Modern Crime Dramas and the Essential Unstable Detective

There was a time when the hero detective was at most deeply eccentric; otherwise, he had ardent purpose, he was infallible, he was more brilliant than me or you — it was only a question of when and how he would solve the mystery. That’s not the case any more.

I’m not a scholar of the genre, but it would seem to me that the progenitor of the character was Sherlock Holmes, a walking forensics lab who would probably be diagnosed as autistic were he being created from scratch by today’s crime writers. He has certainly been vested with more complexity in his portrayals on film in the past few decades; Holmes is no longer simply the uncanny, razor-sharp, improbable know-it-all that Arthur Conan Doyle created. Greater emphasis is placed nowadays on his drug habit, or his issues with women, or his formidable mind short-circuiting every now and then from the stress of simply being a formidable mind that is its own worst enemy. It seems that this damaged genius is how we want the hero to be, perhaps because psychoanalysis has so permeated our culture that a hero — especially a brilliant one — cannot be believable unless he is mentally challenged in some way.

Mireille Enos in 'The Killing'

Mireille Enos in ‘The Killing’

Agatha Christie’s consulting detectives Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot were also merely eccentric. To be revived on screen as effectively as Sherlock Holmes has been of late, a nod would likely have to be made to their obsessive traits — both have a sidebar of paranoia, too. Poirot, of course, also has a severe eating disorder, which Christie ascribes to his Beligian-ness, but for me that mustache definitely points to something darker lurking within, which makes him clutch to high-fat comfort foods in an effort to keep himself steadied.

I’ve been pondering the messed-up detective for a few months now. There doesn’t seem to be a protagonist of a police procedural out there who isn’t emotionally wobbly. A full-on breakdown that threatens the investigation is almost de rigeur at some point in the season or there is no plot purpose to giving the hero a struggle with sanity to begin with.

A case in point is the British show Broadchurch, now playing on BBC America. I’ve watched the whole thing, unlike a friend of mine who only saw the first couple of episodes. “It’s so weird to see Dr. Who playing someone so normal,” she said. I was about to tell her that DI Alec Hardy, played by David Tennant, turns out to be far from normal, but she shushed me before I could elaborate further. Not that revealing Hardy’s anxiety attacks and resultant fainting spells is anything of a spoiler alert because, again, it just isn’t modern if the lead detective isn’t so bonkers that she or he is barely holding it together.

Other cases in point (that I’ve watched; I’m sure there are more): Hannibal, The Killing, House, Dexter, The Bridge, Homeland, Elementary. If you include top-rated crime dramas wherein the hero isn’t the detective, then Breaking Bad would lead the pack as an example of the near-emotional-basket-case protagonist; forums are littered with speculation about what afflicts Walter White to make him behave like that. Is he autistic? Yes, maybe, but he also shows too much empathy, so maybe not. Is he a manipulative sociopath? Again, maybe, but there’s that empathy thing, again. My guilty secret is I’ve never seen anything wrong with Walt other than a man caught in a vicious cycle who is trying to do the best thing for his family before he dies. I suspect that many fans of the show would agree with me. (I have never bought into co-lead Jesse Pinkman’s more overt histrionics. At this point he has totally tipped beyond the brink. I found him particularly jarring in this week’s episode — he’s too over-the-top volatile, but that is necessary to ratchet up the drama as the show barrels towards conclusion no holds barred.)

And what about Tony Soprano? The whole premise of the show was that a mob boss had such acute generalized anxiety disorder — and there was often talk about him being a sociopath as well — that he needed psychiatric treatment.

Hugh Dancy in 'Hannibal'

Hugh Dancy in ‘Hannibal’

Again, that’s the point of the unstable hero: his mental state and occasional uncertainty of purpose serve as plot devices to heighten the sense of dread and the possibility he will cause events to veer off course and crash. He is no longer a force of good and preternatural intelligence, like Sherlock Holmes, who will inevitably prevail over evil. His lack of mental wellbeing is now an integral part of the problem, a viable threat to the resolution.

I’m a latecomer to the crime procedural. My mother watched Murder She Wrote, which features a hero detective so normal she’s almost blah, but I was never interested. I became hooked with The Wire, but was firmly landed in the net of addicted fandom by The Shield, in which the anti-hero detective is not so much unstable emotionally as much as he’s a criminal mastermind who is forced by ever-devolving circumstances into behavior that makes Walter White seem saintly.

Having watched so many of these superlative TV crime dramas, I’m now not only a fan but in awe of the creators. They possess storytelling skills I don’t believe I have, although I suspect it might be a case of assiduously studying the tricks of the genre, breaking them down and applying them to my writing. I’d certainly love to learn how, hands-on; being a staff writer on a meditative crime show like The Killing for a season would be thrilling.

I keep telling myself that it’s merely a lack of experience with the genre that hinders me from being the ideal writer for a crime drama, but I suspect it’s something else: I simply don’t have a criminal mind, and you need one to do this properly. The dictum is “write what you know,” which by extension means “write who you are.” I’ve broken or bent a few minor laws in my time — always for circumstantial reasons, never with malice aforethought — but I cannot bring myself to consider the grander felonies that these characters chase or wrap themselves up in personally. My characters at best commit misdemeanors, and they are mostly crimes of unkindness toward one another.

Sigh. Let’s face it: I’m a pussy do-gooder.

Jonny Lee Miller in 'Elementary.'

Jonny Lee Miller as the modern Sherlock Holmes in ‘Elementary.’

I write about middle-class people who inhabit my particular socio-cultural niche and I endeavor to make them as identifiable to a broad audience as possible. But it’s a tough sell: I try to be as authentic as I can, and I’m uncompromising about it, but what the broader audience wants is my world as interpreted by Ralph Lauren or glossied up by Vanity Fair. My heroes are emotionally fairly even keel, but the characters around them are emphatically not. It’s the circumstances my hero is in that threaten him, not he himself. I’ve always gone by the traditional approach that you put the hero up in the tree in the first act, pelt stones at him in the second, and bring him down again in the third. Maybe the lesson from these shows is I should put the hero up in the tree and have him pelt stones at himself as well.

The heroes in popular entertainment reflect society in general or they wouldn’t be popular to begin with. I think it’s fascinating that even as mankind evolves and improves on all sorts of fronts, we also see ourselves as degenerating mentally; life has become so much more comfortable and less fraught with outside threats that we have indeed starting pelting ourselves with stones. Now safe to gambol around environments of relative security, our minds are scratching themselves raw, to paraphrase the novelist David Mitchell.

I’m still weighing the pros and cons of essentially being inauthentic and making my heroes more imbalanced, less heroic in a traditional sense. On the one hand, vesting a lead character with a faulty mental state seems to help an audience that has been raised in an Oprah-fied world built on relentless dysfunction to pin their hopes and aspirations on the hero’s journey. On the other, it’s just not real, and realism is the currency of my particular style. Would that currency gain value if I made my protagonists more unhinged? That’s a question the original imbalanced hero, Hamlet, might have deliberated until they dragged him off stage.


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