Where Have All The Cool Heroes Gone?

You want to know why I love writing the Fox & O’Hare books with Janet Evanovich? This blog post, which I first ran here ten years ago, explains why. While some of the TV references in the post are dated, nothing has really changed in the television or even literary landscape in the years since I wrote this. Which may be why readers have embraced The Heist and The Chase so enthusiastically, making them both top New York Times bestsellers.
KoD11There’s nobody cool on television any more.

Not so long ago, the airwaves were cluttered with suave spies, slick private eyes, and debonair detectives. Television was an escapist medium, where you could forget your troubles and lose yourself in the exotic, sexy, exciting world inhabited by great looking, smooth-talking, extraordinarily self-confident crimesolvers.

You didn’t just watch them. You wanted to be them.

When I was a kid, I pretended I had a blow-torch in my shoe like James T. West. That I could pick a safe like Alexander Mundy, seduce a woman like Napoleon Solo, and run 60 miles an hour like Steve Austin. I wanted to have the style of Peter Gunn, the brawn of Joe Mannix, the charm of Simon Templar, and the wealth of Amos Burke, who arrived at crime scenes in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce.

But around the time coaxial cable and satelite dishes made TV antennaes obsolete, television began to change. Suddenly, it wasn’t cool to be cool. It was cool to be troubled. Deeply troubled.

TV cops, crimesolvers, and secret agents were suddenly riddled with anxiety, self-doubt, and dark secrets. Or, as TV execs like to say, they became “fully developed” characters with “lots of levels.”

You can trace the change to the late 80s and early 90s, to the rise of “NYPD Blue,” “Twin Peaks,” “Miami Vice,” “Wiseguy,” and “The X Files” and the fall of “Magnum PI,” “Moonlighting,” “Simon & Simon,” “MacGyver,” and “Remington Steele.”

None of the cops or detectives on television take any pleasure in their work any more. They are all recovering alcoholics or ex-addicts or social outcasts struggling with divorces, estranged children, or tragic losses too numerous to catalog and too awful to endure.

FBI Agent Fox Mulder’s sister was abducted by aliens, his partner has some kind of brain cancer, and he’s being crushed by a conspiracy he can never defeat.

CSI Gil Grissum is a social outcast who works knee-deep in gore and bugs while struggling with a degenerative hearing disorder that could leave him deaf.

Det. Lennie Briscoe of “Law and Order” is an alcoholic whose daughter was murdered by drug dealers.
Det. Olivia Benson of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” is a product of a rape who now investigates the worst forms of sexual depravity and violence.

“Alias” spy Sydney Bristow’s loving boyfriend and caring roommate were brutally murdered because of her espionage work, she’s estranged from her parents, one of whom just might be a murderous traitor.
I’ve lost track of how many of Andy Sipowitz’s wives, children and partners have died on horrible deaths on “NYPD Blue,” but there have been lots.

screenshot_2_12516Master sleuth Adrian Monk solves murders while grappling with his obsessive-compulsive disorder and lingering grief over his wife’s unsolved murder. And Monk is a light-hearted comedy. When the funny detectives are this psychologically-troubled and emotionally-scarred, you can imagine how dark and haunted the serious detectives have to be not get laughs.

Today’s cops, detectives and crimesolvers work in a grim world full of sudden violence, betrayal, conspiracies and corruption. A world without banter, romance, style or fun…for either the characters or the viewer. Robert Goren, Bobby Donnell, Vic Mackey, Chief Jack Mannion… can you imagine any kids playing make-believe as one of those detective heroes? Who in their right mind would want to be those characters or live in their world?

And that, it seems, is what escapism on television is all about now: watching a TV show and realizing, with a sigh of relief, your life isn’t so bad after all.

I think I preferred losing myself in a Monte Carlo casino with Alexander Mundy or traveling in James T. West’s gadget-laden railroad car… it’s a lot more entertaining than feeling thankful I don’t have to be Det. Joel Stevens in “Boomtown” or live in the Baltimore depicted in “The Wire.”

At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon at my tender young age, I long for a return to escapist cop shows, to detectives you envied, who live in a world of great clothes, sleek cars, amazing apartments, beautiful women and clever quips. Detectives with lives that are blessedly free of angst and anxiety. Detectives who aren’t afraid to wear a tuxedo, sip fine champagne, confront danger with panache, and wear a watch that’s actually a missile-launcher. Detectives who are self-assured and enjoy solving crimes, who aren’t burdened with heartache and moral ambiquity.

Yeah, I know it’s not real. Yeah, I know it’s a fantasy. But isn’t that what television is supposed to be once in a while?

9 thoughts on “Where Have All The Cool Heroes Gone?”

  1. You know, you’re right. Lately I’ve taken to “Castle,” watching the episodes on DVD. We don’t watch cable, so we have to be motivated to watch something, and it’s become a nightly-episode thing. He’s got a cool job (26 bestsellers!), cool friends (Patterson! Cannell! (RIP)), a hot detective to follow and weird cases to solve. The angst is in the case, the suspects, victims and victim’s families, where it should belong.

  2. re: You can trace the change to the late 80s and early 90s, to the rise of “NYPD Blue,” “Twin Peaks,” “Miami Vice,” “Wiseguy,” and “The X Files” and the fall of “Magnum PI,” “Moonlighting,” “Simon & Simon,” “MacGyver,” and “Remington Steele.”

    … Deeply troubled … tragic losses too awful to endure …

    Should we add “Monk” to the list?

  3. at the risk of sounding depressed, i do like robert goren. how about the program ‘Castle’. it is more fun; however i dont watch it like i should i guess because one of the star detectives was on the take. bent! i like the old ones also likemagnum p.i because tom selleck was soooooo handsome, but i dont watch blue bloods. those people are too complicated.i am on a diet and my sugar is low so i dont think i am making sense,. right now i am re-reading my stephanie plum novels and also sue grafton and not watching too much telly. what do you suggest i tune into?

  4. Wonderful post, Lee. I couldn’t agree with you more. TV used to be a feel-good medium. Now it tends to be downright nightmarish. HANNIBAL? THE FOLLOWING? CRIMINAL MINDS? It’s depressing just to read about new shows in development: a new medical drama, legal drama, or crime drama. Same old same old….

    Lee, you’d certainly know better than I… but it seems to me that things began rolling downhill quickly back in the mid-1990s around the time that the Big-Four networks were permitted to begin owning the programs they aired.

  5. Maybe these great shows declined because of the rise of CNN. Why watch make-believe and pretend when you can watch what’s really happening in the world?

    • And I guess what TV producers did was to create reality shows that were more compelling to watch than CNN in order to capture an audience, and to make scripted shows based on reality as much as possible (“Law and Order,”CSI”).

      And what was the result? I guess it led to the rise of fantasy shows and vampire shows. These shows are super-real emotionally but with the spectacle of fantasy special effects.

  6. I agree TV has gotten to real and really nothing to escape to, even there fantasy or scifi shows try to be real so you can’t really enjoy, the last show that gave us any escape was the Star Trek series and Diagnosis Murder, the closes today is Dancing with The Stars, isn’t that sad, I miss Monk but even he had problems which I always hoped would get solved so we could enjoy Monk for himself, I thought he would been a fine character even being compulsive, if he got over his wives death, either by time, a new love or even catching the killer, he needed to move on and just live life with his compulsive self. The only thing TV is good for now are the movies and alot of those are not worth watching, but some times one will shine, Thank-you for your books and comments, always interesting. Ted

  7. Spot on and the reason I’ve tried to go back in time with my Steve Dane series. Nothing dark and brooding about it and plenty of style and jokes. Now if only sales would pick up….


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