Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Implausibility, or Why I Hate Most Cop Shows

This blog is a rant disguised as writing advice. Therefore, when I say "When you're writing something, be sure to do your research", what I really mean is "Man, don't you hate TV shows that assume we're all idiots?"

I realize that there is a necessary balancing act between too much research and flying by the seat of your pants. A story too concerned with 100% accuracy can often appear infodumpy, and if the writer includes too many details it can really bog down the pacing of a story. I also understand that you're never going to make every reader/viewer happy. (If you're ever looking for people who care too much about minutae, read the "Goofs" sections on IMDb. My favorite is this gem from Bourne Ultimatum: "In the opening minutes of the film, Bourne has his nightmare in Goa and goes to the bathroom. We hear the fluorescent lamp ballast (choke) buzzing at 60Hz, however if Bourne is in Goa, India like the film says then it should be buzzing at 50Hz." Obviously, you're never going to please these types of people.)

But, despite that caveat I want to firmly declare: there are times when you simply have to have your facts straight.

The most egregious genre (or, at least, the genre I'm thinking about at the moment) is cop shows. We Americans are raised from little kids to know what's in the Constitution, and when we're in the fifth grade we study the Bill of Rights, and we all know what an illegal search is. I'm not complaining about the little-known trivialities of police procedure--I'm complaining about when a cop breaks into someone's house to search it. That's illegal. They may find evidence that catches the bad guy, the TV show ends happily, and everyone in the audience is thinking "ALL THAT EVIDENCE IS GOING TO BE THROWN OUT OF COURT, YOU MORONS."

This is likewise a problem when a cop beats a confession out of someone, which is done all the time in stupid cop shows, generally when something is time sensitive, like a bomb is going to go off, or a kidnappee is locked in a box somewhere. If a real cop did this, the criminal would sue, the cop would get demoted or fired, and the bad guy might not go to jail after all.

This drives me crazy.

Lots of cop shows get around this by making a private detective do the dirty work: they're not cops, so they can do whatever they want! True, a private detective cannot perform an illegal search and seizure (because he can't even perform legal search and siezure), but that private detective can definitely go to jail for breaking and entering. Of course, that would never happen, because the ultimate message of cop shows is: as long as the bad guy goes to jail, the ends justify the means. Beat up a criminal, break into a house, coerce a confession, entrap a suspect--that's all okey dokey.

Which leads me to my real point: yes, we all know these laws, and yet we ignore them (with few notable exceptions) when it comes to our entertainment. Is this a sign of deep philosophical rumblings, where we Americans view our society with a kind of Old West justice--shoot first, ask questions later? Or is it, perhaps, that we catatonically gobble up any lazy piece of writing slapped on the screen?

(I know there's a third option, which is "Sheesh, Rob! It's escapism! Calm it down, fatboy!" This, I suppose, is a valid point. It's still apathetic--it assumes that escapism can only be found in lazy, crappy writing, when that is most definitely not the case. But I will concede that there are worse things in the world, like genocide, maybe.)

So, after all that, I guess my point is this: man, I hate Castle.


At 1/26/2011 5:41 AM, Blogger Melanie Goldmund said...

So, Rob, do you watch Fringe and if so, what do you think of it?

At 1/26/2011 9:46 AM, Anonymous ray said...

I share your feelings but feel they should extend to shows about lawyers, crime labs, the FBI etc. Law and Order gives you the impression that defense attorneys are obstacles to justice; FBI shows tell us that G-men routinely ingnore their superiors and do what they want. And crime lab shows tell us that evidence is always conclusive and always convicts. Yes, it's escapism, but we have too many idiots in our country who have outsourced thinking to cable TV and the internet and don't know or understand the difference.

At 1/26/2011 9:57 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

I'm guessing it's the Old West answer--we find it fun and escapist to see the good guys unconstrained by the rules and laws that real cops have to follow, and it's more immediately exciting to watch the detective breaking and entering than to watch him asking the judge for a warrant. And when Monk says, "Here's what happened" and the cops arrest the guy on his say-so, we don't want to stop and think, um, a good defense attorney would DESTROY your so-called case.

At 1/26/2011 10:13 AM, Anonymous Mean aunt said...

You hate Castle? But he's so ruggedly handsome!

I'm going with the escapism. No one would watch a show about real life. Well, maybe Stephanie's epic mice battles, but certainly not cops doing paperwork.

At 1/26/2011 10:35 AM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Ray, I totally agree--lawyer shows and CSI shows are just as bad. They play fast and loose with the law, with science, with jurisdiction, and everything else. (There was an awesome article recently where they interviewed a retired Detroit cop while he was watching the new show Detroit 187. He said in his entire career they only solved one case because of a fingerprint on a bullet casing--and it took the lab 8 months to process it!)

I guess my point is that, while a cop show is never going to be entirely realistic--as Mean Aunt said, cops doing paperwork is not great TV--I don't think that escapism and good, plausible writing must be mutually exclusive.

At 1/26/2011 10:41 AM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

My cop brother despises shows like this (CSI in particular) because people start believing that cases can be solved quickly with fancy technology. Most people don't realize that a simple DNA test can take weeks or months to process. And like you said, Rob, fingerprints are rarely useful (there is no national database with them, for starters, so getting a match, even if one exists in some computer somewhere, could take eons).

At 1/26/2011 10:42 AM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Also, here's a great blog about forensics FOR writers:

LOVE it.

At 1/26/2011 10:43 AM, Blogger T.J. said...

I always laugh (internally usually) at shows like CSI when they catch the criminal overnight. Seriously, Perry Mason was better written since it took days to figure out who the killer was and get him/her to confess.

At 1/26/2011 11:32 AM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Surely you can't be implying that Castle is like that. Why, just last week the lead detective slammed a suspect against the glass in the interrogation room and the captain reprimanded her, took her off the case, and sent her home. The entire premise of the show is that a writer shadows a by-the-book cop, and she generally is by-the-book. But the thing that draws me to Castle is that it has comedy mixed in with the drama. They have really great one-liners and mix it up with a whodunit type of mystery murder to solve. I guess for me, most cop shows nowadays have gotten too graphic and violent for me to watch. I would come away from watching them feeling as dark as the subject matter. Castle is feel good television with great stories, witty writing, and a fun ensemble cast.

Of course, if you were talking about Hawaii Five-O I probably would have agreed with you. They kick in doors and beat people up almost every week because the "governor" gave them a free pass. But that show is all about escapism, and is on the air mostly just for eye candy anyway. Who wouldn't want to watch a show about Hawaii? It makes me want to go there. And they have a cool theme song. :)

At 1/26/2011 11:44 AM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Oh, I'm absolutely lumping Castle into that category. :)

Admittedly, I haven't watched any of the second season, but the incessant illegal searches (and breaking and entering/trespassing) was the main reason I gave up on it. Maybe the second season has cleaned that up.

(Truth be told, I wasn't actually writing this blog to make fun of Castle--just cop shows in general--but the temptation to use that last line was just too great. I'm weak.) :)

At 1/26/2011 12:10 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Well, we're currently halfway into the third season. Honestly I can't remember a lot of illegal searches and breaking and entering. I remember them having to wait for warrants and such, though. Funny, how perspectives are different. Maybe I'll go back and watch my Season 2 DVD and see if there really are a number of them. But I am totally enjoying Season 3. The writers for this show are phenomenal in my book. :)

At 1/26/2011 12:20 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

One completely implausible moment in Castle was a season finale with a massive explosion that nearly totaled Beckett's apartment building.

She came out with nary a scratch because she jumped into her bathtub before it blew.

Yeah. Okay . . .

At 1/26/2011 12:30 PM, Anonymous Jordan said...

I love explosions on TV/movies. They really show how good of an actor you are. 80% of the folks good enough to get on TV or a movie look completely stupid and/or fake when leaping for cover/being knocked down from the concussion. Mmhm. Yeah. That was a real bomb. (We've also been watching a lot of Star Trek TNG lately. Yeah, something totally just hit the ship. Next time, shake the same direction, guys.)

This actually reminds me of a great episode of L&O (my favorite TV show of ALL. TIME.) where a retired cop is now a PI. He breaks into an apt for evidence totally on his own, but the judge says he was acting under the color of law (he'd already spoken to the cops on the case, but they didn't tell him to break in), so the evidence is out. IMO, they do a good job of portraying the cops as law-abiding.

And once they did beat a suspect on The Closer (haven't watched for a couple seasons now, though). The cop that did it had them turn off the video camera before he went in, beat the location of the child out of the child molester, and got in HUGE trouble. (Another supervisor avoided totally destroying his career by putting a child molester in with the general population at lockup, where he was beaten even worse, before taking his mugshot.)

At 1/26/2011 12:31 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Not to contradict you, Annette, but she was fairly banged up as Castle helped her out of the apartment, and was in the back of an ambulance being bandaged in the next scene.

Anyway, I'm not going to defend my love of Castle, because everyone has their own tastes and perspectives. I love it. I think it's a great, well-written show. It's getting great reviews and ratings overall and it has already been picked up for a fourth season which I'm excited about. Different strokes for different folks. :)

At 1/26/2011 12:49 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Jordan, I agree about Law and Order--they do a pretty good job of balancing between realism and entertainment. (It really makes me wonder what happened to Law and Order: SVU, which is the worst offender of the bunch. I don't think there's ever been an episode where the criminal would get convicted.)

And Julie, just for the sake of argument (and because I find it fascinating): Metacritic (a review aggregator) has Castle listed at 53%. But here's the interesting thing: the critics have it listed at 53%, but the users list it at 94%. Maybe it's one of those shows akin to summer movie blockbusters where the critics don't love it but it still packs the seats?

But I agree with you: to each their own. We'll have to agree to disagree with you. :)

At 1/26/2011 12:53 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Oops. Forgot the link:

At 1/26/2011 1:06 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Season One only had ten episodes (I believe it was a mid-season replacement) so that 53% rating is based on only ten eps. I noticed they don't have anything for Season 2or 3 up yet, but if you go to big shot individual reviewers on TV Over Mind and Screen Crave (especially for this last episode, it was epic!) the reviews are fairly glowing. Maybe when metacritic has something for Castle's Season 2, (their first full season) I would put more stock in it. Season 3 has been the best yet, and like I said, I'm excited for Season 4. And yeah, the bottom line is that it's definitely been packing the seats.

And you and I agree to disagree in a lot of areas, I've noticed. Any change in your multi-tasking vs. good writing stance? Haha. Don't answer that.

At 1/26/2011 1:28 PM, Blogger Debra Erfert said...


Just a heads up, there is a computerized index of criminal justice information run by the FBI called the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, and any federal, state, or local law enforcement agencies have access to it. They include fingerprints. My brother-in-law is a retired forensics identification expert at the Arizona State Crime Lab in Flagstaff, and my husband is a retired cop and was an FBI agent for a while. I have my own set of experts in house for my writing.

Rob, I don't watch any cop/lawyers/CSI shows for all of the reasons you stated--except for Castle. He's just too hunky not to drool over. Besides, he's a writer, of sorts. And what writer worth their weight in ink would give up the chance to follow around an expert in their field? Unless, of course, you write about serial killers. Then you’d just be creepy.

At 1/26/2011 1:37 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Debra, This post explains what I meant about fingerprints. There are national databases, but they aren't remotely comprehensive, and while fingerprints are a great way to identify a criminal, finding a match doesn't happen nearly as often as we'd like to think. (This coming from my own family's expert.)

At 1/26/2011 1:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or possibility #4: The writers hate cops and their bias, seething just below the surface, finds expression in the way they portray cops breaking the law in every freaking scene they write because they can't get over their paranoid schizophrenic fixation that all cops are evil, despicable, citizen-hating slime.

Ewe. I hate cop show writers even more. Any writer who watches a cop show is an evil, despicable, citizen-hating slime-ball!

But gotta confess, love that Castle show!

At 1/27/2011 3:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And even though I am dyed-in-the-wool Castle enthusiast, this article had me laughing so hard.
I find myself yelling at the TV sometimes when things like this happen, but I still watch. It could be because I need my Nathan Fillion fix or because the show is unlike anything on TV today, but I let it pass.
I know how you feel.

At 2/10/2011 2:11 PM, Blogger Reverend Jim said...

When cops call to the perp by name when they are still a half block away, thereby providing the viewer with a pointless (and prolonged) foot chase. Wouldn't it be so much easier to wait until they were shoulder to shoulder?

When six cops burst in the front door of an apartment but neglect to post anyone at the fire escape leading to a pointless (and prolonged) foot chase.

When a victim being chased by a bad guy manages to knock him down, leaving him momentarily helpless) but neither further incapacitates him (bust a knee cap for crying out loud) nor grabs his gun. Especially obnoxious when done by someone who should know better (like in a recent episode of Human Target).

When the cops manage "infinite" enhancement of a store-front security camera where the image is reflected in someone's eyeball from across the street.

And last, but not least, when there is always one teensy bit of forensic evidence that narrows down the suspects to one or two people, or the area to a specific location (this plant grows in only one specific area of Central Park) - something which occurs in virtually every episode of CSI:NY


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