Prey. Happy Valley. Hinterland. Vera. Four shows which feature on our screens this week alone, dominating our evening viewing schedule. These programmes are the latest in a long line of crime dramas which, when added to the list of recent series such as – are you ready for this? – : Line of Duty, Broadchurch, Shetland, Death in Paradise, The Fall, Luther, Scott and Bailey, Endeavour, Lewis, Midsomer Murders and Ripper Street; indicates a lasting and potentially growing trend in British Television. We import our police drama as well, don’t forget: Wallander, The Killing, The Bridge, Mammon, True Detective; not to mention the various initialled franchise shows from the US.
It’s an exhausting and nowhere near complete list.
Each week, there seems to be a new programme on offer that gives us a different take on the genre. Gruesome 19th Century murders? Cold, unsolved cases? Corrupt officers with shady morals? Series long investigations with more red herrings than a fishmongers? Small town crime? Urban decay? There’s a crime drama for that.
It would be easy to say there are ‘too many’ police dramas. Increasingly, and perhaps inevitably, there are suggestions that the trend may be starting to outstay its welcome. The number of reviews that start with ‘yet another crime drama’ is steadily growing but, that said, so are the audience figures for these programmes. So what does it all mean? Chiefly: is this a trend that is channelling drama television production into too narrow a focus? And if so, is this at the expense of dramas that don’t revolve around criminal investigations?
Well, I suppose we should start by pointing out that these programmes grab audiences for a reason. Hands up who was glued to Line of Duty? Hands up who speculated about who killed Danny Latimer? Who bought a Sarah Lund jumper? Who shouted at the television at the end of Series 2 of The Bridge? And then hysterically rocked backwards and forwards for half an hour afterwards? Just me? Liars.
So many of these series are exemplary, produced by experienced companies who know how to make outstanding drama. So many of them deliver knock out performances from some of our best small screen actors (even big screen stars are getting in on the game) and the writing, ah the writing – the memorable characters; pacey, complex narratives and frustratingly brilliant escalation of tension all speak for themselves.
And the genre makes for good dramatic framing, there’s no denying that. As an audience we understand the world quickly: someone has been killed, a detective and their team investigates, the person responsible is either brought to justice or they’re not. The stakes are high, there’s usually a personal association for the weary protagonist and all the other elements, really, are just variations on a theme. There’s someone for us to root for, someone for us to root against and enough conflict to sustain our interest for however long the case lasts.
As I type that paragraph, however, it feels a little cynical and predictable. It reads like a ‘paint by numbers’ approach to television drama. It’s not intended to undermine the incredibly hard, creative work that goes into developing such series but, it must be admitted that what I’ve just flippantly described is the fundamental make-up of each of these shows. Maybe that is what makes audiences start to recoil a little when they see a trailer for a ‘new crime drama’; we know what to expect. Certainly, some of the more recent examples of this kind of programming have taken these expectations and expertly moulded them into something exciting and fresh, but there’s perhaps a growing sense that the number of times the wheel can be reinvented is limited.
The important distinction that needs to be made here lies not in how these programmes are framed but rather in how they distinguish themselves. Really, the best examples of the genre aren’t even about crime to begin with. They’re about the characters who are investigating who they themselves are rather than who committed Murder A or Murder B. In Broadchurch, we discover more about small town conspiracies and secrets than we do about the murderer. The revelation was a shock but the real talking points of the series surrounded how little the neighbours really knew each other and how quickly the cracks in the community began to unravel. In The Line of Duty, Lindsay Denton’s guilt was constantly in question because our sympathies were deliberately toyed with and our allegiances challenged. These examples become investigations not into the freshly found corpse or the attack on the protected witness, but into our own appreciation of the established rules of society and what becomes of us when they are broken.
In other words, they’re drama.
The ‘crime’ aspect is secondary – it’s reinforced scaffolding to set up the stories, if you will. But maybe what we need to start doing is taking the scaffolding down, because we should have faith that the stories will be able to stand up by themselves. Plot is necessary for us to understand what happens, but the real drama is found in the ‘why’.
At a time when audiences are more engaged in television drama than ever and when viewing isn’t restricted to set times or even to televisions, it would be a shame to over-egg recent successes and try to replicate them just for the sake of it. Look at In the Flesh or The 7.39; Downton Abbey or Utopia – the dramatic potential is just as great, but the worlds that can be explored outside of the structures and epithets of crime drama are much wider, as are – and this is a key point – the opportunities for diversity of character and perspective, something of which British Drama is fully capable of achieving but finds itself currently, for the most part, falling short.
There will always be a place for the Police on our screens but, as much as I love the contribution crime drama makes to our viewing pleasure, I think the time will soon come when a sense of proportion will need to prevail. After all, there are so many more stories waiting to be told.
Is your appetite for crime diminishing? Let us know below.
Contributed by Jane Harrison