How DNA Killed TV Detective Shows

What ever happened to the traditional detective show on TV? The crime scene investigation show killed it, that’s what happened to the traditional detective show on TV. The paltry detective shows that do air on television these days, like Monk, depend so much on character quirkiness that the actual mystery is often so unimportant as to be extraneous. Only the most fanatical of Monk fans, for instance, would be able to recall any of the actual mysteries; most fans can probably tell you what particular OCD compulsions Monk went through during an episode than can recall the killer, motive, or means. While it is true that character-based detective shows have always existed–Columbo being the most obvious–the real meat of the tradition detective show has always been watching the PI outsmart the police. With the rise of crime scene investigation and DNA evidence replacing the ability of the detective to use good old-fashioned deductive reasoning, the old style is perhaps forever gone. Much to the viewer’s detriment.

The iconic figure of the private detective is Sherlock Holmes, of course. Interestingly, Sherlock is a forebear of both the traditional PI and the (over?)reliance on science and technology. Holmes famously wrote a monograph on the differences in tobacco ash and how this could lead to the identification of a criminal. What really earns Holmes his rightful place as the man who gave birth to offspring from Barnaby Jones to Peter Gunn, however, is that his identification of the culprit usually came about as the result of deduction and observation rather than a reliance on always fallible science. It was science, remember, that once explained away stomach ulcers solely as the result of eating spicy foods; the day will come when a man removed from death row by DNA evidence will be found to have been guilty all along. Trust that such a thing will become relatively commonplace; or, at least it won’t be rare.

The point I am struggling to make is that science is fallible; at least as fallible as a human being’s powers of deductive reasoning. Yet once the DNA report comes back positive the mystery seems to be over. The worst part is this acceptance of the authority of science is that it transfers over to reality; juries expect DNA evidence to be without question and all that circumstantial evidence that used to be enough to warrant conviction is today judged far less important. But I digress.

The CSI mode of crime drama has resulted in the almost wholesale devastation of one of the elemental foundation of television programming. Today there is no place for the old school detective who outsmarted the police at every turn due to his superior deductive qualities. Today’s Sherlocks and Mike Hammers and Mannixes and Magnums simply don’t have access to the kind of evidence gathering technology to compete with the Abby Sciuttos of the world. Jethro Gibbs may use his gut to determine which suspect is lying and he may violate the Constitution about ten times an episode on NCIS, but true guilt is always proven via Abby’s lab work or McGee’s geeky brilliance with computer forensics. By contrast, Ellery Queen once proved a suspect guilty by revealing that the main suspect was not holding a bottle suspected to be full of poison in a guilty way because he was right-handed. Such simple, yet very creative observation, has no place in the world of CSI and Law and Order style crime drama. (By the way, I would probably be convicted by Ellery since I am apparently one of the few right-handed people who pours using his left hand!)

The reason that advancements in forensic sciences and crime scene investigation has done away with the private detective show as it was originally known is that the key to the success of those shows was the pleasure of watching the detective outwit the cops. Even when the hero was a cop and not a private eye, he was a copy only in name; a rebel who played by his own rules and did away with the book. Okay, those kinds of cops are so common that every time you see one now you almost ache for a movie whose hero is a cop who actually does play by the book (the occasional ability to catch a crook without violating the Constitution would certainly be welcome even on those crime scene investigation shows), but you still rooted for them because they solved crimes by being smarted than the cops. There are not too many private detectives who can outwit all that million dollar equipment. As a result, the solving of crimes on shows like CSI and NCIS and their ilk are so less interesting than the way that old-fashioned private eyes solved crimes that you have to allow cops like Jethro Gibbs to break every Constitutional law in place just to make the crime solving element of the show interesting.

Make no mistake: there has yet to be a lab tech’s report on DNA discovered by finding a chewed toe inside a victim’s intestines that is nearly as interesting as any Ellery Queen explanation about how he figured it out.