Friday, October 05, 2007

CSI Generation

by Kristine Coblitz

We all know that as crime writers, we need to be cautious of the crime shows on television and how they portray investigations. (Just read this book to find out why.) But I will say that I still watch these shows, particularly the original CSI series on Thursday nights because I think we can learn something from them. I pay close attention to character development and criminal motivation. I think the show does twists and turns well and depicts some rather creative criminal behavior.

With all the different crime shows available on television these days, it’s amazing to me that people are even reading mystery novels anymore. I’m thankful they are, don’t get me wrong, but I wonder if television has gone too far, crowding the market with so many crime shows that people are either becoming too desensitized to death or overloaded. Or maybe all this attention on murder and investigation is serving a good purpose, forcing people to pay attention? What do you think?

A few years ago, there was a reality television show called Murder in Small Town X, which had me totally hooked. I’m not a fan of reality television, but this one was good. Contestants were chosen to investigate a fictional crime that happened in a small town. The suspects, or townspeople, were all actors. At the end of each episode, two contestants were randomly chosen to search for the killer alone at remote locations based on clues, their actions chronicled by head-mounted cameras. One of the contestants would be confronted by the killer and “killed” off the show. It was a real nail-biter, and I loved every minute of it. The murder story and plot became more complex with every episode.

Does anyone else remember this show?

But this show had a sad ending in real life. The winner, a man named Angel L. Juarbe, Jr., a New York City firefighter, solved the crime and won the million dollar prize. A week later, he was killed in the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11.

What worked about this show for me was that the writers of the show didn’t need to rely on fancy technical forensics or flashy gadgets to be entertaining. This was about ten ordinary people having to use their brains and basic sleuthing skills to solve a crime, much like how the amateur sleuths of our novels get the job done.

So, do you watch crime shows? If so, which ones? Do you learn anything from them?

17 comments:

Annette said...

I must have a thing for initials, because the two crime shows I watch are CSI (the original one) and NCIS.

I don't have cable or satellite, so all I get are the network programs, but I was out of town this weekend and spent an evening in my motel room watching the real crime and forensics shows on Court TV. Fascinating stuff. I could easily get hooked on those.

I never saw the show you mentioned, Kristine, but I did take part in a CSI game at a campground several years back. It was great fun and I was one of the ones who solved the crime. I do think it was geared toward kids, though. The crime we were solving was the theft of a bicycle!

Tory said...

I watch "Bones" and "Criminal Minds." I have to admit, I'm just not that interested in who dun it. That's where books, I think, are a lot more interesting than TV, because you know the culprit has to be someone you've "met," and sometimes on TV shows there aren't that many possible suspects.

However, I'm interested in the sleuths and their backstory and how they manage their job and the rest of their life. That's why I watch those shows.

Lee Lofland said...

Kristine wrote, "What worked about this show for me was that the writers of the show didn’t need to rely on fancy technical forensics or flashy gadgets..."

This is what works for real-life cops, too. All the technical stuff, tools, and gadgets are just icing on the cake. Real police work is mostly knocking on doors and hitting the streets talking to people.

The First 48 is a reality show that's pretty darn close to how murders are really solved. Of course I have to plug Spike TV's new show, Murder, since I've done some consulting for it. They've done a pretty good job so far.

ramona said...

Kristine, my sons like to watch COPS (or one of its bazillion variations) but primarily to make fun of the stupid criminals. Does that count? I don't think they're learning much about character development from it.

In real life, I live near Philly, and the city has gone nuts trying to find the guy who killed two security officers (both retired cops) in an ATM robbery yesterday. There's surveillance tape and a description of the getaway car, but all over TV and radio, police are begging for the public's help. Last week, a young officer was shot in the face, and people in the neighborhood stepped up to ID the shooters. I hope that happens again, though I wish it wasn't necessary.

Joyce said...

I don't have cable either, so I miss a lot of the shows. I don't watch much TV and with shows like CSI, I usually know who did it within the first five minutes. It's always the one they gloss over when they first question them.(Speaking of CSI, is anyone else disappointed that Sara didn't die under that car? I can't stand her!)

The fact that so many of these crime show are "over the top" and have such bizarre crimes anymore, does make it harder on writers. It's very difficult to come up with something new and different. I think some readers expect and want to be shocked by the crimes we come up with. If they're not, they'll just turn on the TV.

Kristine said...

Annette: Court TV is one of my favorites, and hey, I hear that "Murder By The Book" is coming back. Lisa Gardner is one of the featured authors.

Joyce: Sara on CSI bugs me, too, and I just can't buy the sexual relationship. Too weird. I have a feeling she may be leaving the show eventually, though.

Ramona: Sometimes real life crime stories provide more drama and information than the TV shows! Ny husband gets a real kick out of COPS, too. Sometimes it's just downright funny.

Lee: I'll have to check out "Murder" on Spike TV! I'm pretty sure we get that channel.

Tory: I've seen teasers for Criminal Minds and keep thinking to myself that it's a show I probably should be watching.

Gina said...

I read a lot of mysteries but don't watch any of the crime shows on tv -- I've tried, but something about the tone of most of them annoys me.

I can rely on Lee's book for information on how things are really done, but I fear that my potential readers who watch those shows think that they know how things are really done (you know, immediate DNA matches, etc.), so they won't know whether I've got it right or not.

Lee Lofland said...

Prosecutors, police officers, and juries struggle with the same problem, Gina. But they don't give in just to pacify those who don't know any better. We, as writers, shouldn't either.

Many, many writers are also struggling to educate their readers about the inaccuracies of TV CSI. That's why SinC is hosting the Forensic University in few weeks.

That's also one reason why authors such as Jan Burke, Eileen Dreyer, Doug Lyle, and yours truly are so passionate about traveling the country to preach the right messages about real-life CSI. The four of us have spoken, as a team, for venues such as, Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, and now we're the headliners for the Forensic University this year.

Nancy said...

Egad, you remind me that last year we set up a crime scene in our front lawn for Halloween. And so many kids said, "Cool! I want to be a CSI guy when I grow up!" Which made my husband and me think we'd better step up the crime scene authenticity for this year. I only have a few weeks to do it!!

Kristine said...

Nancy, I hope you'll post pictures of your Halloween crime scene! Very cool.

Gina, I know what you're saying. There are so many readers trained on CSI television that when they read our books, they're going to assume we got it all wrong. We can't win, huh?

Education is the key, and the Forensic University is moving us in the right direction. I SO wish I could go to that. Darn!!!

Kristine said...

When I tell people I watch CSI, I always clarify that I watch the "original." I see I'm not the only one.

My husband loves CSI Miami, but I find it annoying. Too much glitz, even more so this season as they've gone ultra high tech.

Honestly, I think the reasons he likes it so much are the bikinis and the blond CSI bombshell who knows her way around guns. |Male fantasy and all that.

Christa M. Miller said...

I have to admit that I don't watch much regular TV anymore - we never know what our evenings are going to be like with the two boys! We've taken to watching series on DVD. We've watched "Rescue Me" and "Crime Story" and "The Shield" this way, and right now we're into "Dexter." LOVE that show - it is so original!!

I'm with Tory in that we watch shows like this for the character development. When I was a police cadet I found myself more interested in my new cop-friends than in police work itself, and it's what I gravitate toward in writing. So I like to see how the writers do it on these shows.

Jena said...

For me, it all boils down to the writing.

I get the feeling that the writers/producers of many of the current crime dramas think that the subject matter is so boring, they have to cute it up with quirky characters to make it interesting.
I like "Bones," but I wish the writers would quit trying so hard. Only David Boreanaz (Booth) and Michaela Conlin (Angela) come across as genuinely funny; the others just seem forced.

The writers of "Criminal Minds" suffer from a different problem. The show has some brilliant character interaction, but the "As you know, Bob..." dialogue drives me nuts. Come on, people! One FBI agent explaining basic police procedure to another agent is a heavy-handed attempt to spoon-feed exposition to the viewer. They're dumbing it down to appeal to the widest possible audience.

What I *do* like is the way the writers of the original "Law and Order" don't resort to gimmicks - no obligatory nerd in the lab, no witty banter (unless it moves the plot forward), no endless exposition, just believable characters and a tight, fast-moving script.

"Law and Order" also tries to avoid "Guest Star Syndrome," where you can pick out the killer while watching the opening credits. In a few episodes, the big-name guest star turned out to be nothing more than a red herring.

Kristine said...

Great insights, Christa and Jena! I agree with you both. It all comes down the writing.

kathie said...

Hey Kristine, I don't remember that show, but it sounds like something they should bring back. I don't know what I think about the number of crime shows on tv. I only watch what I like and ignore the rest. I think it's prob. just a sign of the popularity of that kind of thing...so keep on writing, because there are tons of readers, too. Hope you're feeling well.

Kristine said...

Hi Kathie!

I would love to see the Murder in Small Town X show come back. I've been looking for it on DVD, but I have a feeling that with everything that happened with the winner's death, I may never find it. Too bad, because it was a great concept. I remember being so heartbroken when I had heard what happened to the guy.

Tory said...

Joyce: Good news! TV Guide channel says Sara will be leaving CSI in a few weeks, over a salary dispute.