What I am about to write is pretty much a given: the police procedural/crime drama on tv is an exhausted genre. The modern detective drama in the Anglo-American world was inaugurated by Edgar Allen Poe’s detective short stories in the 1840s. His master detective was Dupin, a Frenchman (the stories were set in Paris), who postulated that a detective could apprehend a criminal by examining clues and retrospectively inhabiting the criminal’s mental state and/or habitus. Arthur Conan Doyle quickly took up the mantle and exploited it quite soundly. Both Poe’s and Conan Doyle’s (detectives Dupin and Holmes, respectively) had partners who were both kind of audience stand-ins. Later detectives, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Poirot were not always part of a pair but worked alone or acquired a partner mid-story.
On TV, we have famous examples of both versions such as Columbo, who was good but smarmy deluxe, and Cagney and Lacey. Unlike their British counterparts, these latter examples were part of the police force and subject to a fetish of American culture, self-realization comes primarily through one’s work. In the UK, the cultural legacy of detective fiction is everywhere: after all, isn’t even Harry Potter just a version of such fiction? In America, detective fiction is almost exclusively riffraff literature – no offense here, but James Patterson, give me a break. However, in the 90s, the advent of the Law and Order franchise brought back the detective story fully within the police drama, producing the first version of the modern procedural.
Here are the main markers of a Law and Order episode: Crime, police shows up, ironic quip (sometimes fails), obvious suspect is not the doer, real suspect, guilty verdict. At least in the beginning. In the show’s offshoots, the guilty verdict is now often missing because who did it is not really in doubt. And thus, this franchise now uses at least two reversals (see Aristotle) in its work with plot. The good thing about this franchise, which is now–again–exhausted but marching inexorably on until Mariska Hargitay’s kids college educations are paid off, is how news stories and such are drawn into the dramas. In the best of cases, these shows try to deal with complex social issues, though the treatment is strained: the police, as complexly as they can deal with issues, really want one outcome—to catch a bad guy. As the work of the Innocence Project has shown, any “bad guy” sometimes is fine. Moreover, the adversarial court-system with an either-or configuration (guilty-not guilty) looks at complexity in the face and throws up on it.
The problem has become, of course, that with many offshoots and many copy shows (Cold Case–Law and Order with flashbacks, NCIS–Law and Order but in the military), the format of the show is fried. Yes, there have been changes, but part of the problem of making too many format (generic) changes is that the audience expects it and likes it. There’s only so much one can do there. And then there are the stories, and here’s where we’re getting to the almost criminal. I’m thinking of SVU. In the last several years alone, stories that touch upon incest, either suggested or actual, are their crown jewels. Not only are they disturbing and quite truculent, they push the envelope of what we’re ready to believe. I do not object to touching upon incest: I actually wrote my dissertation on two novels that feature incest as an “open” secret. The problem is that they are pulling all the rabbits they can out of all the hats they can: so they shock us and shocks us with incest (something that cannot but create an effect), and what happens then is that we get inured to it. Worse yet, their use of such a powerful story element means that they’re not coming up with anything new and that slowly we are getting USED TO IT.
SVU is enjoyable, even at its most cliched and moralizing. Who among us have not been caught into a TNT or USA SVU mini marathon? We cannot resist an abstract sense of looking for “justice,” of catching the criminal, sympathizing with the victim, and knowing that in the end, even if they can’t put the criminal in jail, we know we are morally superior to both the sins of the criminals as well as the sins of the justice system. But getting used to shock after shock, especially within a predictable structural formula, cannot but impoverish us as individuals, as a society, and as tv viewers. In the end, shows like this can inure us to true horror. When we witness videos of violence perpetrated upon black bodies, LGBT bodies, and refuges, we cannot avoid but to respond by either feeling helpless or feeling that someone else will take care of the horror, will be the true agent for justice. That’s if we allow ourselves to feel at all.
Originally published on 8 Apr 2011, updated 24 Jan 2017
I was streaming a lot of the 2005 Doctor Who (BBC) series in 2011 (because that’s what doctoral candidates who are trying to write their dissertations do?). Aside from the Doctor, I would most like to marry Martha Jones, though Rose Tyler is an awesome Doctor companion. In the second series (in the UK, seasons are series–get this, in the UK they expect a show to have a narrative arc and therefore each season is a series!), the Doctor and Rose Tyler meet Captain Jack Harness. He’s cheeky, bombastic, good looking, ridiculous: American (though the actor who plays him, John Barrowman, was born in the UK but was raised in the U.S.). Jack Harness is stereotypically debonaire and reminds of me an Elizabethan braggadocio character – a lot of hot air, good looks, but more an impediment to the resolution of the plot than anything else. And that Jack Harness is: he is not quite an impediment to plot resolutions but, unfortunately and interestingly, he is often at the root of the problem; his past actions set in motion events that he will later have to clean up and/or redeem, though he can’t often do so. We learn that Jack Harness is polysexual (I say that because it seems that he’ll sleep with any gender of any species, so there you have it), and he seems to develop a crush on the Doctor. Steeped in sci fi, I was surprised to see bisexuality represented on a sci fi show–and so nicely matter of fact. Whatever the appeal (the actor is very handsome, almost to the point of looking artificial), the character and actor are so charismatic that the show Torchwood was developed with Jack as the leader of the Torchwood team, a team based in Cardiff whose mission is to protect the Earth (UK) against alien threats. The team has its own cast of pretty interesting characters: Gwen Cooper, Owen, Toshiko, and Ianto Jones.
What strikes me both about Doctor Who and Torchwood is that while the plots are interesting and action packed, the shows are very geared toward relationships and exploring the nuance of relationships. These shows are particularly good at tying the plot/problem they have to solve with the characters that have to solve them. They also expect a smart audience. In Torchwood, as the team solves the problem, characters will voice some of the conclusions the viewer might come up with herself and push beyond. The point is that you’re trying to solve the puzzle, just like them, and they really know their stuff. But it’s in the romantic entanglements that both characters and viewers delight and get stumped. I’ve already noted that Jack is bisexual (Torchwood is really set on Earth, and though we can argue about how many genders there are, the show really only has men and women as love objects), but all characters except Owen engage in same-sex action. What the show does with sexuality, then, is to make it so movable and fluid as to make it a given, not something to be solved.
Within that matter-of-fact fluidity, though, we are activated by gay love, or at least same-sex love, through the relationship of Captain Jack and Ianto Jones. Ianto Jones is adorable, by the way. Their relationship spans the first three seasons of the show, and at least in the last two seasons, it is a constant. However, because Jack is secretive and Ianto is professional (in his nicely tailored “smart” suits), their relationship is not center stage. Which is to say that it doesn’t have to be because it is not exceptional the way a gay plot might be in another show (I shudder at the ridiculous lesbian plot in The O.C.–bleargh!). We are treated to passionate kisses in aside moments, one character barging during a pre-sexy sexy scene (pants on), and other moments both sexual and romantic.
Weirdly, then, what makes this character pairing nostalgic for me is that the peripheral representation of same-sex love in this show reminds me of the kind we used to see in the 90s, where a movie would be “gay” if someone’s best friend’s sister or brother on tv was gay. At that time, and at that age (teens), I was hunting for any representation of gay love I could find but couldn’t find a thing, or at least not very much. My favorite movie at the time was the film version of E. M. Forster’s Maurice and that because it was so (unrealistically) romantic…but it lacked in passion (in a way that Edwardian period pieces do not these days). So Torchwood makes me hunt for these peripheral moments, and when I get them, I get passionate kisses and slow dances: I get passion and love. In a sci fi series. On tv. Completely flabbergasted by that. Of course, it is British tv, so that makes it less surprising. At any rate, the nostalgia is for a remembered sensation of a pleasure that came from finding something but fleetingly because it was so taboo. The pleasure now comes from the fleeting moment that is normal, that can be fully real in the same way the other relationships in the show are portrayed. Captain Jack is a man plucked from the 51st century and has been on Earth since the nineteenth century waiting for the Doctor to return. He is, as the Doctor says, a fixed point in time and space. Because of his longevity and the tasks before him, everything is fleeting: he outlives most of his partners while on Earth. The thematic unity between the Jack-Ianto plot is at the heart of the Torchwood/Doctor Who theme of being both a traveler through time and space but also, because of it, being out of sync of both. The Doctor and Jack’s permanent state is one of loss and nostalgia, even though they focus, of course, on the present and fleeting. In this way, those of us who are “out of sync” notice the powerful same-sex relationship, but the show of course speaks to everyone as this theme is reworked through other characters and many of their adventures.
I realize blog posts should not be this long, and I apologize. But I think the fragmentariness and fleeting quality of this love plot in Torchwood produce and reflect nostalgia, a nostalgia organic to the show but also organic to what it is to be human in the 21st century. I can’t tell you how the love affair ends—it’s a doozy, but this show doesn’t have good writing for a sci fi show. It just has good writing.
Originally published on 21 Mar 2011
Thanks for visiting! I’ve had this site for quite a while, but I’ve been lax on producing new content. So what I’m doing is relaunching the site with a new look. At first, I will refresh the old posts, enhance them, and re-publish them. I’ll also be producing new content so that when all the old posts have been reissued, I’ll have fresh new stuff for you to read. For me, it’s all about gaining forward momentum, and of course it’s always easier to do something when you’re not starting from scratch.
Why this blog? I hold a doctorate in comparative literature; I study Latin American, Brazilian, and U.S. literature of the nineteenth century. But I absolutely LOVE tv and popular culture. I’ve noticed that people talk about shows as if they’re in a vacuum: they’ll connect them to a previous version or a genre, but many of the most successful scripted shows on tv are very much related to Western Literature. I want to write about these shows and also connect them to the predecessors out there. By predecessors, I don’t mean a “direct descendant,” but rather cultural products that have affinities to each other. Many of my posts, especially in the beginning, will be about shows or episodes from the past, though as I say my piece on older shows, I hope that newer, current shows will take precedence. Every once in a while, I will drift into music, comics, and video games. While my first love is tv, I enjoy a lot of popular culture.
I hope to have some fun with this and that any readers that I may come can enjoy the commentary. I will also be tweeting about mostly ridiculous things, like reality shows, that may not make it onto the blog themselves. I also express my views on politics and culture in general on twitter, so be forewarned that it’s now always going to be about culture narrowly defined. You can follow me on @thatwasdeep). I will try my best not to insert my personal life in this blog, but it seems as if personal life/commentary is endemic to this genre, so I can’t promise anything.