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?

Why I Love Crime and Investigation TV

CSI has been nominated multiple times for industry awards

A guest post from Kate Naylor.

My friend Kate loves crime shows. She’s given her passion for the genre a lot of thought, which she shares with us today. Why do you love crime and investigation TV? I’d be interested to know, so leave a comment…

Good old telly. It’s a microcosm of the world at large, covering every human foible and failing, triumph and disaster, from domestic-scale to universe-wide. But crime and investigation TV is my favourite. Here’s why.

People get so snobbish about TV. Some turn their noses up at soap operas, others get sniffy about less-than-classy B movies. You can gussy it up any way you like, and be as pretentious as you like, but at the end of the day it’s all about storytelling. Great stories, dull stories and everything in between.

CSI has been nominated multiple times for industry awardsCrime stories are amongst the most popular TV shows. Take CSI, by CBS, which has run for years and years and is now at season 14. As revealed by Wikipedia, it’s incredibly popular stuff:

“CSI has been nominated multiple times for industry awards and has won nine awards during its history. The program has spawned several media projects including an exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, a series of books, several video games, and two additional TV shows.”


Here’s what CBS says about the series:

“CSI is a fast-paced drama about a team of forensic investigators trained to solve crimes by examining the evidence. They are on the case 24/7, scouring the scene, collecting the irrefutable evidence and finding the missing pieces that will solve the mystery.”

Wikipedia also features a list of police TV dramas, with literally hundreds of entries. But why do so many millions, if not billions, of people watch it and similar series every day of the week, all over the world?

Crime investigation TV – Fulfilling an ancient need

Humankind has told stories from the beginning of time. Hundreds of thousands of years ago we huddled around campfires, safety in numbers, trying to avoid the terrifying, predatory megabeasts lurking out there in the darkness. And we still love being entertained whether it means being scared out of our wits, thrilled, perplexed, mystified, disgusted, horrified, amazed, shocked, or even offended.

That’s my number one reason for loving crime investigation TV. It’s excellent entertainment, populated with remarkable plots, scarily bizarre protagonists and eccentric criminologists. Baddies versus goodies always makes for a great tale. The less predictable the outcome, the better. And the best crime drama TV show plots are nothing if not unpredictable.

Crime TV series as workouts for the brain

Most brain training products have been thoroughly myth-busted. You can tap away on a little screen answering questions and playing games all day, but apparently it doesn’t do much good. As a report in New Scientist magazine says:

“Brain-training software may be a waste of time. People who played “mind-boosting” games made the same modest cognitive gains as those who spent a similar amount of time surfing the web.

“It didn’t really make any difference what people did,” says Adrian Owen of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK, who tested brain-training software on volunteers recruited through a BBC television programme.

Skills learned via the programs didn’t transfer to the cognitive tests, even when they relied on similar abilities, says Owen. For instance, people who played a game in which they had to find a match for a briefly overturned card struggled at a similar test that used stars “hidden” in boxes.

“Even when the tests were conceptually quite similar we didn’t see any improvement,” says Owen. He concludes that brain-training software only makes people better at the specific tasks they have been practising.

Torkel Klingberg, a psychologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, agrees – to a point. “A lot of what is currently marketed as ‘brain-training’ is not created based on scientific evidence and not properly tested,” he says.”

Having said that, other reports indicate that, as a general rule, keeping your body and brain busy and entertained does seem to have physical and mental benefits. I reckon a beautifully tangled plot is just one way to keep the old grey matter moving.

Crime TV shows as vicarious adventure

If you live in the western world, life these days is pretty safe. We’re protected and policed at every turn, and we hunted the megabeasts to extinction a very long time ago. Survival isn’t so much of a struggle. We’ve evolved amazing reflexes and multiple senses designed to help us discern and avoid danger. But in everyday life, we don’t really need them any more.

Very few of us have proper adventures. Unless you happen to be an adrenaline monkey hooked on sky diving or one of those crazy people who leaps off cliffs in a bat-like flying suit, our fight or flight responses are mostly under-used. To me, crime TV shows deliver a vital taste of danger that just isn’t present in modern life. It might be a vicarious thrill. But it’s better than no thrill at all.

Crime drama TV shows reveal the human condition

Crime SceneEveryone has their own sense of morality, immorality or amorality. If a psychopathic murderer turned up on our doorstep, I’d probably run screaming to the nearest cupboard and shut myself in. But we’re all different. You might grab a weapon and slot neatly into ‘kill’ mode. Someone else might collapse into a terrified jelly, unable to move. Others might ignore him, hoping he gets bored and goes away. You might try to make friends with it, more fool you. But we’re all different, and one of the greatest pleasures I get from watching crime drama TV is the insight you get into the way other people react to situations. Last time I ran away from the baddie. But next time, having seen someone in a similar situation survive, I might feel confident enough to grab an axe.

Crime investigation TV and social interactions

TV is a useful conversation point, a place you connect with your fellow humans. If you’ve ever found yourself at the water cooler, or at a party, talking about the new crime series you caught last week, you’ll know common experiences like that act as social glue. If you’re stuck for small talk, telly delivers, especially when it’s compelling enough to drive a satisfyingly interesting discussion.

Crime drama as therapy

The best crime TV shows draw you in so you’re unaware of the outside world. Your life might have either turned to shit or become magical. You might have lost your job, or be unbearably excited about a new career. You could be feeling hurt, sad, furious or furiously horny. Either way, a jolly good crime series helps you forget your current state of mind and become totally engrossed in something completely different. Therapy, if you like.

When you’re immersed in a TV crime show you love, time stands still. You’re living 100% in the present, with no pointless worrying about the past or trying to second-guess the future. Weirdly, despite the excitement, it’s an incredibly peaceful place to be. Just like a good book.

Why do you watch crime and investigation TV series?

We’re all different. Why do you watch crime drama TV? And if you don’t, why not?

Pondering the Ponderosa


I’ve been reading a bunch of TV and movie reference books lately, most of which have been a disappointment.

There’s a great book to be written about the writing and production of BONANZA, something akin to the brilliant and comprehensive GUNSMOKE: A COMPLETE HISTORY. Sadly, A REFERENCE GUIDE TO BONANZA by Bruce Leiby and Linda F. Lieby, now out in paperback, isn’t it. A scant eight pages — eight pages!– are given to the creation, writing and production of the show. The bulk of the book is a workman-like episode guide to the 14 seasons and brief synopses of the TV movies, hardly worth the price of purchase. The only thing interesting and worthwhile about the book are the appendices listing various BONANZA merchandise, books, comics, and records. However, I wish the effort the authors put into gathering so much pointless information — like listing all the shows available on video featuring Tim Matheson — had been focused instead on giving us the definitive history of the show. Consider this a lost opportunity.

The same can be said of STEPHEN J. CANNELL PRODUCTIONS.