Crime Stories

Back in October, Little Ms. Attila wrote a piece chiding networks for having "partisan" crime shows:
This has led to a sort of culture war in our crime shows, and a tendency to categorize them as “left-leaning” -- like Law & Order-- or “right-leaning” -- like the NCIS shows, or Blue Bloods. Relatively few try to split the difference, as does Criminal Minds (when it isn’t descending into gun-controlling preachiness)...

Morality belongs in the public square, but it should be a morality that we all agree with.

And there are moral principles we all agree with, like protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty.
I humbly disagree with the proposition that drama should appeal only (or even always chiefly) to universal moral principles, insofar as any can be discovered. Drama is one of the great areas for exploring moral qualms and questions, conflicts and difficult areas.

It's already difficult to discuss certain contentious moral disputes in politics. If we can't discuss them in drama either, I wonder how we ever shall. All that will be left is shutting up and letting our would-be betters tell us what opinions are acceptable.

That said, when she said she was writing about crime shows, I didn't initially think of the shows that focus on things from the law-enforcement perspective. I thought she was going to talk about shows about criminals. These do demonstrate an interesting perspective, because in making the hero opposed to the state, they show what values transcend the law in our hearts. These are the dramas that explore the distinction between morality and the law.

I'm only familiar with two current television shows at all, and I've only actually seen one of them -- the other one I know of because of the excitement it generates among some friends of mine. That latter is Dexter, on the Showtime network, which apparently skews left. Certainly these of my friends are all very left-leaning, Obama-supporting intellectuals. None of them would ever engage in actual violence of any kind themselves, but they are really into the show.

The premise of the show is that the hero is a serial-killer, who has learned to subject his homicide to a sort-of moral code. The moral code is universalist -- it applies to everyone equally at all times -- and the appeal of the guy is that he can subject bad people to horrendous penalties with impunity, things the law can't do.

The other show is Sons of Anarchy, which Jimbo at BLACKFIVE recommended to me some years ago. Its audience apparently skews right. Here there is no impunity, and there is no universal moral code. What justifies crime and violence is family, which the state cannot adequately protect. The criminals can't adequately protect it either -- they suffer greatly over the years, which is not surprising given that there is an openly Shakespearian cast to the plot. Still, it is a way of protecting the people they love from predatory drug-selling gangs, a stalker in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, racist gangs, street gangs, and those who manipulate the law to their own purpose. They also have a thing against rapacious developers who want to turn their hometown into a place too expensive for them to live anymore.

It's an interesting divide, I think. The one side dreams of setting aside the law to enforce a moral code on people who refuse to live by it. The other dreams of setting aside the law to defend the people and the place that they love. It's the opposite of universal: it's very particular.

1 comment:

E Hines said...

I'm more troubled by this remark: Morality belongs in the public square, but it should be a morality that we all agree with.

Your argument that there's both nothing wrong with and something positively right with dramas taking sides in a moral argument applies here as well. Drama is only one aspect of the thesis. If we're not to discuss publicly moral dilemmas of any sort--which disagreements about what is moral surely are--then where are we?

We're peons being looked after by our Patrons.

Eric Hines