It’s funny to think that not too many years ago, TV was filled with straight-up police procedurals. They had always been with us, of course, going back to Dragnet (generally regarded as Hollywood’s first cop show) , and on through Police Story, Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and of course to Law and Order and its many clones. True, throughout that time we had PI shows (The Rockford Files, Magnum P.I., Spenser for Hire), and action-oriented crime solving (The A-Team, Maguyver, Charlie’s Angels), and certainly more than one amateur sleuth hour ( Diagnosis Murder, Murder She Wrote, Jonathan Creek), but even they were fairly prosaic in nature: “Help, Crime!” “Don’t worry, I’ll solve it, I’m a surgeon/mystery writer/magician.” “Okay, cool, thanks.”
PI shows, action-oriented crime solving and amateur sleuth hours are all still with us, happily, and it must be said that they have been getting more outlandish as time goes by. Unless it’s just me, and shows about pie makers who can bring the dead back life, prison escapees who seek to unravel political conspiracies and war vets who miraculously locate lost stuff have not, in fact, taken the field to a whole new level of crazy fun. But it is only quite recently that the quirky, often bizarrely-gifted, crime fighter has taken over the traditional procedural, as well.
Now, sure, we can go back through the literature and find unconventional personalities dating back to the early days of the genre, the likes of Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey and hell, Sherlock; that dude surely danced to the beat of his own drummer. (And the drummer was high on opium.) On TV, we’ve had the renegade Kojak (Telly Savalas), sucking on his lollipop and letting fly with this signature line, not to mention the rumpled, seemingly befuddled Columbo (Peter Falk) and the tic-laden Monk (Tony Shaloub), a former cop with rampant OCD, PTSD and who knows what other manner of acronyms. But I’m not really talking about them and their ilk here; I mean, sure, Monk is a whole heaping helping of wacky, but he is a fine investigator despite this, not because of it.
Nor am I talking about situations in which the crimes (and/or criminals) themselves are bizarre, as in The X-Files, Supernatural, Fringe and this season’s debut monster hunt, Grimm. Nor again am I referring to investigators who are themselves some form of myth, fairy tale or bump in the night, cf. Forever Knight, Angel, Medium, Tru Calling, Lost Girl and Once Upon a Time. Those are whole other topics for a whole other time.
Instead, I’d like to direct your attention to the hardy, ever-so-handy souls who either represent some form of law enforcement agency or are peripherally employed by said agency; who may be mundane in that they don’t consort with magical beasties or turn out to be one of them, but in all other respects are really quite extraordinary. And it is the crime shows in which these not-so-everyday everyday humans do the impossible that really appeal to me: the ones in which our eccentric detective uses his or her unique skill to solve the mystery (usually, but not always, a murder) with the aid of their assorted teams, assistants and sidekicks—but perhaps not too much aid. There’s a reason they’re the star of the show, after all.
Let us start, it being as good a place as any (and also, in alphabetical order), with Bones. Dr. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) is beautiful, brave and brilliant—just ask her. A leader in her field – at an improbably young age – her formidable intellect is brought to bear on identifying skeletal remains and not understanding common pop culture references. Of course, she is hardly the only TV anatomist to become involved in crime solving – her spiritual ancestor is probably Quincy M.E. (Jack Klugman), and her close contemporaries are doubtless Crossing Jordan’s Jordan Cavanaugh (Jill Hennessy), Rizzoli and Isles’ Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander) and Body of Proof’s Megan Hunt (Dana Delaney) – not to mention the more mature version of Tempe that can be found in Kathy Reichs’s original texts. But Brennan is no mere medical examiner; she is a forensic anthropologist, which apparently means that rather than having an often fractious relationship to law enforcement, she is instead qualified to ride around with FBI Special Agent Seely Booth (David Boreanaz) as his fully-fledged, Agency-approved crime fighting partner, taking part in interrogations and even occasionally wielding a firearm.
Another FBI Agent with a somewhat unorthodox partner is White Collar’s Peter Burke (Tim DeKay), who is assisted in his thwarting of big time fraud, forgery, theft and the like by his indentured Confidential Informant, former (and still?) conman, Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer). When the series commenced, three frustratingly short and bisected USA Network seasons ago, the two had an almost grudging respect for each other, born out of long years of manhunting – it was all very Catch Me if You Can. But with Neal working on the right side of the law, often going undercover as a swindler, hustler, cat burglar or other form of smooth criminal, the two developed a true friendship – oh, let’s be honest; a total bromance – that has them cracking wise even as they clear an extraordinary number of tricky cases, making Neal an asset so valued by the FBI that Season 3 ended with a turf war over who would get to control his ankle monitor. (Damn you, Beau Bridges. Damn you!)
More agents in need of a little conman assistance in doing their, y’know, jobs are those of the CBI (which, for the uninitiated, stands for the California Bureau of Investigation; as Agent Cho said one time: “Yes, we do need better brand awareness.”), who receive that assistance in the suave and unutterably sad form of one-time television “psychic,” Patrick Jane (Simon Baker). The Mentalist is no psychic, and he wants everyone to know it; he is just incredibly – in every sense of the word – observant, able to pick up on subtle clues in body language and piece together motives from mere turns of phrase or the possession of certain kinds of pets. Also, he’s a hypnotist! Definitely a useful man to have on the team.
The similarly hyper-aware Shawn Spencer (James Roday) of Psych (and, no, don’t ask me to choose between them; that, too, is a whole other topic for a whole other day) is also pretty good to have around, although his powers of deduction tend to be more matters of extreme focus than of a fundamental understanding of human nature. Indeed, Shawn is somewhat oblivious to a lot of social cues, but his recall of tiny details of crime scenes and conversations – some of which, admittedly, are not so tiny – allow him to carry off his pose as a “psychic consultant” for the Santa Barbara Police Department. Along with his best-friend Gus (Dulé Hill) a pharmaceutical salesman who’s eclectic talents are also often apropos to the case, he has solved an impressive number of what appear to be a truly staggering number of annual suspicious deaths in his coastal California home town. Note to self: never move to Santa Barbara.
Or, indeed, to Queens, NY, where much crime also happens, and where Detective Carrie Wells (Poppy Montgomery), of CBS’s freshman series Unforgettable, is likewise good at recalling stuff. She has a rare neurological condition called hyperthymesia, which gives her the ability to remember everything that she has ever seen or experienced in minute detail—and which, as you might imagine, saves her a whole bunch of trouble when it comes to poring over crime scene photos and reviewing witness statements (and yet it still takes her close to 42 minutes to solve the case. Odd.). How awesome would it be to have this condition? Never forget another password. On the other hand, it would definitely take the thrill out of reruns. And what about when you watched a terrible movie? Imagine if you had to go throughout your whole life never being able to repress an instant of Police Academy 6: City Under Seige. Or, as Carrie herself said in the pilot episode: “Some things you want to forget.”
Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) also has a special skill: he’s a psychopath who kills people for fun. By day, he’s a mild mannered “blood spatter” expert working tirelessly for the Miami PD. By night (and, actually, sometimes also by day) he tracks down various ne’er do wells and miscreants who have managed to escape the long arm of the law, and then ritually terrifies, tortures and slaughters them. Therefore, as a “good” serial killer who works tirelessly for his police bosses but somehow forgets to mention that often he is the focus of their investigations, Showtime’s Dexter, based on the books by Jeff Lindsay, is perhaps the most potent example of the anti-hero trope found anywhere on television, and certainly in crime drama. (CBS vigilante John Reese [Jim Caveziel], of this season’s Person of Interest is also up there on the anti-hero scale, but since he works emphatically outside the law and is aided in his crime fighting efforts by a computer that predicts the future, he’s not eligible for discussion here. Once again: a whole other topic for a whole other day.)
The younger, handsomer, more-male version of Jessica Fletcher—Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion)—also started out as a bit of an anti-hero; not in that he was a coldblooded killer, but more because he was kind of a douche. A successful crime writer and breaker of hearts, he became involved in the life of NYPD Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) when a copycat killer began using his books as a template; he stuck around when he decided to base a new series on Beckett, and managed to get approval to shadow her investigations by shamelessly using his prominent connections. Again: kind of a douche. Starting out as something of a bane to law enforcement (like Jessica before him, although he is much less regularly a—totally justifiable—suspect), Castle has become instrumental to the cracking of Beckett’s tricky cases, almost to the point where one begins to wonder what she ever did without him…
Indeed, with the recent spate of unconventional, police-sanctioned investigators of one type or another, it is sometimes hard to remember that there are TV cops and agents out there who manage to bring criminals to justice without the help of assorted clever civilians and the occasional almost preternatural colleague. In previous seasons we’ve seen Cal Tech’s resident genius turn murder into mathematics in consultation with his brother, an FBI agent, on Numb3rs. We’ve also seen the psychologists of Lie to Me called in to consult with agencies left and right, and even the venerable Law and Order franchise was dipping its toe into the waters of the wacky many years ago with Detective Bobby Goren (Vincent D’Onofrio) and his uncanny level of empathy on Criminal Intent.
Oh, doubtless the straight-up police procedural will always be with us. We’ll always have shows like Homicide: Life on the Street and The Shield and NCIS and CSI, and yay for that. But it is this brave new (-ish) world of off-kilter cops, and consultants, that has really invigorated the field, and it is their tales that I, for one, prefer. As psychic consultant Shawn Spencer once said: “I’m not sure how I feel about the police being so proactive”—yet apparently I’m fine with conmen, serial killers and narcissistic authors (Brennan writes best-selling books too, don’t you know) taking their jobs. Weird, huh?
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.
Read all of Rachel Hyland’s posts for Criminal Element.