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Are TV's Crime Dramas Giving Us Too Much Information?

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • 2004 21 Apr
Are TV's Crime Dramas Giving Us Too Much Information?

The “spring sweeps” are beginning to wrap up, and we’re heading toward television’s season finales. Some of the most successful shows right now, in addition to reality television, are the crime dramas – “CSI,” “Without a Trace” and “Law & Order SVU,” to name just a few. But summer means re-runs, and this got me thinking. Should we be watching these shows at all, much less a second or third time?

At first glance, it would be natural to assume that the material should be something for Christians to avoid. Do we want to fill our minds with grisly images of death and dying, much less hear the twisted logic of perverted criminals? Yet, night after night, we do. I do. And I cannot help but wonder what the attraction is.

Television is a lure for most of us. It waits patiently at the end of a long day, beckoning with murmurings of delicious food, rare beauty and exciting intrigue. It offers friends, family and fun – no matter what the status of our real lives. It’s a cocoon into which we crawl for mindless escape.

We’ve all heard the statistics about how much television we watch – an average of 4 hours per day, or 28 hours per week, according to Nielsen. The consequences, including everything from obesity and unhealthy relationships to increased commercialism and violence, continue to plague us. Studies have shown that we use less brainwaves to watch television that we do to sleep. No wonder we feel so relaxed – and kids look so transfixed – after just a few minutes of TV watching. But the hours add up, and like sugar on our teeth, the cumulative effect of so much brain candy is bound to cause decay.

The late Neil Postman discussed this in his book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” (Viking), where he portrayed the continual barrage of mindless entertainment as a direct assault on our ability to think, read and sustain coherent discourse about anything other than pop culture. An astute culture critic, Postman also penned the insightful “The Disappearance of Childhood” in which he argued that television has prematurely exposed children to what used to be considered “secrets” of adulthood (sexuality, violence, and stimulants – as well as heightened fear and anxiety), thus stripping them of the vestiges of a sorely-needed innocence.

As I sit in front of the weekly crime dramas, I cannot help but wonder if I too am somehow being stripped of my innocence.

God gave us moral absolutes, and He created within every human being the knowledge of right and wrong. Sin – both against us and by us – causes us to stray from that knowledge. It’s a simple equation: the more we sin, the further we stray from our understanding of truth. As a philosopher friend once said, “A seared conscience and a cleared conscience feel exactly the same.”

In this postmodern world, however, relativism is the norm. Those who say that there are absolutes – a definite ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – are labeled fanatics. Those concepts, rather than being defined by something greater than ourselves, are left up to the individual, the arbiter of all truth. What is wrong for you just might be right for me; it all depends on how I feel. It’s a scary philosophy, and we are reaping the consequences every day.

Interestingly enough, crime dramas are founded on the premise of moral absolutes, despite Hollywood’s continual denial of these concepts. Murder, rape, kidnapping and pedophilia are wrong, the shows teach, and they will be punished. The cops go after the bad guys and we watch – with no small amount of relief that wrong is actually called ‘wrong’ and justice is actually being done.

In a world where justice is frighteningly elusive, crime dramas strike a responsive chord. Dedicated police officers spend days and weeks solving just one crime. District attorneys are determined to punish perpetrators. Judges and juries are honest and give fair, impartial verdicts. In the fictional world of television, it doesn’t matter who the victim or the perpetrator is. Everyone is treated equally and justice is done. The DNA reveals the killer, the cops persuade him to confess and the district attorney nails a conviction. All is well in the world, and we can rest in peace.

The problem is, justice is predicated on a clear foundation of right and wrong. Without ‘wrong,’ there is no crime, much less justice. Police shows portray crimes like murder, rape and pedophilia as clearly wrong, because these are moral absolutes we can all safely agree on. Everything else, however, is muddied by the dictates of postmodernity, which often leave us asking ponderous ethical questions.

This can lead to great good. My college philosophy professor always said, “It should be a crime to watch a movie and not discuss it afterwards.” So, if we watch these shows with an analytical mindset, we may well benefit from a healthy discussion afterwards. The problem is, most of us just drift off to sleep.

Far more concerning, however, are the episodes where crime dramas actually cross a clear line – the same line that postmodernity refuses to acknowledge.

“CSI” began as an interesting show which, despite an excess of maimed bodies, focused on science – a draw for many Christians. Sadly, however, the episodes have become increasingly sexual in nature. A recent plot centered on people who dressed up and pretended to be animals, then had anonymous sex with one another. Another show highlighted sadomasochistic fetishes, displaying grisly instruments of suffering and overtly sexual scenes where people tormented one another. Equally, “Law & Order SVU” often deals with the dark underbelly of people’s sexual deviancy.

As Christians, we know that this kind of behavior is not only dysfunctional and broken, but sinful. We also know that, no matter what Hollywood says, it is not the norm. It may be happening in Las Vegas, Miami or New York, but it probably isn’t in most towns. And, even if it is, should we be learning about it, especially in such detail? Is there not, in the words of my husband, “unholy knowledge” that we are commanded not to learn? After all, the one fruit that was forbidden to Adam and Eve was from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

As I watch, denying the urge to turn off the television, I cannot help but wonder if, like my ancestors, I am also partaking of some ungodly fruit that may one day lead to my downfall.