On any given night, Americans are glued to their TV sets to watch the good guys trying to catch the bad ones.
On Sunday night, there's CBS's Cold Case, where detectives solve crimes from the past and on Monday's, there is NBC's Medium, a series in which a soccer mom/psychic helps the district attorney with local murders and abductions. And just about every other night of the week, there is some version of CBS's Crime Scene Investigation (CSI), where savvy investigators use high-tech forensics, such as DNA profiling, to solve cases, or NBC's Law and Order and its various spin-offs.
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It seems that these days such crime dramas are the new must-see TV. The new spate of crime shows are now giving TiVos and digital video recording devices a workout as millions of Americans can't seem to get enough. But why are we so sucked in to these shows?
"When I was young, we had cowboys and Indians and white hats and black hats to separate the good guys and bad guys," says Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Robert Butterworth, PhD. "In a sense, [the new spate of crime shows] are souped-up versions of morality plays because bad guys get caught by good guys and its done in combination with contemporary science." Developed in the late 14th century and flourishing throughout the 16th century, morality plays typically comprise personifications of good and evil as they struggle for a man's soul.
With threats of terrorism and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Rita, "people are anxious in an uncertain world and today they may get the message that bad guys do win and these shows show that they don't," says Butterworth. "Modern technology makes it so crime doesn't pay and that is the ultimate premise -- 'we will get you, and we will use whatever tools we have to get you,'" he says.
Take Cold Case, for example. In this show, the detectives spend their time solving cases that have occurred months, years, or decades ago. The message here is that "time passes and that doesn't mean that you're off the hook," he says.
Too Bad Life Doesn't Mimic TV
But sometimes fantasy may interfere with reality, he says. The reality is that not all crimes are solved or solvable. "Viewers can mistakenly be under the assumption that [cops] always solve the crime and can start to think 'gee what happened with me?'" he says. "On one hand, these shows can be deterrents, but on the other hand, viewers may get a false perception."
Take the case of Natalee Holloway, an 18-year-old honors student who disappeared on a class trip to Aruba on May, 30, 2005. If this was the subject of a television show, this crime would have been solved in under an hour, but as of now, Aruban investigators don't seem any closer to finding out what happened to Holloway, much to her family's frustration.