How Gimmicky Cop Shows are Killing the Genre

How many of you are fans of a detective show (or shows) on TV? If so, what do you like about your favourite show? Is it the cast, the time period, or the types of crimes the characters try to crack? Whatever draws you to a particular series, cop shows are divided into two camps, as with any genre. There are those programs that are critically acclaimed for their characters, writing or acting, and then there’s the series that seem churned out to fill a network schedule.

Intriguingly, regardless of the show's quality, many detective series participate in an annoying trend. Each show will have a single lead detective or a team of officers – but the lead characters will always be defined by their own little clever "twist" or special ability. This is because there’s something very tired about the way detective series are being made: the desire to equip each show with a fun “gimmick” meant to differentiate the show from the rest of the bunch.

If you’re familiar with the cop show offerings on the big TV networks, you might have noticed this phenomenon. Shows like The Mentalist, Bones, Medium and even Castle are all similar, in that the show concepts hinge on the premise “He/She is a detective, but they’re also x”. Basically, TV writers are constantly coming up with detective shows where the hero or investigation unit solves crimes using some innovative skill, talent or out-of-the-ordinary life experience.

On The Mentalist, the lead character Patrick Jane is a consultant for the California Bureau of Investigation, and uses unorthodox methods like hypnotism to solve homicide cases. On Castle, a similar formula is used, only the hero Richard Castle is a bestselling mystery novelist who solves real-life crimes. In each show, the gimmick, or hook (to use TV-writer spin) is intended to show what makes the program’s lead different from all the other cops, both in the world of the show and compared to all the other police procedurals.

In theory, the desire to create detective characters with quirky personalities or fresh approaches to crime-solving isn’t a bad idea. After all, Sherlock Holmes, the most famous of fictional detectives, is perhaps better known for his unique character traits than the cases he solves.

The approach with North American TV, however, is to highlight one or two broadly-drawn elements that distinguish the character and write the entire show around them. In the short-lived U.S. remake of Life on Mars, for example, the crux of the program is that modern-day cop Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara) is mysteriously transported back to the 1970s. Other than the humour derived from the “worlds collide” scenario, it’s just a standard cop drama.

This is coupled with another recurring annoyance in these shows: the background story of the leads. Invariably, the main character or a member of the team will have a loved one or even an entire family killed by a major villain at some point in the past. In The Mentalist, "Red John" killed Jane’s wife and daughter prior to the events of the show. On Castle, Beckett (Stana Katic)’s mother was assassinated. Usually, these deaths are used as motivation for the hero – it keeps them obsessed with finding the killer for several seasons. It's such an over-used trope, though, that it's now an expected part of every detective program.

My question is, does there always have to be a personal connection with one of the targets? Is it required that every good cop have a cool ability? I'm beginning to feel like we can't have a real detective show anymore, when the lead consistently reads like a cross between Holmes and some sort of superhero.

What’s more, It looks like at least one of the networks is on track to do it all over again. CBS is premiering the show Unforgettable on September 20th.  The heroine, Carrie Wells (Poppy Montgomery), is a poster child for these police procedural clichés. This show’s character gimmick concerns Carrie Wells’ memory – she has a medical condition that makes it impossible to forget anything – so “every place, every conversation, every moment of joy and every heartbreak is forever embedded in her mind”, according to CBS’ website. On top of her ability (or disability, as I’m sure the writers will argue), her sister was murdered, and for some reason, the day of her sister’s death is the only thing erased from her flawless memory.

Unforgettable is poised to continue this tradition of building cop shows around one inflated idea. Obviously, TV police shows do need differing characters, qualities and tones, based on the kinds of stories the creators and writers want to tell. I believe, though, that these programs could be far more subtle than they are, and the concepts would still work. Consider a show like The Mentalist. Imagine if the lead character wasn’t a celebrity consultant, but a low-level police officer working his way up through the ranks, all while using mentalist techniques to solve crimes. Given a bit of planning, what is now a gimmick on the show could have been a far more restrained plot element.

The drive behind most shows is to create cop characters that go against the grain of society. I'm fairly sure that watching TV detectives who are exactly like their real counterparts would bore a lot of viewers – the police are often seen (or depicted) as strict authoritarians, people who are easily outwitted by creative types. To avoid "boring, real" characters, the pendulum swings too far the other way. In the absence of realism, clichés fill the void. We get a roster of comic-book characters: dumb regular police and super-smart serial killers, so the only solution is to hire the non-cops, the people with extraordinary powers of deduction or the ability to talk to ghosts (or something).

It's actually a form of wish fulfillment. Viewers relate easier to characters outside the grind of a typical police environment, and can imagine themselves as the roguish lead character, breaking the rules to get the job done. The problem is, this repeated pattern is making every new show feel tired before it has even premiered. Personally, I don't want the same stories with a new face and a new ability stretched over the same cop-show framework - but that's just me.

I’m not convinced that this is the only way to write police procedurals. In fact, I’d argue that the most successful cop shows are the ones that don’t take the outlandish route with their characters: shows like N.Y.P.D. Blue and the original Law & Order both ran for more than a decade (Two decades in the case of L & O). I’m not even opposed to cool twists on the genre, if they can be implemented in a measured way. But wait – did I just ask for subtlety on television? I might as well give up and watch Cops.


I'd like to hear from you on this topic. What do you think about the trend of using a revolving door of quirky detectives on cop shows? Do you like following each new variation, or are you getting tired of the formula? Also, check out some of my related pieces of TV commentary:

Why I hope Fox’s Terra Nova is a success

Say goodbye to TV – The YouTube model is king

Season x: Why never-ending TV shows should be stopped