The popularity of crime drama and true crime shows

CJ Coombs

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Photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash.

Crime dramas have been with us since television began

Crime shows have evolved since the early 1950s. The obsession with this genre isn’t limited to television. It’s also popular with fiction and non-fiction books. 

So, why are we so attracted to these shows? Is it the type of human behavior we want to understand while we watch knowing we could never do the things we see being done? Is it the emotion of fear we want to arouse, or the adrenaline rush like the effects of that first dip on a roller coaster your friend coaxed you to ride?

Some of the early crime dramas

One of the first shows I recall on television came out before I was even born. It was called Dragnet which made its debut in 1951 on NBC. You couldn’t overlook the distinct voice of Jack Webb who created and starred in this series.

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Jack Webb portrayed Sgt. Joe Friday on “Dragnet.”NBC Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

As for crime drama shows, I’m still hooked on the Law & Order series, particularly Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and recently, the return of the original Law & Order. I must like courtroom drama.

Years ago, I even watched off and on the old series, Police Woman (debuted in 1974), with Angie Dickinson as Pepper Anderson who worked with the Los Angeles Police Department. Note that she had the female lead role. Then, there were other shows to follow where females carried the lead roles. I was a fan of Cagney & Lacey.

‘Police Woman’ was an immediate hit when it debuted in 1974, and its success paved the way for other female-lead crime dramas that followed, such as ‘Charlie’s Angels’ and ‘Cagney & Lacey.’ ‘I was a heroine. I loved being a heroine,’ says Dickinson. ‘“And I loved that [Pepper Anderson] was allowed to be sexy and still a hero. It’s not an easy combination.’ (Source.)

Cagney & Lacey came under the genres of mystery, police crime drama, and buddy cop. it was a show that focused on police procedures. This series lasted for six years and was about two female cops--one who was a single woman wanting to drive her career, and one who was a married mother.

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Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless (1999).John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel, Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia

If you follow pop culture, last month, BestLife ran a piece entitled See Cagney & Lacey Now, at 78 and 76, which is an interesting read. Although their series didn't last a decade, their friendship is 40 years strong.

Mindhunter, True Detective, and others

I was disappointed to learn that Mindhunter was probably not coming back to Netflix, even though it's on hold. I read the book and it was fascinating but from the standpoint of the development and growth of the behavior analysis unit, and the experiences of John Douglas.

What’s interesting to me is that fictionalized accounts of crime stir up fear if I’m watching alone, but any true crime show where victims are being interviewed doesn’t bother me at all because facts are being presented--solid true crime shows don't have the drama. There’s a lot of intrigue involved to hear a survivor speak about how they managed to escape death.

Shows about serial killers like Mindhunter, True Detective, or The Fall present their murderers as edge cases of humanity, uncanny broken evil things we want to stare at because they scare us. (Source.)

Some of the shows that really dig into a killer’s behavior that may or may not creep you out, like True Detective, get your adrenaline up, which doesn’t seem to come down until the show ends. Then you return to your life of normalcy until the next series comes on. The first season of True Detective with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey was so intense, that I couldn’t sit still. The character building of the players was very good.

I binged The Killing and Broadchurch because of the character building of the actors and they were addictive to watch. I also wanted to know who the perpetrator was. 

According to Stacker, the top 50 crime shows include these five right at the top:

  1. Breaking Bad
  2. The Wire
  3. The Sopranos
  4. Sherlock
  5. True Detective

Crime drama draws out our fear

There are different types of crime drama. Some are whodunits like Elementary. You also have the ones with courtroom drama like Law & Order. There are crime show types that display a lot of investigation of crime scenes like the various CSI series.

There’s the element of suspense with a lot of crime drama. There’s also the sleuth in us (whodunit? fans) like being a version of Sherlock Holmes. Remember when some of us as young adults used to sit at a table playing The Game of Clue.

I’m not talking about slimy scream out loud thrillers — just straight crime dramas and true crime shows that make us think, not do a knee-jerk and scream while soda and popcorn get spilled.

How many times have you watched an intense show and even with the sense of relief that the killer was caught, you let out a sigh, “jeez, I’m glad that show’s over.” Then, over the next few days, you tell your friends that they must see it! Why? Even I do that.

Crime shows outnumber every other drama subgenre (family dramas, medical shows and the like) on the broadcast nets, and have for some time, and they’re among the most-watched series on TV. (Source: The Hollywood Reporter.)

Investigative journalism

I think if you watch the ID Network, you get hooked on how crimes are solved. After a while, you weed out the shows that aren’t as appealing. I gravitate towards the ones where detectives and victims are telling the story. I also watch NBC’s Dateline and ABC’s 20/20.

Why are people so fascinated with serial killers?

Serial killers tantalize people much like traffic accidents, train wrecks or natural disasters. The public’s fascination with them can be seen as a specific manifestation of its more general fixation on violence and calamity. In other words, the actions of a serial killer may be horrible to behold but much of the public simply cannot look away due to the spectacle. (Source.)

There are the effects of adrenaline as another reason to seek out crime-related mysteries. You know you won’t have that same effect if you watch a comedy series. While not all crime dramas present investigations of a crime as they occur in real life, they open the brain to want to possibly research how investigations proceed. 

With true crime, you hear from those who performed the actual investigations. These types of shows are more interesting because, for one thing, they don’t necessarily generate any fear, at least not for me.

When you’re at home watching a series about a serial killer, you know you can change the channel at any time. However, it also shows you how the killer was caught in most cases. For the crime drama shows that don’t stir up fear, you get to sit back and see if you can figure out who the criminal is.

True crime shows fulfill a level of curiosity

For the episodes involving stories of survivors, there’s a curiosity in knowing what was done to get through terrifying ordeals. It’s true these shows are addictive. Maybe there’s a part of us that wants to understand how inhumane behavior can exist, and mostly because we wouldn’t perform the same type of acts.

Some people are born evil. We watch the shows partly because we want to see these people caught and brought to justice. We want to see serial killers pay the price for their horrific crimes. In order to catch them, their behaviors have to be analyzed and compared.

In Reel Rundown’s 5 Basic Lessons From True Crime Shows, Charles Nuamah writes about the lessons from watching true crime, which I tend to agree with. Read more about the details here from Charles’ list:

  1. Be careful who you trust
  2. Family is the most important thing
  3. Always stay alert
  4. Never jump to conclusions
  5. We will be nowhere without science

I can’t speak for all crime drama or true crime fans. I know there are a lot of fans. For myself, I want to understand what it is in a mind that drives someone to end a person’s life. Reading about true crimes is better because it provides a lot of details including speculated explanations.

I have read several true crime books that were page-turners. I’m still trying to get through The Man from the Train: The solving of a century-old serial killer mystery by Bill James. This book is so good that I can’t read it at night which is such a contradiction to being able to watch true crime shows on television. This tells me there is a distinction between watching a series about a true crime versus reading about it. This book is so well-written and full of researched content. I recommend it. 

The crime genre is so popular that you know whenever there’s a mass shooting, a serial killer on the loose, or an unsolved publicized crime, there’s going to be a show or book about it.

Thank you for reading.

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30 years of legal secretarial experience, and a BA in Eng Journalism & Creative Writing. Thinker, giver, and lover of life. Born into Air Force service life, my life has taken me to Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Missouri. I love family, art, truth, non-fiction, reading, history, and travel.

Kansas City, MO
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