How To Create The Ultimate Crime Drama

If you’re a TV boss then crime pays. That’s because we’re willing to sit glum-faced, hour after hour, in front of compacted, chiselled dramas about killers, cops and everything we’d ever hate to happen to us. Shows compete to bring us increasingly ghastly scenarios and psycho-fiends who make Jack the Ripper look like a schoolboy pulling the legs off ants. But the fact that the genre is a broadcasters’ favourite doesn’t mean it’s always done well. There may not be a reliable formula for the perfect crime drama, but there are still some dos and don’t that we’ve gleaned from the best and worst in the business. Take a look and see if you agree...

Make sure your law enforcers obey (but don’t overdo) those top cop clichés: workaholic; likes a drink; maverick; high-functioning sociopath; hopeless romantically. Sure, you want to groan every time a lonely detective pours him or herself quadruple whiskey having just got off the phone from a lover who left them for an accountant. And you probably roll your eyes later, when a rule-loving superior tells them, “Don’t do this” and they do it anyway. But how else would you have it? Happily married homicide cop with high self-esteem does things by the book at all times? No, sir. That’s not only dull but completely unworkable. If you’re not a deeply miserable non-conformist then how are you supposed to get inside the head of a killer? For recent shows that embrace the stereotype but in no way feel hackneyed, see: Wallander, Luther and The Killing.

But don’t…
Be afraid to mix it up a little. Dexter flipped the cop show on its (severed) head by making the good guy double as the series’ deadliest killer. Then there’s Lie To Me (RIP), where the show’s lead crime fighter isn’t a cop at all but a human fib detector. And Castle (from the deliriously daft Diagnosis Murder school of homicide detectiving) where a handsome crime writer helps catch killers. Awesome.

And don’t…
Feel you have to compress every case into one episode. If The Killing has taught us anything it’s that one murder and its fallout/solving can stretch to 20 glorious hours and still leave us pleading for more. The police procedurals may dare to tease us with an occasional two-parter, but the wrap-it-up-fast structure is pretty much immovable. There’s nothing wrong with this, but when rule-breakers like The Killing appear, suddenly your CSIs start to look a little old fashioned.

Layer on the gore. Blood never gets old and nothing gets our adrenaline gushing like an inventively tortured corpse. French crime thriller Spiral does this brilliantly, letting the camera linger over maggoty wounds. If your plot needs work, your characters are looking irreparably one-dimensional, a little blood spatter and a severed foot in a bin will help ease your viewers’ pain.

Have we missed anything? What do you think makes a great crime drama?

Comments (4)
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"Happily married homicide cop with high self-esteem does things by the book at all times?" That'll be Midsomer Murders then.
Totally agree with the second to last paragraph. After watching shows like The Wire and The Shield I find shows that wrap up a case an episode dull (except for Castle, thats still awesome).

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