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How Realistic Are TV Crime Shows

We all know that crimes don’t get solved in a matter of thirty minutes with two commercial breaks, and that justice always prevails. But we get hooked on crime shows these days partly because we are intrigued by all the technology we see being used to analyze evidence. We see action sequences that try to leave us on the edge of our seats (or couches). But how realistic are the crime shows we see on TV?

First of all, we have to keep the dramatic elements in perspective of the medium. The goal of all crime shows on TV is to engage the viewer through drama. Even non-fiction shows like America’s Most Wanted and Cops used smart dramatic elements to make those shows more engaging to the viewer. However, the best crime shows, in our opinion, tries to educate and entertain the viewer by staying as true to life as possible.

Let’s talk about some ways crime shows are unrealistic, and ways they try to stay ‘true to the game’ of crime-solving…

Crime Scene Do Not Enter tape

  • Save the drama. How many seasons did we have to wait for Bones and Booth to finally spark their romantic relationship? But boy, did the show amp it up episode after episode. Such is life in the world of tv land character relationship. The kinds of dramatic interactions that take place on tv would probably be frowned upon in most professional settings. But, it’s those human relationships that make for great drama. Just don’t expect for life to imitate art in most professional situations and settings.
  • The length of time and ease at which DNA and other evidence is analyzed. It wouldn’t be good for pacing to have a messy process where the characters may have to wait weeks for a conclusion within the timeframe of the plot. These shows rely on quick twists and turns, which mean those ‘ah-ha’ moments have to happen in unrealistic ways.
  • Quality of labs. Because every Hollywood set wants to depict the most state-of-the-art lab setting, people expect their local police departments to be as equipped. For the most part, only the top-tier agencies, such as the FBI and CIA, and other government agencies that deal with law enforcement, have the kind of equipment you see on TV.
  • The CSI forensics effect. The ‘CSI Effect’ describes the heightened expectations of real life juries for DNA evidence to be present for a guaranteed conviction. Prosecutors argue this is due to crime shows making viewers believe that having DNA evidence should be mandatory to prove guilt, unless other solid evidence is presented. This effect also includes victims’ relatives and loved ones who expect the police to have immediate answers and results of tests, which can take weeks or months.
  • Evidence can be easily matched. When you see your favorite crime tv series character dust a scene for prints, then one minute later looking at a screen in their lab with the criminals mug shot next to it – having her ‘ah-ha!’ moment – please know that it’s not that easy. Even with modern technology, fingerprinting suspects can be tricky, inconclusive, and take time.

You could possibly argue that crime shows have made criminals smarter while giving the general public an unrealistic view of law enforcement and criminal justice. But most people understand they are being entertained, and the fictionalization of crime has been around since Poe and Doyle. So we probably won’t be saying goodbye to convenient plot twists and catchy one-liners any time soon.