Watching the Detectives

(Ooh, he’s so cute)

I am a fan of TV shows about detectives. I watched Columbo, The Rockford Files, and Starsky and Hutch way back in the ’70s, and Law and Order, Special Victims Unit* now.  I’ve wondered what draws people to this type of entertainment. I think that it is because we want to believe that people are essentially good; that they are moral and law-abiding. We hope that most of us behave according to the golden rule. We all know that this is not always the case (sigh) so, when we read or watch a show about crime, we want a champion for good. We want justice and vengeance. We want someone to have our backs.

Here are a few of my recent favorites:

Dexter is a Showtime series based on the character created by Jeffry Lindsay. Dexter works in the forensics department of the Miami Metro Police Department by day, and is a serial killer of serial killers by night. Like Batman, he was “born in blood” – a traumatic event in early childhood made him who he is, and, like Batman again, he has a strict moral code. The events in the first season coincide with the events of Lindsay’s first book Darkly Dreaming Dexter, but after that, the two story lines diverged. Here is a rare case where I like the TV show more than I like the books.  I have to admit that one of the reasons is the strong and charismatic performance of the star Michael C. Hall. John Lithgow is especially brilliant as the main bad guy in the fourth season. If you get really into it, you can read Dexter and philosophy : mind over spatter, a series of essays about the phenomenon that is Dexter.

The strength of a show is a function of a good storyline coupled with good acting. This show has both (IMHO). Luther is a BBC show created and written by Neil Cross, and is about the intuitive, intense, and sometimes violent detective, John Luther. This is a dark and modern spin on Sherlock Holmes himself. Idris Elba is outstanding as Luther, and won the 2012 Golden Globe award for best actor in a miniseries for this role.

A list like this is not complete without homage to the grandfather of all fictional detectives, Sherlock Holmes. The newest BBC sendup has deservingly won a bunch of awards. I really like the little overlay of text or images on the screen showing you what Holmes is thinking. Shockingly, I have never read the original volumes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is on my summer reading list!


*One of the stars of this show, Mariska Hargitay, is a personal hero of mine. Her role as a detective on SVU led her to founding The Joyful Heart Foundation, whose mission is to “heal, educate, and empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse.”


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10 responses to “Watching the Detectives

  1. K. C. Mead

    It’s interesting that you say people like detective stories because of a belief that people are essentially good and then highlight a psychopath and a sociopath as examples. Don’t worry, I enjoy those shows too (especially Sherlock) but you have gotten me thinking now on how readers define and seek out ‘goodness’ within stories.

  2. I fell completely in love with the Sherlock series on BBC. Did you know an American version with Johnny Lee Miller (although British) and Lucy Liu is starting in August? Takes place in NY and will be called Elementary. I’m a little iffy about the idea of a Joan Watson, but looking forward to it all the same.

  3. freedomactionnow

    I rarely watch TV any more, but now and again, just to see what I’ve been missing, I turn it on. And am always disappointed.

    I saw Columbo and The Rockford Files when they came out – and several more that I can’t think of right now. I liked them; they were interesting.

    I’ve seen a few “Monk” episodes (he seems to be a descendant of the Columbo character – except for being his opposite). Monk is way too compulsive-obsessive for me. Can’t stand him.

    Columbo’s “thing” was that he took on high-society crimes, crimes of the rich and often famous. And almost always, the hammer fell when he turned around from leaving the room and said, “Oh – one more question……”.

    Today’s crime shows (at least, the ones I’ve watched) bring in too many sub-plots, too many side stories. “The Closer” is getting married – her parents are in town. And there’s a “Columbo” moment: Columbo solved a case by noticing, when he’s in an airport, seeing a mom tie her kid’s shoes. It’s backwards from when you tie your own. The victim’s shoes were tied backward.

    Skip ahead a few decades to the Closer: The suspect presents, as evidence of her innocence, a hospital bill. Brenda Leigh’s father (her parents are visiting for the upcoming wedding) has a heart attack, goes to the hospital, and complains about “every little aspirin is itemized”. (In reality, not that detailed.) The suspect’s bill was not. Case closed. (It was a forgery.)

    Also, the themes are more vicious, more despicable. Victims aren’t just killed, they’re cut up in little bits and strewn all over the city. Sex and drugs seem to be the primary plot devices. The budgets for bullets, bombs, and blown-up cars must be huge. And there’s nobody (that I’ve seen so far) that I can like, like Columbo and his sidekick, Rockford and his, …

    I liked those shows because the characters were interesting, because it was usually a battle of wits between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys.

    The premise of Dexter completely alienates me (and that’s being diplomatic). Serial killer/torturers as the protagonist? Hardly.

    One thing I do miss is the BBC. Jeremy Britt’s Holmes was excellent – he fit the character to a T, just as Leo McKern fit Rumpole.

    Do, by all means, dip into Conan Doyle’s Holmes. (Robert Downey, Jr’s Holmes was a bit over the top. That movie was really an alternate-universe story, a universe in which Holmes became a martial arts master and weapons expert.) I think “A Study in Scarlet” was the first. That one sets the scene and introduces the characters He also wrote a ton of short stories.

    Once you’ve read a few of those, dip in to the Holmes parody genre. There’s even one in the science-fiction realm (can’t think of the name – it’s been a long time).

    There’s another movie connection:

    They Might be Giants (1971), George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward. Scott plays a retired judge who is delusional in believing that he is in fact, Sherlock Holmes. Early on, he’s sent to a psychiatrist, Mildred, whose last name turns out to be Watson. No plot summary can do justice to this remarkable (though somewhat dated) little move.

    • Joelle

      Thank you for your thoughtful post. I agree that the crimes are so brutal on TV now, but I read the news and they also seem so brutal, maybe not as “spectacular.”

      A fellow librarian told me to not to start with “A Study in Scarlet,” but with the “Adventures” in a compilation of Doyle’s Sherlock. I did start reading it. I have seen so much Holmes stuff in m life, it seems as if I have read it already.

      I will get that movie – I like George C.

      Oh, and one more thing…

  4. lizzy

    Mannix? Barnaby Jones? Cannon? Must have been the era…I wonder why some show up years later as re-runs but not others. I just finished watching The Killing which had mixed reviews but I loved it and thought the ending worked. The two main detectives were as messed up as anybody but the desire for justice (vengeance?) was motivating…

    • Joelle

      My grandmother really liked Mannix and Barnaby Jones. Maybe a little before my time. She was a fan of the genre too.

  5. I love detective series, especially those on Masterpiece Mystery (I also admit a slight addiction to BBC shows). They recently did a prequel to Inspector Morse called Endeavour which was excellent. If you haven’t seen Inspector Morse, I would highly recommend them.

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