Crime dramas and cop TV shows are some of the most popular in all of television. Whether it be more hardcore dramas like Law and Order: SVU or more bubbly comedies like Brooklyn 99, there's something gratifying about watching shows that personify the quintessential good guy-versus-bad-guy fight.
All that said, TV shows and movies about law enforcement get a lot of things wrong. I looked into some of the most inaccurate things about CSI shows in another post here. However, now it's time to figure out just what these shows get right.
I've scoured the web searching for stories on the subject from current and or former law enforcement officers as well as drawn from some of my work in the past with law enforcement to compile four key things that TV shows often get right about the job. For the most part, TV shows get more wrong than they get right, but every once in a while, you get shows and movies that are closely true to life, like the movie The Departed or Law and Order: SVU.
All that said, let's take a look at common truths found in CSI shows.
Oftentimes in movies and TV, the dialog for cops is the most accurate. The shows where the dialog is accurate tend to have current or former cops as consultants to the show to help shape the story.
Since dialog between cops is inherently interesting – discussions about cases, drama at work, camaraderie – it tends to be one of the easier things that screenwriters can get right when trying to make the most interesting show possible.
TV shows at the end of the day have to keep our attention. Nobody wants to watch 30 minutes of the main character filling out paperwork in a 60-minute show – since that's about the proportion of the real job doing paperwork makes up. In more shows than not, the conversations between officers both in and out of the office reflect the real day-to-day of officers around the world.
The effect of crime
Crime can have an effect not only on the victims but also on the arresting and investigating officers as well. Referring back to the fact that shows have to "keep things interesting" while also keeping us entertained, one of the best ways to do that is through true emotion.
Witnessing a crime and investigating the horrors of evil that occur in the world can rip people's emotional processing apart. It can and does harden the way that officers see the world. More often than not, you'll find that cops have a dark sense of humor – often depicted in crime TV shows – that helps them cope with the day to day of their job.
As writers for crime dramas build characters and their stories in an effort to be relatable to the viewers, one of the best ways to do that is to present the emotions that officers go through on the day-to-day. Crime may be fun to watch in dramatized TV shows or in the latest version of 60 minutes, but oftentimes, actually experiencing the crime first hand can be traumatizing for those involved.
For the crime shows that get the portrayal of criminals right, more often than not it's better to look to the comedies than the dramas. Criminals tend to be less of evil masterminds hoping to destroy the world as you might see in *cough* Die Hard *cough* and more just people wanting more money, or food, or jewelry, or... wanting to take advantage of people.
Criminals are also generally not that smart, and their "elaborate plans" rarely stretch further than the crimes themselves. Dramas have to make everything dramatic in the episode to keep up the suspense – which can be accurate – it just isn't the majority of the case.
Cop comedies like Brooklyn 99 and movies often get the portrayal of criminals right in that oftentimes, the actions of criminals are, well, comical and absurd.
Some aspects of forensic science
As I mentioned in my other post about the things that cop shows get wrong, forensic science tends to be the key area where things are overly dramatized and "science-i-fied."
That said, the science and capabilities available to modern police departments are usually correctly portrayed in TV shows, like DNA testing, evidence analysis, or "wearing a wire." However, it all just tends to be overdramatized, or the accuracy is somewhat inflated.
For example, DNA testing is very common in modern police work, and it's commonly portrayed in TV and movies. However, DNA tests usually take weeks to come back with results, and even when a match is found, sometimes it's not enough to convict or arrest. That long process obviously can't be condensed into one TV episode, so it gets just a tad unrealistic to take just minutes to perform DNA analysis and have enough proof to catch the killer.
At the end of the day, CSI TV shows get a lot of things wrong, and I mean a lot. However, most get just a little of the things right, and the best shows tend to be those that are highly accurate.