ITV’s cops-and-courtroom series Law and Order: UK returns to our screens this week, as does BBC1’s Shetland. Just as well, really, because we were running a bit low on crime dramas. I’m surprised broadcasters don’t make more of them. We must be down to the last, ooh, 50 or so across all the channels by my count.
Now I love a crime drama as much as the next person – well, where I sit the next person is Alison Graham, so maybe not as much as her. But I love them. As I write, I’m subliminally buzzing because tonight sees the next episode of the unnervingly good Line of Duty.
I’m already looking forward to wherever Sky’s haunting True Detective is going to lead us. Heck, I shed a small, tragic tear at the end of this week’s edition of depraved US potboiler Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, for heaven’s sake.
So yes, I’m a fan. But the scale of TV’s crime wave bothers me. The number of drama commissions that involve cops, lawyers or crimi- nal gangs is out of control. It feels as if ranks of crime dramas are linking arms across the sched- ules, moving in like riot police, kettling riskier types of drama in back alleys.
I’m not the first to ring alarm bells on this, obviously. David Hare and Martin Shaw have each grumbled about crime overkill recently.
And that’s not surprising: we’ve reached a point where watching fictional murders has become the country’s – pretty much the developed world’s – default form of relaxation. Crime writer Dorothy L Sayers reckoned that “Death seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent enjoyment than any other single subject.” Looked at that way, it does seem odd.
You can argue that these are our modern-day folk tales. They satisfy some deep need we have to be taken on a journey to somewhere dark and evil, then to be brought back safe and sound, with the moral order restored. Put simply, we like going to hell and back.
But do we have to go so often? Once again — I enjoy crime dramas no end, but the trouble is that for TV executives, they have become the default, the if-in-doubt, the easy option. They’re a sure bet for broadcasters because viewers will never object to another whodunnit, another tortured detective, another corpse. We’re addicted. It’s our (cold, dead) comfort food.
That becomes an issue when it edges out other fare. Along with soaps and medical dramas, crime series are the main way TV tells stories about our lives, so other dramatic takes on the modern world get marginalised.
With luck, this might be about to change. The BBC Trust has hinted strongly that more variety in drama would be a good thing, calling for greater “quality and distinctiveness”. And at a recent BBC drama launch there were two new contemporary series that weren’t cop shows – hurrah! Then again, there were another three that were.