Why are TV forensics shows so popular?



CHICAGO — The most popular crime shows on TV these days don't take place in a police station or courtroom. They take place in a lab — with scientists, not cops, as their heroes.

Now in its fifth season, CBS's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is the most-watched TV show in the US and has spawned two popular spin-offs, as well as multiple copycats, both fictional (NBC's Crossing Jordan) and reality-based (Court TV's Forensic Files).

It's not hard to understand why the shows are so popular. Despite the fact that much of the science the shows portray (instantaneous DNA and foolproof fingerprint analyses) doesn't currently exist, the shows are visually interesting, using computer graphics to take viewers inside the human body, or down to a microscopic level to examine evidence along with the investigator.

The original CSI is still the best of the lot, with a strong ensemble cast including William Peterson as the brilliant poetry-spouting entomologist Gil Grissom. On the whole, case files tend to be interesting — if often pandering (like most crime shows) to the sensationalistic.

The shows almost never examine the reality of crime in the US — that prisons are filled to overflowing with millions (more than 2 million currently, some 600,000 of whom are black men between the ages of 20 and 39), thrown away for petty crime, and often, wrongfully convicted.

While the science behind these new mysteries is presented as "impartial", the reality of the justice system is anything but. CSI occasionally tries to address this. In one episode, a wrongfully convicted black man on death row is cleared of setting a fire that killed his wife and child. Another episode exposes a cop who planted evidence to frame a suspect. Yet when the system doesn't work, it's presented as the fault of rogue individuals — a problem of zealous impulses subverting scientific scrutiny.

Over and over, "evidence" — and the criminalists who are charged with collecting it — are presented as unbiased. "You don't crunch evidence to fit a theory", Grissom cautions in one episode. Yet real-life crime labs often do exactly that. When push comes to shove, they're part of the same system that railroads minorities and the poor every day.

In the case of "real-life" shows like Forensic Files, this underlying assumption of guilt is on display. The shows only profile cases that result in convictions — and air only after all appeals are exhausted — presenting guilt as a scientific certainty.

Yet that lie has been exposed with last year's scandal at the Houston crime lab in which widespread contamination of evidence and employee incompetence were uncovered. Last year, investigators found 280 boxes of mislabeled evidence, including body parts and guns — affecting more than 8000 open and closed murder cases dating back to 1979.

Ultimately, forensics shows like CSI have much in common with typical detective stories. They're a new spin on an old formula: Instead of solving crimes with guns and car chases, the "good guys" use microscopes and DNA. And the investigators, like any compelling detective of the past — Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, for example — are hyper-intelligent guardians of "justice", locked in a battle of wits against an equally intelligent criminal.

That's often what makes the shows so enjoyable. The best episodes of the forensics shows lay all the evidence out on the table, challenging us to solve the case along with the scientist. "The art of the detective story is to achieve this goal without cheap tricks", socialist Ernest Mandel explained in Delightful Murder, a social history of the mystery novel. "To surprise without cheating is to manifest genuine mastery of the genre... And indeed, to practice the art of deception while 'playing fair' is the very quintessence of the ideology of the... upper class."

As a result, at the heart of forensics shows lie a deep and abiding (though often enjoyably presented) cynicism: People lie, but evidence doesn't. And the investigators are the protectors of a system that punishes the guilty and protects the innocent. "It isn't a competition", Grissom says in one episode. "We don't win. The courts are like dice; they have no memory."

Socialists, however, know that the system is exactly a crapshoot for most ordinary people — one where overzealous police, prosecutors and crime labs do their best to make the evidence conform to the person they'd like to see punished.

[Reprinted from Socialist Worker, weekly paper of the US International Socialist Organisation. <http://www.socialistworker.org>.]

From Green Left Weekly, February 23, 2005.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.