Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Best Television Detective

Detectives, television detectives at least, have the easiest jobs in the world. It may look difficult to spend all your time combing through a beach with a tiny rake to see if someone dropped a speck of skin (as CSI investigators do), or pinning drug dealers up against a chain-link fence on a cold day to question them (as every Law & Order detective does) or pretending that you're all artsy by having a drunk God character when really you're just being confrontational and saying nothing at all about anything (a la "Saving Grace," a show so devoid of viewers that they now require viewers of The Closer to sit through portions of Saving Grace to see scenes from next week's episode of The Closer. If you have to bribe viewers, is your show really any good?)

(As a side note, there was actually a scene on one of those CSI shows in which the investigators actually did have to rope off a section of beach and then sift through sand one cubic millimeter at a time looking for something or other, and I had to stop watching because the very thought of doing that for a driving almost drove me completely insane.)

All those things seem hard, but they're just make-work for television detectives until the breakthrough comes, about 40 minutes into the investigation. The breakthrough, on every detective show I've ever watched, happens exactly the same way: The detective (police or independent investigator) is doing something completely unrelated to the investigation -- playing ping pong or looking down Cutty's blouse or hiding a cat -- and someone says something that solves the crime.

Say, for example, the detective is investigating a murder involving a guy who was parachuting out of a plane and died because his parachute failed to open in time and he crashed to his death, and the detective investigating it is baffled because the parachute worked perfectly and the jump was done at the correct height and everyone else's parachute in the group opened up and the guy was a longtime parachutist who in fact worked as an instructor and had won a gold medal at the 2002 Parachute X-Games in Vancouver... leading the detective's friends and police chief to conclude that this was just some sort of freak accident but the detective is convinced it was murder.

Say that's the plot of the detective show you're watching. (Note: I just now made that up and it's my idea, so if you're interested in producing that show, better call me because like Richard Pryor's wife in the movie "The Toy," I'm very litigious.) How in the world is the detective going to solve that crime?

Things look lost... until the detective and his/her police chief friend are having lunch one day at the local bagel shop, and the cop friend asks for a diet soda, and they have this exchange:

Detective: Diet soda? You don't drink diet soda.

Cop: I have to lose some weight. The other day, I sat on the couch and broke a spring and we have to have it reupholstered; it couldn't bear my weight anymore.

Detective: (Clearly thinking about the mystery, now): Gained weight... couldn't bear your weight...

At which point, he/she drops his/her lunch and rushes off, leaving the bewildered chief of police or whoever standing there, while the detective goes to the hangar where the parachutist's gear was stored, and gets the boots the parachutist wore on the fatal jump, and slices open the soles, and realizes that the soles have been stuffed with lead weights, making the parachutist heavier so he falls faster and his parachute can't open in time to bear his weight to the ground!

That, readers, is how you write a detective show on TV, and that's how pretty much every single TV detective solves the crimes they're trying to solve. It's not good detective work or fingerprints or being able to use computers magically to 'enhance' a picture beyond any conceivable number of pixels to see the reflection of the actual killer in the edge of a Bic lighter. It's just that offhand comment by a friend or coworker or sassy housekeeper, every time, that solves the crime.

If you ask me, real-life police should take a page from TV detectives and not go around interviewing witnesses; they should do anything but investigate the crime. Go to a theme park. Put on a variety show for the staff. Take up bowling. Whatever they do, someone somewhere will say something (Sorry, we already have a tenor for the opera... wait, tenor... Ten-or... there were more than 10! That's it!) to solve the crime for them.

Based on that, the only real fair way to rate the television detectives is on how interesting of a person they are to watch while you're waiting for the big breakthrough to come up. I don't even bother trying to figure out the mysteries anymore.

Well, that's not exactly true; I do bother, but I do in fact bother to try to figure them out, but I do it in the most annoying way possible by declaring ever more unlikely suspects to be the actual killers. That guy in the background crossing the street that Lenny just looked at? I think it's him. That's because I've been trained to expect not just a big breakthrough, but a twist ending, too. So I try to figure out how big the twist could be. I'm waiting for the ultimate twist ending -- one in which the detective investigating the murder is actually the murderer but doesn't know it.

(Note: that, too, is my idea. See the foregoing note re: my litigiousness.)

But writers know that viewers aren't actually interested in solving the murder; we're there for the quirks and twists of the detective. We want irascible doctors and feisty Assistant LA Police Chiefs with boyfriends who appear to have been laid off by the FBI because they literally never work anymore. We want humorous fake psychics, or, barring all of that, we at least want a borderline psychotic sex-crimes investigator with a secret crush on his partner. We want, in short, someone to hold our interest until a group of dolphins at Seaworld spells out the answer while the detective is supposed to be having a day off. (Those dolphins... they're forming the shape of, yes, it's a popcorn popper! That's it!)

No detective is better at holding the viewer's interest until the mystery is solved via the time-honored deus ex machina system than Adrian Monk, The Best Television Detective. Monk has, it seems, every possible quirk that someone could have. Remorse over dead lover? Check. Weird psychological problems? Check. Sassy assistant? Got her. Impossible level of intelligence? Right here.

Watching the show Monk often means that the mystery takes a back seat to the quirkiness, in a good-to-great way. Adrian's sessions with his shrink, his battles with his arch-enemy Harold Krenshaw, the money troubles he suffers, his family, and his own internal struggle, are all more than sufficient to hold my attention while the 'mystery' unfolds.

It's essential that there be a mystery, though; a show about a guy with OCD and a crushing level of sadness and guilt trying to live his life while on disability leave from the police force would be completely, utterly depressing and quickly canceled. But a show about guy with OCD and a crushing level of sadness and guilt trying to live his life while on disability leave from the police force... solving crimes = Emmy Time -- because the mystery distracts us from how sad his life would be otherwise, and also because the mystery-solving lets us feel good about Adrian Monk and his life; even though he's very very sad, he's also contributing something positive to the world and that means that we can watch the show and anxiously await the killer's unraveling instead of reflecting on how lucky we are in our lives and going to give our kids a hug. TV executives don't want us spending quality time with our families; they want us glued to our TVs through commercials (and hopefully so glued that we'll watch that crummy Holly Hunter show, which we won't.)

A mystery alone won't trap us in our living rooms; but a mystery with a sprinkling of quirk over it has us pinned to that La-Z-Boy, watching while Monk reorganizes his books and mopes about Trudy until, 43 minutes after we start, Natalie's daughter mentions that she was crossing the street that day and saw a pigeon eating a french fry, and Monk gets that look and runs off to the local fast food restaurant, buys a hundred dollars worth of french fries, spreads them on the table, sorts them out, picks one up and runs to a computer, where he goes to the e-Bay website and finds another french fry, nearly identical to the one he's holding, he realizes that the killer committed the murder because the killer makes his living auctioning french fries that look like presidents, and the victim had just come up with a machine that makes all french fries look like presidents.

That, too, is my idea. Remember: very litigious. So until you see all my detective shows on TV, go watch Adrian Monk, The Best Television Detective.

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The Best Of Everything also picked The Best Boyfriend on Friends, and liked Land of the Lost long before Diablo Cody needed something, anything, to be ironic about.

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