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Crime Seen

October 31, 2009

In a previous post on the use of the word “ketamine” I eventually had to confess that I had been watching the American crime drama Criminal Minds. Before this goes any further, let me just state that I suffer from the television viewing condition known as “everything is shite after The Wire“, meaning that, once one has viewed that spectacular and peerless show, they can never really enjoy any other television product as they had before. Suddenly The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Oz (or whatever your personal favourite was) are forced to occupy a lower tier under that superlative series. This is especially true of crime procedural drama, a glut of which has been prevalent on American television since the runaway success of C.S.I. nearly ten years ago. Naturally, an elitist snob like me would place mainstream American network shows a few tiers below the higher-quality HBO shows mentioned above and generally refrain from watching them. I must admit, however, that I’ve broken this longstanding habit of late and I’m finding Criminal Minds, and to a lesser extent another, similar show, something of a guilty pleasure.

Criminal Minds centres on a team of FBI profilers whose shtick is analyzing America’s most dangerous criminals in order to apprehend them. More often than not, this means they pursue serial killers. The show can, therefore, feel a little out of date, seemingly more suited to the 1990s when sensationalized serial murder was hip. However, just as CSI got away with pushing the boundaries of graphic violence and gore on network television by keeping everything very scientific; so too does Criminal Minds manage to deliver a surprising amount of dark subject matter wrapped in the legitimate packaging of psychological criminal science. Every episode features another monstrous antagonist from a ferocious menagerie of sexual sadists, disturbed predators and assorted sickos complete with a fresh array of doe-eyed victims and the earnest super team of analytical G-Men racing to track them down. Truly heinous crimes, although they can’t be shown onscreen, are frequently alluded to. One episode managed to feature one of the agents discovering an unusual object at a crime scene that another character identifies as being a “Pear of Anguish”, a medieval torture device. The Pear of Anguish is a metal pear-shaped object comprised of four sections that can be expanded outwards. Torturers would insert the pear into an orifice of their choosing on the victim (mouth, anus or vagina) and expand it to cause extreme pain or significant trauma and mutilation. The episode didn’t go into too much detail regarding the object (although the scene plays as if some parts have been cut from broadcast) but the viewer is left to infer that the villain had been using it on the women he was kidnapping, raping and murdering. Another episode featured a profoundly disturbed killer who employed Satanic imagery and ritual in his murders and who gleefully reveals to the other characters that he has fed a butchered girl to them in the form of a stew dished out to the search party looking for the very same girl. However, in a rather bizarre move, perpetual goofball Jamie Kennedy was cast as the psycho cannibal, giving the overall effect of the episode playing like a rather sick spoof of itself as Kennedy attempts to chuckle malevolently in the closing moments of the show. Other episodes feel like the pay homage to famous serial killer movies. One of the latest was very reminiscent of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It featured a trio of white trash maniacs who invade occupied homes and torture the occupants to death whilst filming the event and watching their own snuff movies later.

On the lighter side, the show’s crowning achievement in characterization is Dr Spencer Reid. Reid is presented as a young genius who graduated from high school when he was 12 and who holds multiple doctorates in various disciplines. As well as his I.Q. of 187, the character also boasts an eidetic (“photographic”) memory and the ability to read 20,000 words per minute. Presented as the ultimate super-nerd and oddball, Reid is Criminal Minds’ amalgamation of Spock, Dougie Howser, Niles Crane and Macgyver. Of course, they attempt to balance the character’s brilliance by making him colossally socially awkward and by emphasizing his youth and delicate nature (several times it has also been implied that the character might inherit his mother’s schizophrenia). The writing has shown a lack of consistency there, however, as Reid has also occasionally shown moments of being incredibly adept in social situations and very capable of talking to, and interacting with, his peers, women he is attracted to and also the grotesque criminals the team has to pursue. One episode shows him overcoming initial hesitation to effortlessly win the interest of a beautiful barmaid by displaying the close-up magic skills he mastered in his spare time between studying for his multiple PhDs. He is, in short, a thoroughly ridiculous character that is nonetheless carried off with bold aplomb and charm. Credit is due to the actor, Matthew Gray Gubler*, for taking Reid beyond the mess of derivative cliché that the character appears to be on paper.

The other show that I have found myself viewing, though with significantly less enthusiasm and guilt-ridden pleasure than Criminal Minds, is Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. The sole reason I have for enjoying it is connected to a short story I read years ago. Legendary Scottish comic-book writer, Grant Morrison, wrote a story entitled “We Are All Policemen” that was published in both an anthology called Disco 2000 and a prose collection of his own,  Lovely Biscuits (as a shameless fanboy, I own copies of both books). At one point in the story, a character is watching television and is engrossed in a show called Rape She Wrote, the gag being a riff on the popular crime show of yesteryear, Murder She Wrote, starring Angela Lansbury. It was a striking little joke, the idea that, if light entertainment can be made of one of society’s most serious crimes like murder, why not make entertainment out of another serious crime like rape (which is technically considered a lesser crime than murder). “Rape She Wrote” sounded bizarre and hugely inappropriate whereas “Murder She Wrote” was widely accepted and not considered even remotely controversial. The further, greater joke in the end is that someone actually did go ahead and make Rape She Wrote only they called it Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Law & Order: SVU is a weekly dose of rape and sex crime as light entertainment. A grave voiceover before each episode announces that “in the criminal justice system, sexually based offences are considered especially heinous..” before informing you that the Special Victims Unit investigates them (for your viewing pleasure) “here are their stories”. It is of course, a well-known show and a spin-off of a longstanding American TV franchise although the decision to focus an entire show on sexual crimes seems like a bold gamble that certainly paid off for the NBC network. In order to fend off potential criticism of the subject matter, the tone of the drama is always very serious and grim. Moments of comedy here would obviously come across as tasteless and insensitive, although the long-term presence of Ice-T as a supporting cast member playing one of the cops in the SVU therefore remains a mystery. Ice-T, the man who once sang “die, die, pig die” in the colourfully titled song Cop Killer has been spending his post-music career playing a cop on TV. Not just any cop, but an extremely noble cop doing one of the hardest jobs on the force. Although subtle, and certainly indirect, I feel this may be where the comic relief of Law & Order: SVU resides.

As the popularity of the show has grown, it has attracted a number of guest stars. Vanessa Williams once appeared as an unfortunate guest rapee and a whole host of other American TV actors turn up as rape victims, paedophiles, sadistic serial rapists, etc. It’s a veritable carnival of sexual predators and prey, broadcast into people’s homes for some quick gratification.

Although both shows are fairly mindless fun based on the appetite for sensationalized crime amongst viewing audiences, Law & Order seems slightly more ridiculous than Criminal Minds precisely because the former is just another cop show albeit one that owes its success to using rape as its gimmick. Sex crime also features in Criminal Minds but is usually an incidental feature subordinate to serial murder and not the central focus of the show. Based on the rarity of serial murder compared to rape and sexual assault, Criminal Minds also seems more far-fetched and thus arguably “safer” escapist stuff than Law & Order: SVU (which would explain the contrast of colourful characters like Reid and the Hannibal Lecter-esque antagonists of Criminal Minds to the more mundane and realistic rapist scumbags and wretched victims of Law & Order: SVU). This may be the reason why the main actress in SVU, Mariska Hargitay, founded a support organization for women who have been victims of sexual violence and has worked with various similar organizations and campaigns. The subject matter of the show has more potential to resonate strongly with real-world tragedy and possibly some of the people involved feel compelled to be seen to do being doing more than just making money off of it.

They’re both guilty pleasures, and I would hesitate to describe them as being of much objective quality, but for throwaway TV viewing they’re certainly more enjoyable than most other shows of their type precisely because they possess a rather twisted, exploitative edge to them that is concealed under the facade of mainstream crime drama. Turn on, tune in, and watch some rapetastic entertainment.

(*Matthew Gray Gubler has a particularly good website Gubler Land.)

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