It started with a gas can.
The opening scene of the pilot episode of “Stalker” — in which a young woman and her car are doused with gasoline and set on fire by a mask-wearing creep — is among the most graphic sequences on a TV crime show in recent memory. It led to a discussion in the Zap2it offices about how procedurals portray their crimes, particularly when women are the victims. Was that “Stalker” scene an anomaly, or was it representative of what viewers see on crime shows as a whole?
So we decided to take a look. Zap2it watched 78 hours’ worth of 16 different network procedurals that aired in October and November 2014: ABC’s “Castle” and “Forever”; CBS’ “Blue Bloods,” “Criminal Minds,” “CSI,” “Elementary,” “Hawaii Five-0,” “NCIS,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “NCIS: New Orleans,” “Person of Interest” and “Stalker”; FOX’s “Bones”; and NBC’s “Chicago PD,” “Law & Order: SVU” and “The Mysteries of Laura.”
For each episode, we cataloged the type of crimes committed; the gender, race and approximate age* of the victims; whether the crime took place on- or off-screen; if there was a reconstruction or re-enactment of the incident; and the gender, race, approximate age of offenders, as well as details about their relationship to the victims.
(*Scripts often didn’t state specific ages for characters involved in crimes. An episode’s context and the ages of the actors, however, provided enough evidence to say a character was in her 30s.)
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Zap2it also spoke with showrunners Erica Messer (“Criminal Minds”), David Amann (“Castle”), Warren Leight (“SVU”) and Stephen Nathan (“Bones”) about the process of creating cases on their shows, and to “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue” co-creator Steven Bochco — who has no dog in the network fight now but has worked on cop shows for four decades.
What this is not is an attempt to comprehensively catalog violence on TV. In the first week of our study alone, for instance, just two other shows — “Gotham” and “American Horror Story” — depicted about a dozen deaths.
It is, however, a significant dive into one of the most enduring forms of TV drama in the medium’s history. These 16 shows take up about a fifth of the prime-time real estate on the Big Four networks, and they reach a combined viewership of more than 200 million people.
The basic question is simple: What are people seeing when they watch crime shows? Here’s what we found.
That “Stalker” gas-can sequence, we found, is not really representative of the average crime on a network cop show, both for its choice of victim and its graphic nature. (While the series pilot is what jump-started the study, it was not one of the 78 episodes Zap2it cataloged). These shows, in fact, are among the few places where it’s a disadvantage to be a white man in his 30s or 40s.
In Zap2it’s sample, men were about twice as likely as women to be victims, with 172 men and 89 women* portrayed as such. White victims significantly outnumbered victims of all other races combined, and the majority of victims, regardless of gender or age, were in their 30s or 40s.
(*These figures and other victim numbers throughout this story refer to 77 of the 78 episodes in the sample, since the 78th is an extreme outlier. The Oct. 15, 2014 episode of “Criminal Minds” followed a case in which an unhinged former aerospace engineer hacks into a jetliner’s control systems and deliberately crashes the plane, killing 151 people. Only a handful of them, representing a mix of genders, ages and ethnicities, are seen in the cabin before the crash.)
The racial makeup of victims in Zap2it’s viewing runs counter to real-world crime statistics. The FBI’s Crime in the United States report for 2013 (the last full year available) shows that while men are three times more likely than women to be murdered, the largest number of male victims are African-American. That’s not reflected on TV.
The tone and setting of the shows has a lot to do with the victims portrayed on them, Bochco notes.
“I can’t really think of too many really gritty … urban crime dramas like ‘Hill Street [Blues]’ or ‘NYPD Blue'” on the air at the moment, Bochco says. “The whole thrust of network drama, so far as I’ve been able to track it over the last bunch of years, has been to move away from the more traditional, i.e., Steven Bochco-type crime dramas, and more toward the mystery-type of crime drama. A little more upscale, premises that are a little more complex, maybe a little more fantastical. People with, if not super powers, super intellectual powers, whether it’s ‘The Mentalist’ or whatever. Those tend to be mystery-oriented shows as opposed to street crime kind of stuff.”
Building a case
The showrunners Zap2it spoke to say that the type of case they want to explore tends to come first, with the characters filling in that story flowing from the initial idea.
“A lot of our shows revolve around the world the story is traveling through,” “Castle’s” Amann says. “What victim is going to get us into that world?” Further, he says, “a lot of the choices are made for the victim with an eye toward who are we actually going to be talking to and interacting with. Who’s going to represent the world we’re in, and perhaps also the victim’s world?”
“Bones” operates in a similar way, Nathan says, and thus a character’s race is usually a secondary factor.
“For the most part, we’re race-neutral on the show,” Nathan says of “Bones.” “We see Asians, African-Americans, white people, Hispanics for basically all of our parts. Occasionally there will be a part that calls for a specific ethnicity, but that’s probably more rare for us.”
The importance of a victim’s gender also varies from case to case. The “SVU” writers, for instance, know that women are far more likely to be victims of sexual assault than men, and its stories reflect that.
“A lot has to do with the pathology of the predator, and I suppose to a degree — we have done a few [episodes with] male rapes, and that’s something we look at doing more of, but we don’t do six male rapes a year,” Leight says. “It’s hard to explain exactly about who our audience will [relate to]. We had one episode [‘Producer’s Backend’ on Oct. 8, 2014] where there was a 15-year-old boy raped by a fallen child star, and we acknowledged that it’s hard for people, even for the victim, to perceive himself as a victim.”
In the case of “Criminal Minds,” Messer and her fellow writers have actively steered away from what the real-life crime stats say.
“We’re very aware of violence against women, and that that is the go-to move on so many series because it depicts reality,” she says. “You can only have women, children or men as your victim types … and we don’t like to [portray] crimes against children very often. I would argue no producer likes to do that. So in depicting reality, it’s more often than not that a female is a victim.
“But on this series, because we’ve been on for 10 seasons and more than 225 episodes, we cannot stomach doing that every week. That feels gratuitous and awful to us.”
In the early years of the show, stories tended to hew closely to what the real-life Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI dealt with, “and that was crimes against women and children, mainly,” Messer says. That has shaped a perception of “Criminal Minds” ever since, but Messer says the writers have made “a very conscious effort” not to lean too heavily on stories about women victims in recent years.
There’s even a board in the writers’ room to keep track of victims and perpetrators in each episode. Indeed, in Zap2it’s sample (again setting aside the plane-crash episode) “Criminal Minds” showed 16 male victims to just three women.
Men vs. women, on screen vs. off
On the whole, crimes were somewhat more likely to occur off-screen (think the “Bones” crew discovering the decomposed corpse of the week) than on. Off-screen crimes — including those where shows cut away just as a shot is fired or a knife is raised — account for about 54 percent of the total.
“In campfire storytelling … you sit around that fire and you paint a picture for your audience, and they run away with it in their imagination,” Messer says.
For women victims, however the proportion of on-screen incidents is a little bit higher: Of the 89 crimes committed against women in these 77 episodes, 44 of them took place on-screen and 45 off.
Not surprisingly, “SVU” and “Stalker” had the highest proportion of female characters as victims, given that sex crimes and stalking disproportionately affect women. They diverge widely, however, in how they portray those crimes.
Nearly every incident (regardless of the victim’s gender) on “SVU” takes place off screen. “We do the disclosure scene where the victim recounts what happened much more often than we show what happened,” Leight says.
“Stalker,” however, shows almost all of its crimes against women on screen. That gasoline-can scene may not be representative of cop shows as a whole, but it was very much a harbinger of what was to come within that single series.
Further, seven of the 11 victims on “Stalker” could essentially be considered collateral damage — they were not the perpetrator’s primary targets. Just two of the six men victimized on “SVU” were secondary targets.
At the other end of the scale, the three “NCIS” shows are littered with male victims, most of whom are dispatched off camera. Thirty of the 41 people victimized in the three shows in the study period were men, but only 12 of those incidents took place on screen.
Who did it?
The FBI’s crime report for 2013 shows that when the relationship of murder victims to offenders is known (about 55 percent of the time), it’s overwhelmingly the case that the perpetrator is someone the victim knew. That’s less often the case on TV — because crime shows are very much overpopulated with professional criminals.
Family members, co-workers and acquaintances accounted for only about 28 percent of the perps in Zap2it’s sample. The greatest percentage of crimes (just under 40 percent) were committed by strangers or someone whose relationship to the victim isn’t fully explained, while the remaining 32 percent were done by hitmen and -women, gang members and other pros.
As was the case with victims, white men made up most of the perps by a wide, wide margin. Fully 80 percent of the people who committed a crime in the episodes we watched were white guys.
The preponderance of hitmen on TV serves to heighten the drama, which again speaks to Bochco’s point about a lot of current crime shows being somewhat stylized. He cites another stop in his own career — his work on “Columbo” in the 1970s — as an example of a show with a somewhat heightened reality.
“If you’re doing ‘Columbo,’ the mandate of that show — not to take you back to the Neolithic era — but the mandate of that show was always to have a really high-style, arrogant, hugely successful, celebrity-type perpetrator. The victim was usually the wife, the girlfriend, the partner. The idea was to take this schleppy detective, Columbo [Peter Falk], like a fish out of water and drop him into the tank and see how he brings down the high and mighty. If that’s your mandate, that becomes the template for virtually all your stories.”
The primary mission of crime shows, like anything else on TV, is to keep viewers tuned in and sell advertising. They’re not out to reflect reality with a documentarian’s eye.
The dramatic license these shows take allows for a more engaging (if also more violent) story — the Honolulu depicted on “Hawaii Five-0,” for instance, is far more dangerous than the real place. As for the way shows represent their victims and perps, however, it’s something of a double-edged sword.
In some ways, cop shows have been in the vanguard of network TV’s slow slog toward real diversity. Going back to “Law & Order” and “NYPD Blue,” you’d be hard-pressed to find a crime-show ensemble that didn’t feature actors of color in regular, meaty roles.
Yet while real-world crime stats show that more than half of all murder victims in the United States are African-American men, those stories aren’t often told in TV crime series. As television tells it, well-to-do white people are being murdered all the time (often by other well-to-do white people or the pros they hired). The sensational aspect of such cases helps make for good drama, and a satisfying sense of vindication when the smug, rich perp is brought to justice.
That still means a dearth of guest-starring roles for actors of color, which seems all the more glaring in a time when real-world rifts between police and minority communities are part of the national conversation. But the shift to mystery and puzzle-solving stories in recent years means the worlds in which they take place don’t often intersect with those kinds of cases.
There’s better news in the way these shows handle violence against women. With the exceptions noted above, those cases tend to be treated soberly, or at least not any more sensationally than any other case. With segments of pop culture currently undergoing upheavals over the way women are represented, it’s heartening to see this form of entertainment, at least, treat the subject seriously.