Re-inventing TV crime drama

Last Saturday I took part in a panel event at the London Screenwriters’ Festival on Writing Detectives for Film and Television alongside some incredibly creative and original TV writers and producers – Barbara Machin, Tony Garnett, Tony McHale and Matthew Graham. The subject was how new writers can come up with something that hasn’t been done before.

We all agreed that – in Tony Garnett’s phrase – crime drama is a Trojan Horse for any kind of story you want to tell.

While technology may provide new opportunities to commit or detect crime, crime itself rarely changes. My baseline has always been that it’s emotions that kill, and Shakespeare already has them all covered. What constantly changes is our attitude to crime and justice, and what those shifts in attitude tell us about prevailing social and personal anxieties. Crime drama has always reflected changing trends in what concerns us – for example, child abuse, identity theft, recovered memory, immigration and cultural difference – and also delivered the kind of hero – or anti-hero – we need for a particular moment in history.

Tom Hanks once said, “At the crossroads, the important questions do not concern the road not taken, or the road ahead, but who else is in the car.” Our detective, or investigator, is the person we most want in the car with us when society faces some kind of crossroad. And among a great detective’s skills are close observation, intuition, instinct, the ability to notice and pick out details about our current predicament, to use them to make sense for us of our world view, and perhaps also to restore order.

A series episode has to have a repeatable structure that allows the story of the week to explore and reveal the values of the main character and his or her world. Over a season, the needs of the main character will drive an exploration of a larger overall theme. If shifts in genre, structure, subject matter, and the mythic qualities of our protagonists (both hero and villain) all reflect us back to ourselves, then crime drama will always remain familiar and satisfying yet also be fresh and original.

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