Crime Drama: British vs American


Crime drama has been a television staple for decades. I’m old enough to remember the original 1950s Dragnet, with low-key Sgt. Joe Friday, and the show’s documentary approach. I also remember with fondness Colombo with its equally low-key and seemingly bungling eponymous detective.

However, in the 60s and 70s American crime drama took a turn down Sensational Lane. It’s almost as if explosions and sexual tension became more important than the mystery.

Now I admit I don’t watch a lot of TV. I prefer a good book. Consequently, I may miss some good shows along the way. However when I am looking for a good detective show to watch on Netflix, why do I invariably go British? It’s for the story.

Recently I was visiting my sister and her family and watched several episodes of Castle. In my opinion, the show was typically American. Opposite sex partners for loads of sexual tension. A focus on pyrotechnics. The deeply scarred detective, who has trouble getting close to people – especially the partner. Trope after trope after trope. In all honesty, I didn’t care much for the show.

The other day, I started watching Foyle’s War. And fell in love immediately! And the show hadn’t gone beyond the theme music! Foyle, in some ways, reminds me of Colombo or Joe Friday. He’s low-key. The show deals with common wartime crime (the show is set in World War II). The storylines are character-driven and less formulaic than American crime shows, although all mysteries are formulaic to some degree. It’s the nature of the beast.

The same can be said for Midsomer Murders. The program has its personal touches. Detective Barnaby, the happy family man, goes about unraveling sometimes quite involved murders. There are no big explosions. There is no sexual tension. Just a good mystery with fascinating characters.

Inspector George Gently is another British police procedural that I like. The time is the 1960s and the shows are dark and gritty. Yet, once again, the focus is on the characters and the crime. No pyrotechnics. No fast car chases. No sexual tension. Just the battle of wits between criminal and detective.

Bones is an American crime drama I enjoyed, although a touch far-fetched with its focus on uber-forensics. The show is typically American: fast-paced, glitzy, somewhat goofy, with plenty of sexual tension, firearms and explosions, and a tendency towards exotic criminals. I enjoyed the program for the realistic forensics, the cast of characters, and the love interest. However, after a big cast change and the getting together of the principals, the episodes lost a lot of their uniqueness.

All in all, I think British crime drama tends to be slower paced. More focus is placed on the characters and the characters are more like real people than their American counterparts, where stereotypes hold more of a dominant sway.

For me, the appeal of the murder mystery is the interplay of the characters. The detective versus the killer. Why the murderer committed the crime and what was it that pushed him or her to do the deed. How the detective uses his or hers special skills to unravel the web of deceit and misinformation. What, if any, personal demons does the detective have that might help or hinder him or her.

Ray Bradbury once advised writers to create their characters, let them do their thing, and thereby get the story.

I find British crime drama tends to follow the Bradbury formula. It’s character-driven, for the most part.

American crime drama, on the other hand, is much more plot-driven and therefore in my opinion much more formulaic. Check off the items on the plot checklist and playing the boxes are all marked — the show’s good to go.

As a reader, I’m much more interested in character-driven stories then I am in plot-driven stories. For me, plot-driven stories come across as contrived and formulaic. The people in the story are paper dolls being moved around by the author to fit the needs of the plot.

The character-driven story, on the other hand, is organic. The story grows from who the characters are, because the characters are like real people. The protagonist and antagonist on a collision course because of the choices they’ve made. And even within the confines of the rather formulaic murder mystery, the character-driven story will always transcend its plot-driven counterpart.

Let me know what you think. Do you prefer American or British crime drama, and why? Until next time, happy reading!

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