“In everyday life, ‘if’ is a fiction, in the theatre ‘if’ is an experiment. In everyday life, ‘if’ is an evasion, in the theatre ‘if’ is the truth.” — Peter Brook, The Empty Space
For some time now, I’ve harbored a (slightly) guilty pleasure: the television shows NCIS and CSI, in all their permutations. Some are more compelling to me than others; I could live without NCIS: Los Angeles and CSI: Miami, but I think my preference stems largely from a disinterest in those two cities (at least as they’re portrayed on television), elements of which are central to both shows. In truth, though, I watch them all without much discernment, and I’d probably watch several others if there were enough time in my already burdened week. (My wife and I are also watching our way through the Agatha Christie/Hercule Poirot mysteries, though not at a blistering pace.) Criminal Minds, for example, looks good to me.
What I enjoy about all of the shows I’ve listed is what I’ll call the core value of the modern cop show: that the careful application of science and reason, fueled by willpower, can dissolve deception, eliminate mystery, and reveal the truth. I’m sure there are cop shows that don’t share that same value — I can’t think of any, but they must exist — but it pervades the programs with which I’m most familiar… as well as my own secular humanist belief system.
Cop shows weren’t always like this. For a good long while, particularly in the 80s and 90s, they seemed to have the sole purpose of convincing viewers that nobody’s all good or all bad: the heroes did very bad things, sometimes, and the villains often behaved in oddly ethical ways. Think about Hill Street Blues, for example, or Homicide: Life on the Street. It became quite difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys, which is perhaps as it should be. Now that the last of these great programs — I’m speaking, of course, of The Wire — has been gone for several years, we’re left with a new breed of show, one in which the line between protagonist and antagonist, while not as crystal clear as it was in the days of Dragnet and Starsky & Hutch, has largely been reasserted, and it falls to the reasoned examination of carefully-gathered evidence to determine which side of that line a character belongs on.
What is it about this notion that compels us so strongly? (Of the top ten programs in a randomly-selected week of Nielsen ratings from late 2010, three were cop shows of the variety I’ve been discussing.) I believe it’s because no matter what opinions we hold, we all believe that if only we had the time and wherewithal to collect and process evidence, science would bear us out. (Sadly, given how much we all disagree about, only some of us can be right.) I also think we are perhaps beginning to accept the general notion that science is the most effective arbiter of truth we have, and perhaps the only one. Yes, of course, many people still struggle to accept that notion, but it gains greater and greater traction as the decades and centuries pass… and widespread recognition is, I should like to believe, inevitable.
I am thinking now of a recently-ended series that exemplified this transition. The show was called Numb3rs — note the clever play in the lettering of the title — and it featured a pair of Jewish brothers, one an agnostic detective with a sincere desire to believe in God and one an atheist scientist, working together to solve crimes, their intellectual and emotional disputes arbitrated by their no-nonsense father. This was by far my favorite of the recent-vintage cop shows. It used the mechanism of crime-solving not only to assert the dominance of scientific methodology, but to investigate universal human questions. And what else, after all, should any of us be doing?
I do harbor one reservation about this new breed of show — which isn’t really very new, honestly, given that its roots are as old as the detective genre itself. (In fact, I could make a real case that the modern medical dramas rely on essentially the same core value.) My concern is that the methodologies employed by the cop/scientists — the DNA sampling, the fingerprints-lifted-from-bizarre-places, the ability to hack into just about any database that needs hacking in under 30 seconds — are themselves pure fiction. Well, it’s not that the methods in question don’t exist, it’s that no ordinary crime lab really has the ability to call upon them all at a moment’s notice, over and over again. If they did, we’d have a much different (and much more crime-free) world.
Inasmuch as the stories we tell are like wishes cast out into the future — things we would like to be true, even if they aren’t quite there yet, and offered as hoped-for visions of what’s possible — I believe that the cop shows I love are indicative of where we’re going as a country: toward a world in which we value evidence, where we hold the purveyors of reason and experimentation up as role models, rather than the anti-intellectual, religiously dogmatic criminals so many of us admire now. I hope I’m right.