Crime drama's links to social and economic analysis

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On the advice of admirable TV journalists, I recently watched the first two episodes of Broadchurch. They said it could be the next Downton Abbey, which didn't really move me. Also that it was "tweeted about more than any drama in U.K. history," which sounds like an orphan stat created by PR. But it's a cops 'n crime show and I'm hooked on those. (Don't know why. I'll get to that.)

The first thing that hit me viscerally was the murder of a young boy. (This isn't a spoiler, it's the premise of the series, so back off.) It both gripped me and made me furious. It's so manipulative. It's the same device that Criminal Minds uses routinely -- go inside you and coldly exploit your fears about your kids. I've been especially susceptible to this emotional manoeuvre since I became a dad myself, belatedly. You needn't be a parent to be stricken this way, any human being could identify. But human nature is so primitive -- it undeniably works.

Broadchurch is a continuing narrative, though, not discreet episodes and it's far better executed than the monotonous -- literally: in its unchanging tone -- Criminal Minds. It's similar to earlier series like Prime Suspect or contemporaries like The Fall, Top of the Lake or the Danish and U.S. versions of The Killing. The detail is exquisite; relations between the cops, for instance, in The Killing and Broadchurch. You can luxuriate in their complexity, through both the writing and performance. (Canada is nowhere in this competition. Shows like Flashpoint and Murdoch Mysteries have yet to stumble on the concept of subtext. Maybe that's the crime they should be investigating.)

Where they tend to fall down, in my frustrated experience, is on plot. I've soldiered through three seasons of The Killing, due to the acting etc. But season one ended in irresolution, two ended with a stupid resolution and three finished with a typical Hollywood slam-bang car chase, shootout and so on. Hollywood always abandons any hard-won sense of reality in the last reel.

The original perp on this kind of plot dereliction, in which Broadchurch is "of interest" though charges can't yet be laid, was David Lynch's Twin Peaks. He set up a murder, pursued it awhile, then lost interest in it and meandered elsewhere. That was admirable in the sense that it was like life, which also meanders and loses interests, but we expect something different from fiction. At least to some degree: what critic Frank Kermode called "the sense of an ending," though not a neatly wrapped resolution.

Broadchurch also follows Twin Peaks in relentlessly unearthing seaminess in an apparently idyllic town. In its first episodes we saw the victim's friend wipe his hard drive, learned his mom is pregnant not by his dad, the lady who cleans the hut on the cliff has his skateboard in her locker and his dad lied about where he was that night. There was a fine film set in a similar Scottish village years ago, Local Hero, with the enchanted American actor, Burt Lancaster. It revolved around resistance to a Big Oil project, but there's no chance it could ever have spun into a successful series. There was no violent death.

I've wondered why criminal violence shows attract viewers like me though it's so common it seems silly to ask. But I've known writers who became known as literary Masters of Violence who I'd swear were never near a fight or an unnatural death. What draws them? Perhaps precisely their pristine experience and a sense that the reality of pervasive human brutality had been kept from them. So that the less actual violence you've known, the more you yearn to end the suspense and get it outed. In an age like ours, where crass, self-seeking behaviour by the rich and mighty is more overt than it once was, a sense of vile underlying impulses may grow even stronger. That would make crime drama a close relative to social and economic analysis.

That seems odd. Crime shows read more like distraction or diversion. But then you could say culture itself is a distraction. Or that people, like scripts, are capable of more than one thing at a time.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: David McKelvey/flickr

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