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Crime Dramas and Prodigals

Crime Dramas and Prodigals

Go figure … all Easter week I found myself thinking about crime, specifically television crime dramas. This shift in thought was not brought about by the prospect of a family gathering for the holiday. Believe it or not, such gatherings are generally a positive experience in my family. On the other hand, I could pitch my thoughts of all things criminal on television as some sort of twisted homage to the brutal, sacrificial death of Christ.

This would, of course, be slightly sacrilegious and blatantly untrue. The truth is, I’ve spent much of this week contemplating the variety of perspectives used to present crime drama on television—whether the perspectives of law enforcement, forensic specialists, lawyers or victims—for no other reason than because I’m weird. Not even I can come up with any explanation better than that.

While I am still waiting for my favorite shows in this genre, The Closer and Lie to Me, to return from sabbatical, I decided to try an episode of the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. I haven’t watched CSI in four years, and the April Fools’ Day episode titled "The Panty Sniffer" (no joke … that pretty much says it all) reminded me why. The title should have been a warning of big, neon proportions  as to what I was getting myself into, but this ended up being one of the few times I never even thought to look at the title. Now I have to say, I enjoy watching the characters in almost any crime drama piece together the puzzle of who committed the crime, how, and why. In this particular case, however, I found myself asking an additional question: why am I watching this? The only answer I can come up with is that the content of the show was like the car accident you pass on the freeway. You don’t want to see its horrific images, but you can’t look away. That’s how I felt: legitimately horrified and glued to the television. As a consequence of my not being able to look away from this episode of CSI, I have now progressed way beyond weird. I’m officially weirded out.

But being weirded out has not stopped me from considering something else that I enjoy about watching crime dramas. It’s true that I like the puzzle of each episode, but it is also true that every show inspires me anew to desire that criminals pay for their crimes. It is this impulse within me that gives me trouble as I think about grace. I’m reminded that the desire to see real-life criminals pay for real-life crimes is not necessarily the same as what I feel when I watch a crime drama on TV. While wanting criminals in society to pay for their crimes is as much rooted in a desire for safety and order as anything else, the feeling that asserts itself as I watch crime dramas and demand that the responsible characters pay is closer to vengeance. Such feelings in response to entertainment seem harmless. I have certainly never been one to believe that media has enough power on its own to completely condition human behavior.

Still, I wonder … if I watch enough crime dramas and become familiar with the feeling of vengeance apart from consequences, how long will it be before that response of vengeance rises in my interactions with real people and situations? As I watch the stories told by television crime dramas and experience TV criminals as misguided individuals with twisted perspectives that must pay for their actions, will I become inhibited in my ability to take in the story of the prodigal son, seeing the humanity of those around me, welcoming home prodigals in my world, and remembering that I, too, am a prodigal?

I can’t answer these questions, but they are not likely to put me off crime dramas anytime soon. They will, however, make me think on a deeper level the next time I sit down to watch. I hope they do the same for you.

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