Analyse the development of the police/crime series in terms of a move toward a ‘realist’ aesthetic


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Katrina Brookes

MA Film and Television Studies

TV Drama– Phil Yeats

Analyse the development of the police/crime series in terms of a move toward a ‘realist’ aesthetic (in terms of form and theme) (Re-drafted)

June 23rd 2009

Module number 2FTV701
Word count 4720

Correspondence Address: 33 Norsey View Drive, Billericay CM12 0QR

Analyse the development of the police/crime series in terms of a move toward a ‘realist’ aesthetic (in terms of form and theme).
I am going to tackle this question by discussing mainly US TV police/crime dramas past to present with a focus on ‘Hill Street Blues’ and ‘The Wire’ as my main texts with a focus on the more realistic aesthetic in terms of form and theme and ‘CSI’ as representing the exception.
Traditionally, as Stark S, (1997 p34) reports, Time magazine published in January 1954: ‘More people are killed each year on TV’s crime shows than die annually in the six largest cities of the US. But in one respect, television has a better record than the nation’s police: every TV lawbreaker pays the penalty for his crime’.

Depictions of violence in the 50s weren’t really graphic as family values and conventions of timeslots were observed and crime didn’t pay. ‘It is relatively rare for TV crime dramas to challenge dominant ideologies about the police…they generally tend to end with satisfying spectacle of the perpetrator being caught’.

When we evaluate what claims of realism shows are making we focus on the signifiers of realism such as children, poverty and technical codes of camera, editing, sound and mise en scene. Certain storylines and subject matters tend to demonstrate that a pessimistic view is more realistic. Location shooting, long takes and dealing with a large cast of people makes a programme more realistic but is also more expensive. In terms of style, performance, mise en scene, pacing, action and dialogue there seems to be a radical difference between the UK and the US.

1. Stark, 1997 Glued to the Set New York ,Simon and Schuster

Audiences have always been obsessed by murder, mysteries and crimes in general so the police crime genre will always be one of the most popular on television and accounts for 50% of all weekly drama scheduling (Jeremy Points,Teaching TV Drama)2. Criminals break the law and the law breaks criminals (Rough guide to cult movies, p119). Of course it is quite difficult for most audiences to have a clue about how real the worlds of crime and policing are. All we have are the media representations and mainly film and TV to rely on in terms of verisimilitude. Some dramas aside from the variations in narrative of resolving crimes and the surprising who, why and how have also raised issues of gender and ethnic identity for example ‘A Touch of Frost – A minority of One’ David Simon creator of The Wire comments on the representation of police procedurals on TV.

“My whole take on police procedurals is that they're desensitising us to the realities. Look, the number of people killed on all three versions of Law & Order in any given year is more than the number of people actually killed in Manhattan, total. And virtually all of them are white.” Interview with Nathan Englander. 4

Back in 1950s UK, shows like Dixon of Dock Green had a look at the ordinary, comforting police officer and communities’ every day nature of the people. As a presence he was paternal and often a moralising presence where the crimes were not serious. Though it did research the workings of day-to-day policing quite thoroughly in order to portray a realist view, it increasingly began to look more and more out of time especially in comparison with the US show Dragnet.

Probably the most successful police drama in television history. Dragnet's hallmark was its appearance of realism, from the documentary-style narration by Joe Friday, 3.

3. Jeremy Points Teaching TV Drama

4. September 12 interview in The Times Nathan Englander interview with David Simon

to the cases drawn from the files of the real L.A.P.D., to its attention to the details of police work ("It was 3:55. . .We were working the day watch out of homicide"). Viewers were reminded of the unglamorous dead ends and the constant interruptions of their private lives that plague real policemen that we are now familiar with Cracker, DCI Tennison in Prime Suspect as is the nature of the job. At the end of each episode, after the criminal was apprehended, an announcer would describe what happened at the subsequent trial and the severity of the sentence.

The Onion AV club primer detectives website states :

At the start of an episode, Detective Joe Friday (played by Webb) would state the time and the place where the action was taking place, then walk the audience through a single crime (or series of unrelated crimes), emphasizing the routine legwork through which he and his partner cracked cases. Webb was a moralist, and in the '60s version of Dragnet especially, he often used the show as a platform from which to preach the gospel of law and order. But he kept the foundation of the show simple: crime, clues, apprehension, and justice.5

Another Dragnet trademark is the show's opening narration: "Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent."6 This emphasises that what the audience is about to see has actually happened blurring the lines of documentary and fictional storytelling.



In general, TV drama aims to convince audiences that it provides a window on reality. It does this by using a series of codes and conventions that create the effect of reality such as camerawork, editing, mise en scene ( realistic locations and for example the forensic science equipment viewers are shown but few will have ever actually seen this equipment in action )., characters, narrative, dialogue, and sound (in police crime mainly diegetic with police jargon). Long takes lingering over silences before and after dialogue, an unobtrusive camera taking on the role of another character in the drama give it a programme a more realistic effect.

The codes of realism vary from one culture to another, vary over time and are constantly open to change. As new technologies are developed – such as lightweight handheld cameras, steadicams, more sophisticated editing techniques and special effects – new conventions of realism are established. Realism is an ideological representation of reality. It might be the programme-makers’ views or a point of view, which they feel, is commonly held. Realism is a way of organising the real – creating a hierarchy of what is important and what’s more marginal. It gives prominence to some values, attitudes and beliefs over others.

In 1962, Z Cars was created. Set in a fictional town of Newtown somewhere between Manchester and Liverpool the themes focused on disillusionment the new town were causing social problems, crimes, racism, alcohol and drugs. Chiefly realism of subject matter, pessimism, the characters were developed, were flawed, made mistakes, failed to balance home and work life.

In the 1970s The Streets of San Francisco starring Karl Malden (a well established film actor) and Michael Douglas as an unlikely pairing of police officers who investigated homicides in the ‘city by the bay.’ The show had a lot of urban gritty street scenes emphasising the real location of San Francisco. Storylines were still resolved in each episode and crime still didn’t pay. Audiences became used to seeing realistic storylines, police stations and real exterior locations but the police characters still resolved crimes within the space of an episode and were still largely pillars of the community.
Then along came an early example of American Quality Television (AQT). Hill Street Blues which ran between1981-1987. Robert J Thompson in his book, Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill Street Blues to ER (Continuium, 1996) describes American Quality Television (AQT) in the following ways:
‘it is not regular TV…it breaks the rules. It may do this by taking a traditional genre and transforming it…or it may defy standard generic parameters and define new narrative territory heretofore unexplored by television.’

Celebrated for its visual and narrative style; HBO had multiple storylines running concurrently and extended across episodes (often in the course of one episode, up to five storylines could be developing at any one time, none of which are resolved at the end of the episode). In terms of aesthetics, Hill Street Blues borrowed heavily from the documentary tradition, much of it being shot with a hand held camera. It was such a visual change for the audiences they were having to work to understand when watching a programme, to paraphrase David Simon when describing its relationship with The Wire instead of leaning back and taking it all in you’re sitting forward and really paying attention. 7

7 Unwired with David Simon

HSB was demanding more from its audience, the confusing dialogue, lots of voices talking simultaneously and extras walking in front of the camera meant you had to concentrate to work out what was going on. It also created a much more realistic effect than had previously been seen on television drama. ‘Hill Street Blues is celebrated for its’ innovative style which broke the mould of crime drama that had gone before it ie. Kojak and Starsky and Hutch. It rejected the established conventions of a central character (Ironside/Columbo) or a duo (Starsky and Hutch) and it did not solve a single crime in a single episode.’ 8 quotes Professor Todd Gitlin in his 'Inside Prime Times' Hill Street Blues demonstrates the unusual way of 'scene setting', by quoting the episode where two teenagers take hostages during a robbery. In traditional television someone rushing into the station house, or cutting away to a person phoning in to report it would have presented this important development to the viewer. Instead here the viewer learns of the event by hearing Furillo telling someone over the telephone about a possible 'hostage situation', while in the background can be heard Sgt. Esterhaus telling the Commander "We won't know that until we have interfaced with the perpetrators"9
8 Own notes from Carly Sandy at BFI Media Studies conference 2007 The Crime Genre/


For starters, there were thirteen main characters, which was very unusual. The characters were also constructed differently, for example the hegemonic male

police/detective figure was characterised to reveal self-doubt and vulnerability and in contrast the female characters were represented to combine professional competence and sexuality. It was quick to emphasise the private lives of the characters and the personal dilemmas that they faced, like The Bill, crossing over into the territory of soap opera.

Treatment of crime in drama and factual shows has responded to shifting anxieties. Feelings in the public that we are potential victims. People are anxious that police have no moral authority to protect us from ourselves. Traditionally, victims of crime would be participants in the crime world or something shady. Increasingly, now anyone can become a victim of crime. There is an increasing obsession with violent crime. Crime in the media can help us to deal with those fears that irresponsible citizens are at the hands of an irresponsible state.

`… the police drama … has consistently explored social mores, popular concerns and contemporary folk devils. At the same time, it treads a thin line between realism and a relentlessly upbeat representation of the police force, and is prone to stereotyping and tokenism. It remains a world dominated by individualistic white men. Despite this mass of contradictions, however, it is a versatile and flexible genre that can survive the loss of central characters and confront highly sensitive social issues’. (Screenonline) 10

In 1993, ‘Homicide’ showed a greater level of realism. It was did not intend to be a crowd pleaser, there were no jokes, no romance and things go badly wrong. It had a distinctive style, entirely shot in a handheld style using low-grade equipment. David Simon who spent one year on the streets with detective squad in Baltimore as a reporter wrote Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets based on his experience of these crime-ridden streets and in 1991 was turned into an NBC series by Barry Levinson. NBC kept showing it though its ratings were very poor, they were proud of it though they were threatened with cancellation. Baltimore becomes one of the characters it’s so obviously mentioned. It shows a bleak world with no chunks of victory for the little characters, it prepares the audience for The Wire.
It’s impossible to believe completely in the authenticity of crime programmes, not many members of the audience can believe that what they’re being shown is entirely true, but if they sound up to date with modern police procedures and use plenty of police jargon we tend to believe more in it. In the ‘Perfect Detective Programme’, Midsomer murders and Morse came bottom for authenticity, Colin Dexter the creator of Inspector Morse says he was writing to entertain, “Nothing was accurate,” he says. He wasn’t interested in forensic research.
‘Prime Suspect’ was perhaps the first to look at truly unpleasant crimes following ‘Silence of the Lambs’. It flaunted its authenticity and crime scenes, the autopsies were shown in unflinching detail, could it be described as another example of quality television. 10 Screenonline - Sean Delaney

Another example of American Quality Television that is exception to the move towards a realist aesthetic is the top rated ‘CSI’. Its central characters are forensic scientists in Las Vegas. The degree to which the ‘effect’ of reality is convincing depends more on how successfully the codes borrow from one another than on how far they relate to the ‘reality’ of police stations/procedures. When CSI:NY (2004-) introduced a forensic laboratory integrated within an office working environment, it was coded to suggest that it was a modern and efficient forensic environment. It effectively achieved this by using a mise en scene with connotations of technological sophistication and modernity – light environment of glass and steel, suffused with computer screens and other hi-tech devices, all of which suggested a modern image of science to audiences. And that itself conveyed a view that scientific investigation was the only way in which crimes could be solved.

The show is more about stylisation and artificiality than realism and it makes no attempt to conceal that fact. Unlike the Wire, it is easy to dip into, most stories are resolved within one episode and the characters lack depth. We see special effects such as traces of DNA flying into the bone or a bullet point of view shot going into the head. We are reassuringly told that the evidence never lies. Aesthetically, the science montage is very sensual, specific lighting is used to show textures of the actors’ faces and the surfaces are reflective, aluminium metal and the camera moves a lot of the time avoiding traditional editing.
Another trademark of the show is the flashback, when they’re looking at evidence and they’re starting to hypothesise you get a distorted flashback but they’re not actually true. At the end of the episode you get a confession, another flashback with more frames but one, which is actually true. There is high key lighting, clinical lab equipment and computer imaging characterise the mise en scene, connoting sophisticated investigative procedures and clinical precision. The investigation team is constantly drawing breathtaking conclusions from the slightest details of evidence. It is not really trying to make a statement it is neither socially conscious nor political.
The representation in CSI is not simply limited to reassuring images of the powers of empirical research, many scenes are humorously presented, accompanied by fast-paced editing and pop music soundtracks. Nevertheless, despite the flashy excessive stylisation, audiences probably come away with a sense of the reliability of forensic investigative methods. 11Jeremy Points p64-65

Lawyers have complained of the CSI effect black and white evidence of DNA etc and now it’s impossible to convince juries of guilt if there’s no obvious evidence. This this an indicator or audience belief in realism of crime solving television. Cases are always solved. The show goes to surreal heights in its disregard to realism, with humour and slick dialogue. Occasionally it lapses into the realm of fantasy, such as a 2006 episode, "Toe Tags" which is told from the point of view of several corpses in the CSI lab who reanimate and discuss their deaths with each other.12

11Jeremy Points – Teaching TV Drama BFI 2006 p66-67

12 "The CSI Shot: Making It Real", CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Season 3 DVD (bonus feature), Momentum Pictures, April 5, 2004.

Since 9/11 there seems to be a greater appetite for this kind of storytelling. Wrapping everything up getting the bad guy, forensic certainty and seeing the totally incorruptible as reassuring - a move away from grim realism. The show has been criticised heavily not only by parents who complain about the level of gratuitousness of graphic violence, images and sexual content seen on the show but by police and district attorneys who feel CSI portrays an inaccurate image of how police solve crimes.

Another criticism of the show is the depiction of police procedure, which some consider to be decidedly lacking in realism. (The Real CSI) For instance, the show's characters not only investigate crime scenes (as their real-world counterparts would), but they also conduct raids, engage in suspect pursuit and arrest, interrogate suspects, and solve cases, which falls under the responsibility of uniformed officers and detectives, not CSI personnel.

Some police and district attorneys have criticized the show for giving members of the public an inaccurate perception of how police solve crimes. Victims and their families are coming to expect instant answers from showcased techniques such as DNA analysis and fingerprinting, when in real life processing such evidence can take days or even weeks. District attorneys state that the conviction rate in cases with little physical evidence has decreased, largely due to the influence of CSI on jury members. (CSI effect) 13

13 'CSI effect' has juries wanting more evidence", USA Today (2004-08-05). Retrieved 20th December 2008

From CSI to the very heights of aesthetic realism – The Wire, 60 episodes created by David Simon ( a Baltimore reporter turned author of books about crime in Baltimore and Ed Burns (a police detective who then became a schoolteacher).

The Wire premiered on June 2, 2002 and ended on March 9, 2008, with sixty episodes airing over the course of its five seasons. The show doesn’t conform to the traditional drama formats, it flatters its audience by making it sit up and concentrate visually and aurally as the dialogue can sometimes be difficult to understand.

‘ Simon and Burns were eager to throw out the moribund certainties of the cop genre and inject not just a measure of reality, but a potentially , combustible mix of urban sociology, fiercely argued politics, and, believe it or not macroeconomics.’ 14

A series serial which focuses each season on a particular institution, Simon and Burns provide a coherent picture of what is wrong with America today. Parallels are drawn between the institutions of drugs, politics, unions, the school system and the media.  
Very little resolution is given in each episode, resolution usually comes after 12 or 13 hours. The first season looks at the drug dealers as an institutional hierarchy running parallel with the police crime solving hierarchy, from judge to lowly cop. Season two focuses on the collapse of piers in Baltimore and the collapse of the working-class life leading to despair and criminal activity. The political system in season three, the education system in four and finally David Simon’s own career beginnings as a reporter and his own paper falls victim of his criticism the media with a fictional paper based on the Baltimore Sun. Simon has said that despite its presentation as a crime drama, the show is "really about the American city, and about how we live together.

14 Rose, Brian G, The Essential HBO Reader – Chapter 5 The Wire University Press of Kentucky 2008 p82

It's about how institutions have an effect on individuals, and how ... whether you're a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge or lawyer, you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you've committed to. 15
Television interview Charlie Brooker and David Simon, Simon says ‘Picasso said art is the lie that shows us the truth, this is a lie in the sense that life is anti drama the plotlines don’t perfectly congeal but having said that I feel that I do feel I was able to tell certain palpable truths with fiction in a way that journalism was almost resistant to do.”

Charlie Brooker interviewed Lance Reddick (Col. Daniels) in the Guardian on Saturday 26 January 2008 who said "One of the questions that's always asked in the show is: how do you reconcile ethics with necessity? This season, with the media - what's their responsibility? To tell the truth or sell papers? It's the same compromise between the two. And it's the same thing with the police department, with City Hall, the streets... this season, they're all intertwined."

Visually, a lot of handheld cameras or steadicams are used. The audience is brought very closely into the action and is very much almost a participant of the goings on, you are not asked to sympathise with anyone but more with everyone, and there are no heroes. It looks gritty and low key at the lower ends of the institutional hierarchies and more slick and high key when for example offices in skyscrapers or courtrooms are filmed. ‘ The montage sequence that concludes seasons 1,2 and 3 makes it

15 David Simon. (2005). "The Target" commentary track dvd

clear that the narrative arc of ‘The Wire’ is one that permits little in the way of growth or resolution, mirroring the intractable problems of so many real-life American cities.’16
A huge cast was used, bigger than Hill Street Blues all with detailed storylines. An astonishing cast of actors, some non-professionals, some recruited in Baltimore. Despite the crime drama presentation and its emphasis on Baltimore, it’s really about an American city and how we all live together. The programme renounces the simplicity of good versus evil and concentrates on demonising the institution. Characters are drawn from a humanist point of view, for example we sympathise most with Di Angelo, nephew of the king of the drug trade in Baltimore. He comes across as thoughtful and interesting. Characters who are initially monstrous turn out to be sympathetic.

Jimmy McNulty is totally unreliable, selfish, self destructive alcoholic, bad father, divorcee not unlike previous TV detectives Tennison and Morse, and annoys everyone (like Frost) including his friends. He tends to drive the story away with his indiscretions. There are few victories; you are viewing an endless series of disappointments. Simon says ‘ we are not selling hope or audience gratification’ and despite it not being easy to follow, local accents and the large number of different characters that keep popping up you are drawn to the actors at all levels. Phil Yeats states that it campaigns virtues at a time of political complacency, where the government is not concentrating on problems at home but rather concentrating solely on terrorism or massive corporate fraud. The team gain audience support as they have little money or support to carry out their work and endless obstacles that need overcoming.

16 Rose, Brian G, The Essential HBO Reader – Chapter 5 The Wire University Press of Kentucky 2008 p86

The Wire makes a huge effort to be realistic. The style is handheld, many points of view, three tier hierarchy judge / investigators / cops paralleling head of drug trade and estate dealers. The camera is left to observe the action, largely medium shots, allowing the characters to take the lead, mise en scene largely restrained and plain. Close ups are used only when necessary and it is character and dialogue led and we don’t really see any establishing shot, unusually restrained editing, more cinematic.

‘Colesberry (co-executive producer and previously producer of innovative films) helped fashion a distinctive visual approach that was fully in keeping with the series’ assault against the norms of the contemporary cop show…Colesberry rejected this self-conscious flashiness and instead employed a more filmic strategy, emphasising clarity, spatial depth and the relationship of the characters to their environments. The goal was a style mirroring the show’s narrative pace.’17

In just one episode, signifiers of realism shown are the real locations used of the courtroom, city hall, plenty of real exteriors and the investigation team’s basement are all examples of signifiers of a day in the life of, even the ex wife’s home.

The title sequence hints at the complexity of the show, close ups, snapshots, don’t reveal much just lots of wires close circuit camera being watched. Filled with connotations of surveillance. Music and sound are mainly diegetic. To aid the realism dialogue is taken from real events that happened to Ed Burns and other police. A lot of performers have worked in the drug trade.

17 Rose, Brian G, The Essential HBO Reader – Chapter 5 The Wire University Press of Kentucky 2008 p88

Domestic conflicts are essential to the character development. Shots of surveillance inserted whenever possible, symbolic to us as an audience observing. As in the chess conversation in season one where DiAngelo explains how to play chess to his buddies and makes them understand the rules by personifying the chess pieces. They are all parts of a chess game, pawns, and you see this at every level of the system both drug and police. Parallels are drawn in both hierarchies. ‘When I’m gone there’ll be someone else to take my place.’ ‘And as Simon fondly notes, a strong following among both cops and criminals, who admire the show’s faithful recreation of their lives.’18

In the Guardian interview, Charlie Brooker discusses the secret of the show’s success with some of its main characters.

Wendell Pierce ("Bunk" Moreland): "The humanity. The more specific you are, the more universal it becomes. People want to know the truth, and there's authenticity to our show. That's what people are responding to; that's why there's such diversity in

our audience too. Everyone thinks the show speaks only to them, for them, because

of that authenticity."

Sonja Sohn (Det. Kima Greggs): "It validates the experiences of a large group of people. Walking down the street I could be approached by lawyers, cops, dealers all saying 'That's exactly how it is. Finally there's something that shows what we go through, every day'." 19

18 Rose, Brian G, The Essential HBO Reader – Chapter 5 The Wire University Press of Kentucky 2008 p90

19 High on The Wire

The show is unique because as a piece of art it does its job amidst a sea of entertainment created to pacify people and get them to buy stuff . I can only speak as an American, but most journalism here isn't doing its job any more. It's about selling stuff ."

In fact, it's so true-to-life, some of the criminal tactics portrayed on the show have been copied in real life. Jamie Hector (Marlo Stanfield): "The cellphone strategy was used in the Queensbridge Projects in Brooklyn."

So the show's authentic. It's also complex. By taking in so many aspects of society - with characters ranging from corner boys (young street dealer) to schoolteachers to Congressmen, all intermingling within this immense, malfunctioning social machine, battered by each other's agendas - The Wire offers a bleakly convincing portrayal of both Why Things Mess Up and Why That Won't Change.

Despite The Wire and an emphasis on realism and well-documented scandals, including brutality, corruption and charges of 'institutionalised racism', the television image of the police on our televisions is still dominated by the traditional male sleuth in a suit, sometimes avuncular, sometimes grumpy. Not surprisingly, the message of most British police fiction series is still that crime does not/must not pay. Both image and message would not be out of place in the 1950s.

Recent efforts to introduce new series and formats, including ITV's M.I.T.: Murder Investigation Team (2003-), Murder City (2004-) and Murder in Suburbia (2004), have met with mixed responses from critics and audiences alike, despite their determination to present professional, modern and female alternatives. Only The Bill currently attempts to cover uniformed policing. Police cooperation is important in the production of long-running series and this may deter broadcasters and programme-makers from incurring their wrath. Unorthodox, violent and/or corrupt police officers may abound in the cinema but these days we are, it seems, less keen to welcome them into our living rooms.



Points, Jeremy, Teaching TV Drama BFI 2006

Creeber, Glen Serial Television pages 2-14 BFI 2004

Rose, Brian G, The Essential HBO Reader – Chapter 5 The Wire University Press of Kentucky 2008

Simpson, Rodiss, Bushell, The Rough Guide to Cult Movies - Rough Guides Ltd; 2nd Revised edition edition (4 Nov 2004)

Websites paragraph 4 in introduction David Simon on cutting ‘The Wire’ - Interview by Scott Tobias

David Simon on the End of the American Empire

Unwired with David Simon

Nathan Englander interview The Times September 12, 2008 -

Screenonline TV Police Drama -

High on The Wire

Notes taken by Katrina Brookes

Phil Yeats teacher of TV Drama module at the University of Westminster

Carly Sandy BFI conference notes titles Teaching the Detective Genre


The Perfect Detective Programme BBC2 29/12/08

Scottish Television Enterprises – Directed by Angus McIntyre and Charlie Stuart

The Wire – Season 1

Hill Street Blues and CSI clips from YouTube


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