Why Are Police Procedural Shows So Popular?

Even though they suck?

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I’m not a big fan of police procedural shows. I barely managed to make it through the first season of NCIS without dying of boredom. Despite attempting to spin a new angle on police procedurals, NCIS fell into the same trap as Criminal Minds, Law & Order, Blue Bloods, and all their variations. The pattern of these shows is always the same:

  • You’ve got a large cast of law-enforcement — usually homicide detectives — working in a big city like LA or NYC. Cliche characters include the bad boy detective who doesn’t play by the rules (but still manages to solve the case), the strong female officer looking to prove herself, and the quirky computer tech full of endless jokes and bubbly energy.
  • Each week, our saintly detectives trudge through homicide investigations far more interesting than anything real-life law enforcement could expect to see. Terrorist attacks and serial killers are just another Monday.
  • The first person they suspect as the killer will almost always be innocent. (After all, if they found the murderer right away, they wouldn’t be able to draw the episode out for 42 minutes.)
  • Once they sort through a few dead-end leads, some surprise smoking gun will appear out of thin air and name the killer without a shred of doubt.
  • The actual killer is always someone the audience has seen before — usually a witness that appeared completely innocent. This plot twist is intended to shock us, but when we see it happen every episode, predicting the killer is as easy as identifying the person “most unlikely” to commit the crime.
  • The murderer gets hauled off to jail, and the last five minutes of the episode is spent developing our characters — and I use that term loosely. You can expect to see a lot of casual alcoholism, sighing, and faux-emotional talks about pain, life, and evil.
  • Rinse and repeat for at least ten seasons.

Even police procedurals that try to put a new spin on this old trick — like how Criminal Minds centers around only profiling serial killers — rarely break the pattern.

I think my biggest issue with these shows is, beyond their endless repetition, they come off as lazy and unoriginal. Instead of focusing on developing interesting, well-rounded characters, police procedurals rely on episodal plots that are unrealistic and predictable. The static characters fall into the same cliches time and time again. They spend fourteen seasons facing death, destruction, and venomous serial killers every week, and the computer tech still manages to make cringe-worthy jokes all the time. (You’d think these people would need some therapy or a psychological evaluation at some point, right?)

But, even though I tend to find police procedurals hard to stomach, I can’t help but notice these shows have become a staple of American culture. Blue Bloods, for instance, has entered its ninth season and pulls in an average of eight million viewers each week. On its fourteenth season, Criminal Minds functions with almost an entirely new cast and still manages to rack up four million viewers.

This data begs the question: why is our culture so obsessed with police procedurals?

They satisfy our fascination with crime — both those who commit it and those who stop it

As a society, we have a deep fascination with crime. Other than traffic violations or a few dumb decisions, our television screens are the closest that many of us will get to seeing what happens when you break the law.

Police procedurals give us insight into the dark, criminal underworld as well as the officers who fearlessly protect the public welfare.

To keep us watching, the portrayal of humanity’s dark side is often unrealistic and glamorized. Millions of people wouldn’t tune in to watch Blue Bloods if all the characters did was write traffic tickets and break up a few bar fights.

On these shows, every crime is different, and every killer has a specific motive. There’s the jealous girlfriend who kills her cheating boyfriend or the man who murders the co-worker that caught him embezzling money.

These crimes pique our interest, but they also regularly provoke questions like: what would I have done in that position? Would I have called the cops or stashed the body in the alley? Since none of us will ever likely have to answer these questions in real life, it’s fun to pretend.

When there are more heinous crimes on screen — like ruthless homicide or sexual assault — we take satisfaction in watching the offenders get caught. No matter what, justice is always served.

Even if it is unrealistic, police procedurals satisfy our fascination with criminals and law enforcement in a way that other TV shows fail to.

The narrative is simple and predictable

Although I complained about the predictability of these TV shows before, this is also one of the reasons they manage to lure so many people in.

The world of police procedurals may be riddled with far too many serial killers and terrorist organizations, but it’s also a world where justice is always served. Things are simple — black-and-white, cops and criminals, good and evil. The justice system actually does what it is intended to do, and FBI agents and police officers function seamlessly together. (And if there is too much red tape, you always have that bad boy detective willing to break the rules in the name of justice.)

In our current culture, we’re constantly plagued with injustice and uncertainty. We watch guilty people go free and innocent people get locked up all the time. Homicides go unsolved, and violent crimes go unreported all the time. It’s estimated that only 5 of 1,000 perpetrators of sexual assault will end up in prison.

Being able to escape from real-life injustice is a major reason police procedurals have become so popular. Getting to see a world where things are simple and the good guys always win would be appealing to anyone.

Even if I can’t personally stand police procedurals, I can recognize their purpose. Not only are the crimes creative, but the bad guys always end up behind bars. They aren’t meant to be binge-watched or held under the critical microscope too closely, but they do satisfy our cultural fascination with crime and justice within the span of 42 minutes.

When I’m not writing, you can usually find me hanging out with my cats. pricelindy@gmail.com

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