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Monday, March 26, 2012

TV Crime Drama Analysis

I am hooked on four great crime drama shows, and I thought I'd try to piece together some things that they all have in common so we writers can glean insight.  First, here's my list:

1) The Mentalist
2) Bones
3) Castle
4) Body of Proof

These shows all have major plot points in common, yet they differ from each other in major peculiarities that make the shows unique. Here's my breakdown analysis of each.

1) The Mentalist - Patrick Jane, an ex-conman/psychic, partners with Theresa Lisbon, California Bureau of Investigation (CBI) senior special agent, to solve homicides. His backstory is horrific: wife and little girl murdered by a serial killer Jane publicly taunted on television. His greatest desire is to seek revenge. Lisbon's mother was killed in a drunk driving accident and she was left to raise her brothers and take care of his alcoholic father. We're into Season 4 with very little overt sexual tension between Jane and Lisbon, but a deep-formed friendship and protective vibe from each of them.

2) Bones - Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan, team leader of the fictional Jeffersonian Institute Forensic Sciences Department, partners with Special Agent Seeley Booth to solve Federal legal cases by examining the human remains of possible murder victims. Brennan's parents disappeared when she was 15, putting her in the foster care system and leaving significant emotional wounds. Booth was a former Army Ranger sniper, and serves his penance by catching hopefully as many killers to equal the number of people he killed. I've made it through Season 2, Episode 7 (so NO spoilers below!), but so far, some sexual tension, acknowledgement of each other's hotness, nothing too overt.

3) Castle - Author Rick Castle pulls strings with the mayor to "partner" with NYPD Detective Kate Beckett, the inspirational muse he uses for his next best-seller series of books. Castle is a playboy who rarely takes anything seriously; Kate's the opposite. Kate's mother was murdered and she's become a cop to track down the reason why, very often going too far and almost getting herself killed. We're into Season 4, and we've had one killer kiss last season and lots of sexual tension.

4) Body of Proof - Medical examiner Megan Hunt works with Peter Dunlop, ex-police officer-turned-medico-legal investigator. Megan's marriage failed due to her workaholism, and her relationship with her daughter is estranged. She lost her prestige as a top neurosurgeon when an automobile accident gives her involuntary cramps in her hand, one of which inadvertently caused her to kill a patient on her table. Peter was adopted and harbors insecurities about his place in the world, but he serves as Megan's confidant and friend. Into Season 2 with nothing but banter between the two of them, but they take each other's opinion seriously.

Basically, these shows all have similar skeletons based on a male and female lead, various love triangles and love interests, and deeply scarring personal backstories for one, if not both, of the leads that drives them to their work. Even the secondary characters fall into archtypes of the power-wielding boss, socially-awkward underlings, and the trusted sage.

The above description could be tweaked to fit any genre of any TV drama (just about). It's why the shows are on, because it's what people want to watch. But honestly, it's the peculiarities that make each show memorable.

In The Mentalist, Jane's mental acuity and powers of observation make him indispensable to the CBI in solving murders, enough so that his antics are tolerated, but are still a source of tension for Lisbon and her superiors.

In Bones, Brennan argues for science, evidence, atheism. Booth argues for faith, God, and the unproven. Their polar opposite ways of dealing with investigation causes tension and even humor.

In Castle, Castle's knack for storytelling actually comes in handy for the detectives because he thinks outside the evidence box and often compliments Beckett's deductive reasoning, making their jobs more fun and infusing the show with comedic relief.

In Body of Proof, Megan learns life lessons from the corpses she examines, and these lessons are always put by Peter as her sounding board and then applied to her personal relationships with her daughter or mother or side romantic interest somehow.

We have to look for the "peculiarities" in our work, the things that make our general story structures stand out. In Ecclesiastes 1:9, Solomon wrote, "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." But when we take an aspect--just one is all it takes--and tweak it, like the above shows have, and we'll have fresh, innovative fiction.

Let's Analyze: What other TV shows might fit into this same story structure?