• A Wild Lass

America's Obsession with Crime TV

As I thought about Halloween approaching and I continued binging through NCIS: Los Angeles, it was hard not to ruminate on America’s obsession with true crime. My neighbors down the street have gravestones and werewolves (or kitties, according to the Young Lassies) in their front yard, and chainsaw killers are the norm for trick-or-treater costumes.

At what point in our history did our country as a whole become fascinated by serial killers, murders, and violent crime? And what kind of strange juxtaposition does it create that we clamor for gun control, more regulations, taking away AR-15s from arms-bearing-by-right citizens, and yet sit in front of the TV watching Dexter, Blue Bloods, Criminal Minds, The Closer, The Rookie, and more.



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True crime shows and cop shows aren’t the only culprit. What about true crime podcasts about real cases, or cold case investigations about unsolved murders? What about blowing up the crime statistics by classifying shootings as mass killings that don’t fit the qualifications? Why are we pulled in by these awful scenarios? It can’t just be a yearning for adventure.


At the same time as violent crime shows, we have another category being popularized, a combination between the dystopian teenage dramas and apocalyptic fantasy worlds. Think of it as a Hunger Games or Divergent meets Armageddon or 2012 type of subcategory. One example is a show like The 100, wherein about a hundred teenagers, chosen for their criminal histories, get sent by spaceship to the Earth, which has been uninhabitable for decades. Their people, who have lived on The Ark space station above the atmosphere for that whole time, are running out of time because The Ark is failing. What follows is a violent anarchy, slightly reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, full of philosophical questions and sociological anomalies that are interesting and rife with ethical implications.


Another example that comes to mind is The Purge. While this falls more in the horror genre, rather than crime fighting shows, it still gives credence to the obsession we have with horrifying, violent what-ifs (in the show, once a year the entire country has 12 hours where everything is legal, and murder is commonplace and acceptable).


Shows like these aren’t new. Even in the 90s these types of evocative plots graced our television primetime with shows like CSI (and its spinoffs) and Law and Order (and its spinoffs) made it hard to turn on the TV without seeing blood spurting somewhere.


Perhaps ubiquitous plot lines like these demonstrate our yearning for justice. We long for what is right, and seek to satisfy that need by watching our favorite characters overcome insurmountable odds. So many of the shows explore the gray areas, though.

  • Catching the bad guy despite conveniently forgetting to obtain a warrant

  • Using less-than-optimal interrogation methods, in order to save thousands of people

They’re driven by their personal values and apparent destiny to be a crime fighter (as evidenced by their superhuman skills to beat up anyone who tries to kill them or stop them from saving people). These values seem to allow them a carefree conscience as well, since they hardly ever feel remorse at the heaps of bodies (all bad guys, of course) they leave in their wake. The only slap on the wrist they get is a tsk tsk from the boss who wishes they would have kept the operation quieter with less media exposure, never mind the cleanup crews required for the puddles of blood and gore left behind in abandoned warehouses (of which there appear to be no shortage).


Perhaps crime fighting shows meet a need we have to explore themes of heroics. The characters are all modern heroes who risk their lives, and sometimes give their lives, for their families and people they don’t even know. While Marvel heroes offer us slash-em, beat-em-up thrills, Americans turn to more meaningful, “regular” rescuers that seem more like the real-life people keeping our country safe every day. We’re gluttons for the punishment of watching TV characters putting others above self, knowing we’re one step away from the victims in the shows.


Do you have any theories? Maybe we’re not in it for the displays of justice or heroics. Maybe it’s something else altogether. You can jump in the conversation on Twitter @awildlass or Instagram @awildlass. And tell me what shows you like to watch! I’m always in the market for a new obsession.


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*Disclaimer: Some of the links you see may be affiliate links. All that means is if you click through and end up making a purchase, I’ll earn a commission.

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