Who turned out the lights? When fun mysteries get darker.

Welcome to my blog! Today I have Sally Carpenter talking about the dark turn mysteries have taken.

Here’s Sally!

Has anyone noticed that TV mysteries have gotten darker these days?

In the 1970s, TV screens were full of what I call “personality” cops. The hero was a unique, quirky, likeable cop or PI with gimmicks and a catch phrase. We had a fat cop (Cannon), a blind insurance investigator (Longstreet), a Texas marshal (McCloud), a guy with a parrot (Baretta), a bald cop with a lollypop (Kojak), a shabby cop (Columbo), hip cops (Mod Squad) and even kid sleuths (Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew).

These do-gooders mostly worked alone, sometimes with an unremarkable sidekick. Police procedures be damned, these guys and gals ignored the rules and did as they pleased. We knew the good guys from the baddies. The heroes were honest, law abiding and moral. The shows were colorful, brightly lit, lightweight and entertaining.

If someone got shot, maybe a drop or two of blood appeared. Corpses looked mighty healthy. If the good guy was shot or injured, he kept going. After a 10-minute fistfight, the good guy had only a small bruise or cut and never broke into a sweat.

Sure, the shows were not realistic but nobody watched the programs for their educational value.

So what happened?

In recent years TV crime shows have grown darker. The lighting toned down, leaving the visuals muddy and indistinguishable at times. Interiors are drabber. Camera shots are tighter and more claustrophobic.

The stories are grimmer. Tales of rape, incest and gruesome killings are common. Corpses are discolored and gory.

The “heroes” are pot framers, serial killers, mobsters or Norman Bates. Rather than one standout star, the cast is comprised of several bland, interchangeable characters. The emphasis is on forensic science and police procedures.

I’ve followed “Castle” from the pilot episode. In the first seasons the show was funny and clever with a touch of romance. The police and forensics work was often laughable (and not in a good way) but fans loved the show for the clever banter and character interactions.

Then stories grew more intense and serious. The female lead, Kate Beckett, was full of angst and mental turmoil. The male and female leads, obviously in love, pulled away from each other. The title character, Castle, moved into the background. The goofy storylines and the humor disappeared. Fans complained that the show wasn’t “fun” anymore. 

So what happened?

I’m not involved with the TV industry, so I can only speculate. Possibly today’s shows reflect the pessimism of a society rocked by Beatlemaniac FC_SMALLclimate change, the recession, terrorism, changes in the traditional family and real-life crime. 

Among mystery writers there’s the unspoken law that noir, thrillers and hardboiled stories are seen as more “literary” than cozies. Comedy is fluff whereas drama wins Emmy Awards. Maybe dark shows appeal to a more “highbrow” market.

“Personality” cops were one-note characters that never changed. Viewers turned in each week knowing the hero would be the same as he was the week before. The familiarity was comforting. In one night the viewer saw a complete story with the baddie caught and loose ends tied up.

The current rule is that characters must evolve. Story arcs are unresolved for a season or longer. Sometimes major questions are not addressed until the series finale. The viewer who occasionally dips in will be lost among the maze of story threads.

The ongoing story arc is a good way to keep viewers engaged for the long run, but the audience can get frustrated with an endless number of secrets and cliffhangers. Something in the human nature craves closure. Many “Castle” fans grew weary of a certain plot thread that was stretched out far beyond the viewers’ breaking point.

Granted, in real life people change and mature as their circumstances change. But TV shows are not reality. Viewers turn on the TV to escape and relax. Their heroes are “comfort viewing.” Fans turn in to see Richard Castle and Kate Beckett fall in love and solve cases together. Anything less will not do.

TV series writers tread a fine line. If the characters remain the same week after week, the show can get boring and repetitive. Story ideas become more limited. But if the characters change too much, the show will lose those elements that attracted viewers in the first place.

Many viewers enjoy the grittier shows but my complaint is that currently, “dark” is the only option. Lighten up, will you?

What about you? Do you like the “dark” mystery/crime shows or would you prefer something brighter?

About Sally: Sally Carpenter is native Hoosier now living in Moorpark, Calif.

Sally's Mug Shot_SMALLShe has a master’s degree in theater from Indiana State University. While in school her plays “Star Collector” and “Common Ground” were finalists in the American College Theater Festival One-Act Playwrighting Competition. “Common Ground” also earned a college creative writing award. “Star Collector” was produced in New York City and also the inspiration for her book series.

Carpenter also has a master’s degree in theology and a black belt in tae kwon do.

She’s worked as an actress, freelance writer, college writing instructor, theater critic, jail chaplain and tour guide/page for a major movie studio. She’s now employed at a community newspaper.

Her first book in the Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol mystery series, “The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper,” was a 2012 Eureka! Award finalist for best first mystery novel. Cozy Cat Press will soon released the second book, “The Sinister Sitcom Caper.”

Her short story, “Dark Nights at the Deluxe Drive-in,” is published in the anthology, “Last Exit to Murder.”

“Faster Than a Speeding Bullet” is in the “Plan B: Vol. 2” e-book anthology.

She’s a member of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles. She’s “mom” to two black cats. Contact her at Facebook or scwriter@earthlink.net. She blogs at http://sandyfairfaxauthor.com.

Cindy here again.

Thanks for being here today, Sally! I agree television has gotten darker. I still love Castle, though I did think they drew out the who killed Beckett’s mom too long.

Until next time…




5 thoughts on “Who turned out the lights? When fun mysteries get darker.

  1. Deborah Reardon

    Was just having this conversation with my husband. Mysteries have gotten so dark and dreary that it sometimes can obliterated the story line. I like what comes from a bit more character interaction and less about what appears to out there for the shock value.

  2. Cindy Carroll

    Yes, I’m not a fan of the shock value either. I like the character interaction. The subtext.

  3. Patricia Gligor

    I think you’re absolutely right when you speculate that the new “crime” shows are so dark because they reflect the climate in our society these days. How sad! Which is why I still watch the reruns of “Monk.” They’re never too gory and there’s always plenty of humor. I come away from the show feeling good.
    My favorite show though is “Blue Bloods.” Again, never anything too gory. I used to love “Criminal Minds” and I do still watch it because I have come to know and care about the characters but it’s often a bit more “bloody” than I would prefer.
    BTW, I detest reality shows and refuse to watch them!

  4. Velda Brotherton

    Guess I’m going to be the odd man out. I like heroes with angst, heroines who understand them because they too have a bit of baggage in their lives. Drama and dark, gritty mysteries are my favorites, and that’s what I write, even when my genre is historical romance, mine are tougher and grittier than most.
    I don’t know what that says about me. I’m a happy person. I laugh a lot, but I also cry with the characters I grow to love. Funny, members of my family suffer from depression, but I don’t. Gee, I’ll bet a psychiatrist would have a field day with me. I did enjoy your take on today’s crime show. I hate Castle. Too silly.

  5. Holli Castillo

    I see two reasons for the grittier and more violent shows of today– one, technology and the internet have made us aware of what is happening in the world in real time. Things we never knew existed pop up on our computers the second we open them or the moment we turn on the t.v. We know as much about serial killers as an FBI profiler, as much about forensics as many lab techs, and as much or maybe more police procedure than the local sheriff’s office. Of course we expect to see it replicated on the big screen, or smaller screen of t.v.

    Second, viewers are spoiled and in general want bigger, better, and more, whether it’s storyline, special effects, or character flaws. Viewers want something they haven’t seen, and that often means going bigger, more violent, more flawed, more of something to keep the viewer who has a thousand other ways to spend his time, especially with other electronics that offer instant gratification, watching the boob tube.

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