite of all of its flaws, I still love crime shows. If I keep watching, I just might solve myself.

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Johnny Huscher

Johnny Huscher

Johnny is a writer from Sacramento, CA. He tries not to break things. Sometimes that’s the best he can do.