Tuesday, December 7, 2004

The Special Guest Star Did It

I have become rather addicted to crime dramas lately... I've lost my Monday nights to cable repeats of Law & Order on TNT, Law & Order SVU on TBS, CSI on Spike and Crossing Jordan on A&E. At one point in the evening, I can find myself watching two or three episodes at once.

These shows are immensely satisfying to a mystery-lover and aspiring mystery-novelist like myself: aside from the entertainment of seeing puzzles solved and justice triumph, I get all sorts of ideas for my book when I'm watching these shows, especially the evidence-gathering aspects of the cases. With all the technical details on display, what with forensic work and police work and courtroom work, one gets a really good idea of how a crime might be investigated and how the evidence will play out in court.

For example, I realized while watching some of these shows that the scenario with which I implicated Danny Vandervere of Worst Luck's murder would never get all the way to the courtroom, it would have been thrown out as soon as a lawyer came upon the scene (based as it was solely on Danny's undeniable and undenied presence in the victim's apartment near the time of death, with no motive and no murder weapon traceable to him); but when Law & Order's fictional attorneys took away the one scenario, CSI's and Crossing Jordan's fictional forensics experts suggested three or four other scenarios that might just work, and have indicated narrower fields of research with which to test the new scenarios.

For example, at the moment I have to find out whether or not a person with cooking-oil on his hands would necessarily leave legible fingerprints... if not, or better yet if he would on some surfaces but not others, I can establish a fairly heavy case of probable cause against Danny, whose fingerprints would not be found on the murder weapon, though the oil and blood from the victim would be found in his clothes; I also started thinking that a mistaken confession on Danny's part, if I arranged events so that Danny thinks he might accidentally have killed the victim and words his confession without saying exactly how he thought he'd killed him, would certainly work against him in building a case. This paired with the suggestion that there was an appearance that Danny might be prone to violence but that crimes in his past would not have been reported because of his family's peculiar standing in Danny's hometown, might create a fairly compelling case.

That particular scenario isn't water-tight either, there will have to be some antipathy on the part of the District Attorney and some ass-covering on the part of the detectives in order to really set up the necessary scenario, and I am loath to implicate law-enforcement as antagonists in the story; but then my story really isn't about the justice system, it's about relationships... the crime is only a structure within the story, it's not the driving force.


Anyway, these are all but a few of the many details that have been stimulated into growth by these TV shows. And I guess that's what I find interesting in my recent addiction to them... normally I get addicted to things that deaden my brain, rather than stimulating it, and my all-time favorite shows are the ones that stimulate other parts of me than my brain.

I usually prefer comedies, or shows with some kind of supernatural agency at work, but mostly I love shows with rilly hot guys on them. But with the exceptions of the intense gaydar-jangling Chris Meloni on SVU, the adorably bumbling Eric Szmanda and beautifully sculptured George Eads on CSI, the boyishly sexy Jerry O'Connell on Crossing Jordan, and the occasional hottentot perp or witness on any of these shows, it's just not about rilly hot guys.

Another thing I like about these particular crime-drama shows is that their episodes are almost completely self-contained, with a beginning, middle, and end that do not require the viewer to have any knowledge whatsoever of preceding episodes. I think the main reason I've not become involved in television dramas in general is because I simply haven't got the time and energy to follow them anymore, at least not for very long.

I used to watch various evening soaps and institutional dramas set in hospitals and police precincts, but I had to give up eventually. Ongoing dramas in which episode-only action takes up about half the time and season-long storylines takes up the other half cannot be dipped into so casually... you have to make an effort to follow along, or all the really dramatic scenes will be lost on you. And since my schedule has become so unpredictable, I simply cannot commit to a whole season of the same night.

And then, of course, there are character-driven reasons that I can't follow certain dramas... on ER, which I used to watch almost religiously, I eventually came to hate all of the doctors and nurses with a burning passion, their selfishness and egotism and neuroses got on my last gay nerve, and I just couldn't watch anymore; I've tried to get involved in The West Wing, too, but it makes me so sad and angry that we don't really have a president like Jed Bartlet, a man with an ethical mind and a loving heart and a progressive agenda, or have Stockard Channing for our First Lady (I love Stockard Channing so much!)

But Law & Order and its many spinoffs, and CSI and its spinoffs, don't challenge one so much. You get to know the detectives and attorneys to a certain extent, but their characters are fairly benign for the most part, and you don't really get much of a chance to love or hate them. They're just there. The episodes are driven entirely by the case at hand (or three cases, as in CSI), the characters of that week's guest stars are never overshadowed by the regular cast, and everything just jumps along like clockwork with a lovely and satisfying resolution of some sort at the end.

Still, as with any show, if you watch enough of them you start noticing patterns, particularly on Law & Order. I have noticed, for example, that if the crime points to a very obvious perpetrator, that person never did it; in fact, the first person brought in on suspicion is almost never the person responsible, and the frequency of false arrest is stunning... not to mention the frequency with which falsely arrested persons are beaten and/or killed in jail... one can assume that there is a whole team of attorneys working for the City of New York round the clock, just on false-arrest charges against the police precincts and wrongful death suits against the Riker's Island administration.

Another theme I've noticed is that, if the bad-guy gets off with an acquittal or mistrial or anything, he or she is usually murdered before the show ends. Nobody ever really gets away with anything, even if the case falls apart in court. The goddess Justice must be served, and apparently she'll get her service any old whichaway she can.

The last thing I've noticed (and the inspiration for today's title) is that if a big-name guest star turns up near the beginning of the show, he or she is almost invariably guilty of something... if not the crime, then of covering up the crime or helping the criminal to almost get away with it. Last night on the repeat of Law & Order SVU, the minute Oscar-winner Bruce Davison raised his head to face the camera, I knew he was guilty... though in an increasingly twisted plot, it turned out that he was guilty of something rather more complicated and controversial than the alleged rape that was initially being investigated.


So anyway, that's what's rattling around in my head today. I have been trying to concentrate on getting back to work on Worst Luck, and I have about two new paragraphs written (my last stall was trying to find a Tanzanian name for a masseur, once again becoming hopelessly bemired in inconsequential details), but I never seem to find large enough blocks of time to get back into it. I had intended to write last night, but then I got sucked into the various Law & Order episodes, and those along with cooking and eating dinner just stole my whole evening. I don't know when I'm going to find the time, anymore.

But at least I'm thinking about it actively again, focusing on various problems (like how to get past where I am to get to where I want to be in the narrative), and getting at least a few words down on "paper." It's not success, but it's progress. And at least I have work and other obligations to blame for my inability to sit down and write... it would be really depressing if I had the time to write, and still nothing came out.

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