Saturday, May 14, 2005

I Watch CSI Because I've Had To Stop Sucking My Thumb

Time again for one of our periodic examinations of that uniquely hegemonic feature of television culture, the police procedural. It may surprise you to learn that it's only recently I've developed this unhealthy fixation on the polproc; for years I affected to scorn CSI and its brethren, for reasons now wholly obscured by time.

These days, aside from the fact that I just can't stop loving their outré gore-goggling, super-retro-deductifying antics, I'm also fascinated by their rapidly spreading dominion over the international airwaves. What does it say about us, our nervousness and deep, suckling yen for comfort, that we want to immerse ourselves in a steadily deepening soup of gruesome murders and the ciphers who solve them?

Well, just that really. As the world feels more threatening and incomprehensible by the day, we're like a kid in bed, compelled to look under it for the monster we're terrified is there, and dimly, badly wanting there to actually be a monster there, so Dad can turn on the light and destroy it. Polprocs, like detective stories from time immemorial, rationalize the irruptions of anarchic, antisocial terror that stalk the borders of our real lives. That's why the typically extreme nature of the crimes, the detailed gore and violence: we need to see Grissom & Co. parse, compute and reimpose order over events that are at least as horrific as anything we're likely to have come across in the news that day. Hence also the tiresome prevalence of the Ripped From The Headlines plotline: no more cathartic solace than seeing the 'real thing' subjected to the ministrations of a team we know we can rely on to get the whole untidy business sussed, trussed and 'fessed in forty minutes plus commercials. Beat that, NYPD.

It's no coincidence that, even in the higher-value brands like 'CSI: Kickin' It Old-School Style' and 'Law & Order: Anything But SVU', the characters are afforded only the barest lineaments of personality and history. We don't really want these to be people, except to the extent that it facilitates passably snappy dialogue and our ability to tell the team investigating Crime Subplot 1 from the team that shows up after the opening credits at the scene of Crime Subplot 2. We want them to be cool, impervious Figurers-Out, and we compulsively dare ourselves to look full on at the horrors we imagine they face unmoved. It's an inoculation of sorts. This is the entire purpose of CSI's trademark WoundCam: can you take it? Grissom can.

Perversely, the very gruesomeness and ubiquity of polprocs inspire in me a tender solicitousness towards our collective state of mind. Instead of being the straightforward catering to an ugly prurience and jaded jones for sensation that it might seem, I think it can be read in a much more nuanced way as the expression of a tremendous sense of threat and a longing for comfort, for order, comprehensibility and safety in a moment of history when our real leaders are failing spectacularly to provide us with anything like. Andy Sipowicz in '08?

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