I have to confess [spontaneously!] that I am a crime procedural junkie. They are my guilty pleasure - I watch them with several large grains of salt and many heaping measures of suspension of disbelief. Even with that my wife will occasionally have to hush me during our viewing as I berate the writers for one of their lazy devices or contrivances to advance the plot or create false drama.
Among these are the “gun scrum” (where the ensemble cast or part of them goes room to room shouting “Clear!” “Clear!” with guns drawn even though nobody has checked any closets, *) the suspect interrogation beat down to confession, the casual serial violation of the fourth amendment, or the crime fighter who can just magically tell when someone is lying.
Hannah Gold outlines some more of how these dramas mess with our perceptions of society, race, crime, how police really work, and how the law and justice systems sometimes fail.
In the United States there is only one kind of show that consistently beats out Sunday night football for ratings: crime dramas.
NCIS, a police procedural about a team of special agents who investigates crimes related to the U.S. Navy, has been the most watched television drama in America for the past five years, and this year it became the most watched in the world. In the 2012-2013 television season, three of the top five most viewed series were crime shows. And fresh procedural blood is being pumped through the airways all the time, from Dick Wolf’s new Chicago PD series to Blue Bloods, which premiered in 2010, and focuses on a family of NYPD officers who literally bear the last name “Reagan.”
Unfortunately, many of these shows do not accurately portray certain aspects of the criminal justice system, and some are downright misleading.
Of course these programs are not documentaries and their purpose is not merely to convey information, but also to entertain. After all, we live in a country that has allowed The Mentalist, a show about a man who helps the California Bureau of Investigation solve crimes by reading minds, to enter its seventh season, and mercifully its last. But a wealth of research, from the ’80s to the early aughts, suggests that all these loose cannon lies can have a significant effect on those who tune in, making them more fearful of crime and more conservative in their views of the criminal justice system. This happens, in large part, because people who make television also want to make a lot of money off riveted viewers, not depressing them with stories of how our justice system actually functions. “The point of these shows is not to inform the citizenry it’s to sell cars and keep people’s attention, so police procedurals are incredibly dramatized,” says Alex Vitale, who teaches Sociology at Brooklyn College.
More: 8 Ways Crime Shows Like Law and Order Mess With Your Head
*over the years the gun scrum and/or SWAT entry has come to replace the car chase as a drama inflator because the gun scrum is much cheaper than a car chase.