I’ve lately had to accept that I’m quite limited in my entertainment selections. Much as I like to think of myself as a cultured man, I admit I’m prone to skepticism if something I’m watching doesn’t involve a vast catalogue of death and/or explosions. Or, er, counters being pushed over a ledge by a large machine on ITV, but never mind that.
I don’t often branch out into foreign language historical epics or character-based family sagas so it’s fair to say there will, inevitably, be blood. Right on cue there’s a new detective show on TV, name of DI Ray. I’ve not watched it yet but I anticipate wrapping myself in it like a blanket, familiar and smelling faintly of decay. I’d be confident in the big black chair if my specialist subject was crime thrillers, murder mysteries, police procedurals. It’s not difficult to become an aficionado since they’re all the fucking same.
We’re always told robots will one day write better stories than humans, but we must have crossed that Rubicon with cop shows years ago. The writers dribbling out the latest tales of ambitious constables and grizzled inspectors are so obviously thumbing the same book of predictable dialogue and worn clichés, it might as well have been written by a Gallagher brother.
For starters, we know who the killer is long before Poirot assembles the suspects. Perhaps it’s the friendly but conservative neighbour we see comforting the woman who discovered her fiancé’s skull pierced by the halogen bulb he was using to grow weed in his shed. Maybe it’s the cash-strapped local publican, forced into a series of killings to cover up selling his piss as gin. Whoever it is they’ll be introduced around 15 minutes in, be pleasant and seemingly well meaning, and appear in no more than four or five scenes throughout so we don’t get suspicious. And they’ll suddenly go mental at the end, eyes gleaming maniacally as they take the vicar hostage when it’s revealed they’re the long-lost biological parent of a child who drowned in the font at a Christening.
Since it’s easy to guess the villain, these shows have to be more outlandish than their settings might otherwise suggest, in order to rake in the advertising bucks. Yes I know it doesn’t seem likely there’s a serial killer limiting his victims to Mexicans in villages near Frome, but trust me it’s the hook that’ll have wallets opening like orchids when Rylan starts on about second-hand motors. Props especially to Midsomer Murders who’ve managed to fashion genuine plotlines from tree huggers murdering swathes of developers to save rare shrubs and the unlikely appearance of an active guillotine in a care home.
Not every part of a crime story has to be about the crime. There are characters to explore too, fascinated as we must be by the private lives of both the police and suspects as we wonder who deliberately dropped a wheel of cheese on Martine McCutcheon. It’s vital there’s been a personal tragedy in their past, but a writer really only has three options here: dead spouse, dead parents or dead kids.
The dead wife, usually from cancer, is a classic of TV crime. It’s always a wife too, regardless of the character’s gender, because we can talk about breasts but bollocks are taboo. You also don’t want to be the parent of a character in a crime story because there’s a statistically improbable chance that you and your husband or wife have been killed in the same car crash. This is handy as it means free and easy pathos from no more than a couple of lines of script, and a few quid saved on two elderly actors and a cottage in the shires.
But more often the hooded, thousand yard stare of the detective is because they once had a child but it’s dead now. Cue visits to the grave site, constant recklessness as they no longer care if they live or die, and if we’re lucky a few flashbacks to some brat on a beach or swing. To give writers credit though, this does add spice to the mandatory scene when a grieving parent asks if the detective has kids, they say no, and have “THEN YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND” yelled at them. I once went to a party where a woman was prattling on about her children before she eventually asked if I had any. I looked down and quietly said “Not any more”, and that was that. You’d be surprised how useful dead kids can be, even if they’re pretend.
I wonder, does letting a member of the victim’s family become involved in an investigation really destroy a case’s chances in court? The number of TV cops I’ve seen explain these perils would suggest there’s a plague of grieving relatives breaking into interview rooms and crime scenes across the land. It’s also handy how many police there actually are nearby at any one time, given when anyone says “I’m calling the police” the response is so often “I am the police!” And isn’t it odd how, when the final standoff between cop and criminal is over, only then do you hear sirens in the distance? ‘Backup’ my arse, as the writer might say of their script.
Dialogue is often witlessly predictable too. “We have to bury him, we can’t just leave him here” is one of my favourites. Oh aye, let’s dig a hole, if we can find a few shovels and it doesn’t get dark before that lad with the axe finds us. And how about the inevitable character who drops themself in it:
“I was just giving him a ride. I wasn’t involved in any robbery.”
“We never said anything about a robbery…”
I would buy the writer an ice cream if the character would only think for a second and then say “Or a rape?”
Character clichés abound. If there’s a mother with a teenager involved, that runt will unquestionably shift instantly from wilful independence to wailing “Muuuuuum what do we do Muuuuuuum” toddler in the face of miniscule jeopardy. And by the way, why the hell does every writer feel the urge to include an infuriating teenager, who will in every case cause the protagonist some massive inconvenience at the worst possible time? Someone is right now writing a scene where Chloe or Jack or Izzy is being consoled by the paramedics, their mother having died in a collapsed building they’d gone in to rescue their child, who’d gone back in for their phone.
Look, here comes the token black, posh professional, often a solicitor, often in a bowtie, usually paraded as a red herring who might have swindled a few grannies but he’d never spear a twitcher with a sharpened fishing rod. Still, at least some effort’s been made to update characters for the age of woke. When one complains that their partner wants to keep the relationship secret, “What, are you ashamed of us?”, it is now without exception a man doing that particular bleating, not a woman. Seems plausible.
On top of all this are those clichés that transcend genre. A surprising number of characters at risk have forgotten to charge their phone, not that there’ll be a signal when Leatherface fires up the chainsaw. And hark, a piano, signifying an emotional scene. If piano was banned from TV, what would replace it? A recorder? Harmonica? Trumpet? Just a ferry foghorn at the start of an emotional scene with silence thereafter would do it for me. Might make sex scenes more entertaining as well come to think of it.
I’m not suggesting I could do a better job than these writers – I’m quite happy for others to keep firing the bitter stools of predictable crime at me. I’m actually looking forward to learning what tragic loss has made DI Ray the way she is, hard-nosed and focused in pursuit of crooks in Dudley, Derby, Didcot or whatever British backwater the latest wickedness takes place.
And let’s hope she has a decent quirk, like a fear of bananas or a monocle, because Vera would be useless without that bloody hat, and without a crystal ball Grace couldn’t solve shit.