Back in the 1960s, the phrase “Made in Japan” generally meant that a product was cheap, poorly made, and unreliable. A few decades later companies like Toyota, Honda, Sony, and Panasonic turned that on its head. Japanese products became synonymous with quality and value. Similarly, there was once a time when any type of entertainment made for television was automatically considered inferior, mindless, and second-rate. TV was dubbed the “boob tube,” and some people snobbishly bragged that they didn’t even own a television set, or if they did, they only watched educational programs on PBS. I had some relatives who kept a tiny portable in the closet and only brought it out for “worthwhile” broadcasts.
Well, times have changed. While Hollywood feature films try to lure the lucrative teenage male audience with super heroes and eye-popping CGI spectacles, many television series are taking chances, appealing to a more mature audience and producing some pretty good shows. This is particularly true in the mystery and thriller categories. There are so many entertaining shows out there I can hardly keep up. And we crime writers had better keep up. Our competition isn’t just on the printed page (or digital screen, depending on your reading preference). Crime fans have only so much time to satisfy their craving for good stories, and the opportunity to binge on a new TV series can keep people from reading books. And even though I write books (as well as screenplays), I find myself watching a lot of TV these days, and really enjoying it. But I’m also scoping out the competition.
Take the BBC series Luther, for instance, starring Idris Elba. He’s a London police detective with issues. He’s brilliant and self-destructive, and the scripts are very smart. There’s a seductive serial killer, played wonderfully by Ruth Wilson, who keeps Luther on her speed-dial. When I write, I have to ask myself if my protagonist is as interesting and complex as Luther.
Speaking of the BBC, their remakes of some of the classic Sherlock Holmes tales in Sherlock are absolutely terrific. Who would have thought that old bag of bones still had any life in him? But Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the great detective is inspired, the best since Basil Rathbone in the 1940s. The stories are updated and re-imagined, but stay true to the spirit of Conan Doyle’s originals. It’s bad enough that authors have to compete with one another, but now we have to face off with the father of all modern fictional sleuths, all dressed up in new duds, armed with a smart phone, and streaming on our TV sets.
Breaking Bad broke new ground in crime drama. The whole concept of taking an average Joe and watching him transform over the course of five seasons from hero to villain was a remarkable achievement. How can any of us create a drug dealer anymore without thinking of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White? Like Tony Soprano, he looms large and cannot be ignored.
Lawmen chasing down bad guys and facing evil is our bread and butter. HBO’s True Detective put a new spin on the ball with the two Louisiana detectives played by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. It’s not unusual for detectives to be battling inner demons, but McConaughey’s demons are cosmic while Harrelson’s are all too human. And then there’s Raylan Givens in Justified. As played by Timothy Olyphant, Givens has good pedigree, based on a character created by the great Elmore Leonard. But I tip my hat to the creators of the TV show who have kept Givens going strong for five seasons and counting. He’s sly and sexy, and he’s got it together. I’d sacrifice a limb to create a character with that kind of staying power.
And let’s not forget the law-women. Belfast Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson in The Fall is hard-nosed, unsentimental, and sometimes shocking in her behavior, but as played by Gillian Anderson, she’s fascinating. This character has expanded the bounds of acceptable behavior for a protagonist.
In Top of the Lake, creator Jane Campion has taken the police procedural to an unfamiliar locale, rural New Zealand, where Detective Robin Griffin, played by Elisabeth Moss, has to navigate treacherous waters stocked with violent locals, dogmatic cult members, and sexist colleagues to get to the bottom of the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old.
The female protagonists of The Bletchley Circle were skilled code-breakers during World War II, but with the war over, they’re itching to use their considerable intellectual abilities at a time when society wants women to go back to traditional subservient roles. They band together to track down a serial killer targeting women on trains in and around London. And they do it without computers or cell phones.
The women in Orange Is the New Black don’t take any crap. It’s an after-the-crime dramedy about an upper middle-class woman coping with life in a women’s correctional facility. The show is funny, perceptive, and on the money, maybe the best of the new shows I’ve watched in the last year. The next time I create a woman with a criminal past I’ll be thinking about these characters and working hard to make mine just as compelling.
The Americans gets my vote for the cleverest setup–a family of KGB sleeper agents in the United States in the 1980s. Remarkably the creators have made these characters sympathetic even though they’re the enemy. Their personal stories are touching and as riveting as the details of spy craft. And there’s considerable action, especially from the kickass Soviet spy played by Keri Russell.
Another clever premise drives the action in The Following in which Kevin Bacon’s retired FBI agent matches wits with a diabolical serial killer who’s worshipped by a legion of acolyte killers. In this show anyone could be a murderer, and the twists keep you on your toes. The days of cops chasing down simple bad guys are over. High concept is sky high on TV, and crime novelists have to keep up or be relegated to the distant outer reaches of the Amazon rankings.
I’m in the middle of writing the first book of what I hope will be a new crime series. It features an ex-cop private eye who I hope is unique enough to stand out from the pack. But as I write, I keep looking over my shoulder–not only at the great crime novels out there but also the great crime TV shows. The competition is daunting, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. These shows are just too good.