I’m not sure how it happened exactly, but over the last few years I have grown fond of several US crime dramas. I’m not entirely sure why I’ve grown to like them a great deal, but we’re going to find out. Let’s break out the whiteboard and draw a timeline or something.
Dexter started it
I’m not going to judge how the Showtime series ended (badly, if you must know), but in its early days Dexter was a pretty darn intriguing affair. Adapted from a series of novels, it went for making the audience identify with a dangerous serial killer who tried to only kill other murderers. There was plenty of crime in the show, but as Dexter (Michael C. Hall) repeatedly points out in it, he’s not a cop, he just works for them.
I managed to watch the first season of the show on ITV 1, late at night, before it was cruelly snatched away by Sky and I had to resort to collecting boxsets of DVDs. But I kept coming back to it, even though it was a ridiculous mess by the time it lurched into its final season. I think it was how convoluted that series got that made me adapt a high tolerance level for ridiculousness when it comes to crime dramas. After all, I’ve managed to get through Moffat’s stab at Sherlock.
And then I was hypnotised
The thing that sets Dexter apart from a lot of other crime series is that it’s not entirely predictable. It’s set-up after part way through the first season becomes less and less formulaic. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy procedural style shows, quite the opposite, the unpredictability of Dexter ended up making me search for shows that were more predictable, but still not so directly about police officers, more about outsiders who become involved with the police or other law enforcement agencies.
One day, when I was off sick from work and laid out on my sofa with a bowl not far from my head, I had one of the Channel 5s on my TV and had noticed that The Mentalist would be on in a minute. I’d never watched the show before and as I found out they were showing it right back at the beginning of season one. It was the pilot and I was entranced the moment Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) started doing all his mentalist stuff and generally playing mind games with everyone. Afterwards, I decided to hunt the boxset down cheap (I ended up with a boxset of the first three seasons), because it was going to be impractical to keep up with the ever shifting daytime schedule of the channel.
In amongst burning my way through the investigations led by Lisbon and her team and helped by Jane, I would try catching the odd episode of something like CSI or Law and Order, but found that they didn’t really catch my attention. What Dexter and The Mentalist provided was not only a study of crime, but something a bit more personal.
Shows about people
The crime procedural drama is a very popular subgenre and comes with a lot of its own tropes. The thing that connected Dexter, The Mentalist and then the two other shows I would watch on Netflix after my boxset ran out (Castle and Numb3rs) is that as well as having crimes investigated over the course of episodes, there was a lot of screen time devoted to looking at how the characters fared as people. Their personal lives were always there to some degree, bubbling along and showing that it wasn’t just the work the characters did that shaped them.
I enjoyed that these series were about people, not just about the crimes they investigated. Now that I’ve started looking for more series to watch while I knit (Castle only has the first two seasons on UK Netflix and they really need to do something about this), I started watching Chicago P.D. and finding that there’s a reasonable level of personal relationships on show, but there’s still something missing, and it’s not just because there’s no oddballs.
Now, I’m not saying these are the only US shows that take this approach, but with series like The Mentalist, Castle and Numb3rs you not only have the crimes and the personal relationships, you also get a healthy dose of humour, just goofy moments that help to decrease the dramatic tension every now and then. Be it characters or events, these shows tend to not be 100% about the crap that’s going down and not in a token way like I sometimes find Abby is used in NCIS.
Of course I still want to watch shows that are about crimes and mysteries being investigated, but I definitely prefer watching series that are more people focused, have an oddball in the mix, and have a sense of humour where appropriate.