While people change a lot throughout time, there are some traits that remain even as our bodies and environments change. One of my most static traits is that I am remarkably quick to scare. The eerie music and dark imagery in the trailer for a scary movie is enough to keep me up for nights. My imagination runs wild as I replace the screaming victim with a face belonging to me, my friends, or my family.
There was one time when, against my better judgement, I decided to watch an episode of Criminal Minds. While it did not scare me, it definitely left me feeling unsettled. Maybe, I thought, I'm just not the type of person who enjoys the crime show craze that has been running through pop culture for half a century now. Law & Order, CSI, NCIS, and all their variants merely scratch the surface of this genre. While I will not actively call for them to be canceled, I do believe this type of entertainment harms us.
Violence does not only appear on television shows that adhere to the crime procedural format. It has also infiltrated film, video games, and other genres of television like Game of Thrones. It is being shoved down our throats and pushed into our faces at an alarming frequency, making it increasingly difficult to ignore. But what perturbs me more about this craze is just that: it is a craze. Is it really healthy for us to indulge in the blood, guts, sadism, and suffering of such a fad?
I have vivid memories of my brother pleading at my parents' feet for their permission to buy Call of Duty when he was in grade school. The inflection of his voice and the intensity of his efforts could have convinced you that his life was dependent on owning this game. He succeeded in the end, but it didn’t stop there. This video game seemed to be a foot-in-the-door to several other quasi-violent forms of entertainment boys his age were enjoying. At first it was Call of Duty—which contains one of the more controversial scenes in recent video game history—then it was Grand Theft Auto, followed by Airsoft guns. With each obsession, I became more and more concerned about the entertainment industry's glamorization of violence.
Eventually, my brother settled back into only playing video games that involved competitive sports and didn’t appear to be too affected by his tryst with popularized violence. But there are many people who do not walk away unscathed. A rare few are inspired by the violence they see in the media and go on to commit real life crimes closely resembling those of their media counterparts.
Crime procedurals often do not show violence as graphically as many films and TV shows such as Narcos do. Since the shows are aired on networks such as CBS and NBC, there is not as much room for graphic imagery. Therefore, most of the grotesque crimes are only described, rather than visually shown. Additionally, this genre is not centered around the criminals and their illegal activities but instead focuses on the cops, detectives, and others who protect the victims and unharmed civilians of their fictional worlds. It tells the stories of the everyday heroes.
That being said, I still have a fundamental issue with this genre of television and the desensitization it fosters. Famed actor Mandy Patinkin, who did a two season stint on Criminal Minds, was very unhappy with his experience, and turned away from the procedural genre.
Patinkin once said in an interview that the show was “very destructive to my soul and my personality.” The difference between the violence on shows like Game of Thrones and crime procedurals is the distance. While this may be a dismal thought, horrifying crimes are committed every day, victimizing common citizens and altering the world of real families. What is so dangerous about these crime procedurals is that they take something serious, like rape or murder, and make it more commonplace than it should be.
These are events that change the course of people’s lives and damage their souls; they are not sources of entertainment.
It is so easy to distance ourselves from the not-so-nice reality of the world when there is a commercial break. Though these shows end after 40 or so minutes, the pain of real-life victims does not. Repeated exposure to the crimes depicted in these procedurals can foster a lack of empathy, aggressive behavior, and violence. Being able to turn off our TVs and return to the world after hearing all these stories makes us less sensitive to the news, where real people are the focus, not actors who scored a guest spot.
Many of my close friends and family members watch crime procedurals regularly. In fact, I remember not being able to disturb my mom on Wednesday nights growing up because that was when CSI was on. This genre is popular for a reason, and I am sure there are many aspects to these shows that I was not able to appreciate during my short time viewing them. However, this popularity does not change the fact that I have no desire to continue viewing. To me, the experience is not worth the loss of empathy.
Personally, I would rather spend my free time watching a show that makes me laugh even when I am by myself (Parks and Rec marathon, anyone?)—something that makes me smile instead of cringe.