Crime shows. How can you not love them? After all, they’ve got everything that makes a good drama: hope and heartbreak; intrigue and suspense, a dash of violence, and a thrill and chill or two. You’ve got heroes and villains, all contending on that storied stage, the courtroom. There, the triumph of good over evil often comes down to a battle of wits.
In the real world, though, the service of justice is rarely so fraught with drama, the legal system rarely speeds along with such alacrity, and the moral boundaries between right and wrong are rarely so clearly defined. That doesn’t always make for the most riveting of television viewing.
There are, however, some television crime shows that aren’t just must-see TV, they’re also surprisingly accurate representations of our legal system. We’ll show you some of the best.
Law and Order (1990-2010)
If you’re looking for realism in television crime shows, you really can’t get much better than the granddaddy of them all, Law and Order. With its emphasis on both the law enforcement and the criminal justice sides of the legal system, the series underscores the often laborious road to justice.
Unlike many other crime series, where the perpetrator is swiftly and surely identified, nabbed, prosecuted, and punished, Law and Order chronicles the fits and starts that so often accompany criminal investigations and prosecution. And that includes the stark reality that justice is not always served, that sometimes evildoers go free, and that the service of justice may not always feel, well, just.
Case in point: The second episode of the series’ inaugural season, entitled “Subterranean Homeboy Blues.” In the episode, a young white woman is prosecuted for shooting two black men on a subway train. The defendant argues that the shooting is in self-defense and the lack of evidence eventually leads the DA to accept a plea on a gun charge, with no jail time.
But based on the shooter’s backstory and circumstantial evidence found in the shooter’s apartment, the investigators are certain the shooting was premeditated. They just can’t meet the legal standard of proof. And so a suspected attempted murderer goes free.
The episode is largely based on the real-life subway shooting by Bernhard Goetz. It would set the precedent for an illustrious library of “ripped from the headlines” episodes both for the series and for its spinoffs, especially Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU).
The Wire (2002-2008)
The best crime shows can often be uncomfortable to watch. Nowhere is this more evident than in the acclaimed HBO series, The Wire. The series is an unflinching portrayal of the deterioration of one of America’s greatest and most historic cities, Baltimore, Maryland.
The series is a stark and unsparing examination of the role that poverty, the failure of the public education system, and systemic oppression play in the surge of crime ravaging the city and the destruction this wreaks on the lives of its citizens.
One of the most powerful elements of the series is the light it shines on both sides of the criminal justice system, on law enforcement and the communities it endeavors to serve.
And if there’s anything to take away from the series, it’s the profound role that poverty plays in the system. While you can no longer be tried in criminal court or imprisoned for failure to pay certain types of debt, the series shows that poverty endangers your freedom in many more ways than one.
For example, the disproportionate rates of incarceration among minorities and the poor in the US prison system today speak very much to the class biases inherent in the system. If you can afford a high-powered (and often breathtakingly expensive) defense attorney, odds are good you’ll be acquitted or given a reduced sentence that allows you to escape jail time.
But if you can’t afford good legal representation, you may be compelled to accept a plea, simply because you don’t have the means to fight to prove your innocence. And once that plea is made, no matter what the evidence may bring, it can be very difficult to appeal it.
The Wire demonstrates just how hard the system is to escape once you’re in it. It probes the cycle of poverty — the lack of jobs, the lack of education, the lack of hope — that leads so many to turn to drugs and crime as the only recourse.
Admittedly, not very few of us have either the brainpower or the depth of obscure knowledge that makes Elementary’s iconic protagonist, the legendary Sherlock Holmes, such a masterful sleuth. But this modern retelling of the canonical literary detective has more than a few lessons to teach us about the realities of modern crime-fighting.
The illustrious Holmes is far more humanized in this rendering, grappling both with addiction and with family drama, including a deeply troubled relationship with his father and brother. As if that’s not enough, Holmes is haunted by the memory of a doomed love affair with the dastardly but brilliant Moriarity, for whom he continues to pine though his moral code will not permit himself to consort with a known criminal.
And, for all the mystery-solving fun the series provides, it also illuminates the emotional toll that a life spent battling some of humanity’s darkest elements can ultimately take. While many crime shows are peopled with protagonists that seem both impossibly moral and bafflingly resilient, Elementary’s Holmes is a crime fighter with a heart battered and a soul scarred by all he has seen and done in the pursuit of justice.
Crime shows are great fun, perfect for binge-watching a weekend away. But some series are more than just an entertaining distraction and escapist fantasy. Some are glimpses into a real-world that not many of us get to see, but one that keeps our worlds safe and sound.