Death of the crime drama

Death of the crime drama

A recent DNA ruling threatens to put scriptwriters and actors out of work

Neil Genzlinger

Do Justices Anthony M Kennedy,Clarence Thomas,Stephen G Breyer,Samuel A Alito Jr and John G Roberts Jr not own televisions?

Those are Supreme Court justices in the US who last Monday made up the majority of a 5-4 decision that gives the police broad power to grab a DNA sample from a suspect in a serious crime.

Never mind the issues of unreasonable search and privacy that the decision raises. What about its effect on TV crime shows?


Here is the plot of a generic hour-long police/court drama in the mould of Law & Order and its imitators from any time in the past two decades:

Minute 1: A crime is committed.

Minutes 2-5: An obvious suspect is detained.

Minutes 6-55: The suspect’s lawyer and the authorities do a lengthy dance over DNA evidence collection and admissibility,which eventually results in the discovery of a previous offence.

Minutes 56-60: The suspect either is convicted of the new crime or he turns out to be a red herring,whereupon a minor character is revealed to be the culprit.

If the real-life police are now taking cheek swabs and matching suspects to a database only seconds after they are initially detained,those hour-long shows become eight-minute webisodes,and a lot of writers and actors are out of work. The Supreme Court has not merely changed the rules of crime-fighting; it has changed the rules of television.

You may already have an inkling of what this is going to mean,because you’ve watched some old TV show that has been overtaken by societal change of one sort or another. The invention of the telephone back in the 1800s gradually changed storytelling,making it much harder for writers to use distance as an excuse for characters’ not having a conversation that needed having. Eventually writers adapted,and the phone became a major plot device,almost a character in and of itself. Bob Newhart,Lily Tomlin and others built whole comic personas by interacting with telephones. Then along came cellphones,and the rules changed again.

The cellphone put a whole new set of plot devices and conceits in jeopardy. After around 1990,a Gilligan’s Island couldn’t exist without implausible excuses like poor reception or dead batteries.

And what about that beloved cliché of a scene in which Timmy and Lassie are out in the woods and Timmy is chased up a tree by a bear?

“Woof,” says Lassie.

“What’s that,Lassie?” says Timmy. “You’ll run six miles back to the house and bark at Dad in such a way that he realises I’ve been chased up a tree by a bear? Why? I can just text him.”

Yes,in a world well supplied with cellphones,Lassie is just another dog. And in a world of instant DNA swabbing and database matching,crime shows lose options. The more routine DNA collection becomes and the bigger the database grows,the harder it will be to build an episode to a genetically based eureka moment. There will be many more first-time offenders,whose DNA is not already in the database: the wife who has had enough of her spouse’s snoring; the office underling who needs to clear someone out of her career path. Perhaps more murders for hire,too,to distance the mastermind’s DNA from the crime. Or a new breed of techno-criminals who can somehow alter their own DNA to thwart the system.

Move over,Lassie; a lot of old-school bad guys and gals will need a spot in the unemployed actors’ home.