Surely we are in the midst of a Golden Age of the episodic crime drama. Between Sherlock, True Detective, Luther, Broadchurch, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Top of the Lake, and a plethora of enormously successful CBS procedurals that I admit I have never seen but people seem to enjoy (NCIS, Elementary, post-Petersen CSI). I have seen Criminal Minds several times (its a favorite of my parents) and have usually enjoyed it, but for a variety of reasons, traditional procedurals favored by the likes of CBS in particular and networks in general don’t really fit into my main argument, which I’ll present herein.
The most unique among these are the first three mentioned above: Sherlock, Luther, and True Detective (the latter otherwise known to me as the best eight hours I’ve spent since Season 4 of The Wire, which for me is hands down the best season of television I’ve seen). These three series are unique in their structure, character development, and deviation from formula and convention. Of course, what links them to the time-honored tropes of the genre as we know it are their eccentric, brooding, self-medicating protagonists. This last season, Sherlock himself even went so far as to admit that his case-solving functions as a way to avoid slipping back into a destructive drug habit fueled in part by his perpetual boredom in the times when, to paraphrase the Holmesian line, “the game is not on.” To that point, the hilarious “bachelor party” sequence in “The Sign of Three” where Sherlock and John get shit-faced drunk offers us a comic glimpse into how Sherlock’s gifts could be squandered if not properly exercised. Similarly, DCI John Luther’s investigative genius is never more than a nose hair away from giving way to the more destructive sides of himself. And of course the almost tragic intersection of Rustin Cohle’s pessimism, alcoholism, and investigative fervor were all on full display throughout True Detective.
Whereas Cohle and Sherlock’s irreplaceable (narratively and literally) partners fill in the gaps in their antisocial personalities, Luther, even when paired with Ripley, always seems a man alone. Luther is much more a martyr figure than the other two: his struggle is his own and his inner torment seemingly untreatable. In this way Luther as a series is a bit of genre-bender combining the logic and deduction of Holmes, the unflinching fatalism of neo-noir, and the pitch dark psychodrama of what I simply call the Serial Killer genre, a space in which True Detective also owns some prime real estate. In the serial killer universe the emphasis is usually on the detectives’ psychological relationship to the killer and the grim implications thereof, Sherlock is primarily concerned with Sherlock’s relationship to John and vice versa.
All notions of “shipping” aside, Sherlock is primarily a love story; Sherlock and John share a deep connection and a mutual need for an adrenaline fix. They subsequently fulfill each other’s needs while simultaneously fulfilling their own, which of course also includes a role in supplying the fix for the other, as they are in a “committed relationship,” sharing a bond beyond mere flatmates or investigative partners. Just as ideal romantic partners compliment and fulfill each other’s sexual needs, so too do Sherlock and Holmes fulfill each other’s need for the thrill of the chase and find a quiet, if not awkward solace in the company of each other when the chase has subsided, both in and out of the arena of their cases. One of the many things I really loved about this last batch of Sherlock episodes is how Mary and Sherlock both essentially accept and recognize their respective roles as sometimes-primary and sometimes-secondary partners for John. He loves and needs them both for different things and doesn’t want (or have) to choose one and forgo the other. The three come to what amounts to a polyamorous understanding that benefits all involved. “The Sign of Three” wedding episode (my now co-favorite episode with “A Scandal In Belgravia”) captures all this, showing Sherlock fully acknowledging and accepting his new, modified role, even at the price of confronting and in a way accepting his own loneliness, which will from now on risk gaining a larger prominence in his life because John’s attentions will now be elsewhere some of the time.
Luther and Cohle both seem to devote and project a large portion of the virtuous side of their human nature on the victims of the crimes they investigate. Despite their investigative genius, they both fit more into the “hard boiled” mold of a detective than the traditional “deductive reasoning” type. They’re both very in touch with the darker sides of their natures as well as those of the human species as a whole, which is of course what enables them to “get into the minds of the killers” for want of a more elegant term. They both view their job as a vocation, fully aware that the world needs “bad men” such as them to get down in the muck, psychic and otherwise, in order to bring down the perpetrator. They are both beyond willing to transgress multiple codes of ethics and behavior to get their man. Make no mistake, their goal is not to arrest or even apprehend the “suspect,” but to put an end to the actions being committed by the individual they happen to be pursuing by any means, operating from a sense of transcendent justice whose mandate is far greater in their eyes than any human institution. Their “job” in the occupational sense is meaningless to them; they attained and pursued their positions to be better able to execute their mandate in terms of resources and in some sense, credibility.
I went into all this character analysis to highlight what I see as connections between these three remarkable series that remain, in my own research at least, largely unexplored by the usual sources. Between these three shows alone I see this present epoch in television as an undisputed golden age of the crime drama. Despite the connections between them these shows are also drastically different from one another, each one dark and darkly hilarious in its own way. I love all three of these shows with a passion, and the performances delivered by the five lead actors involved (Cumberbatch, Freeman, Elba, McConaughey, and Harrelson) are unparalleled not only in the crime genre, but arguably in television writ large. With their expert execution of flawless writing, these series are three of the crown media jewels of our time. I wouldn’t trade any of them for anything and I frankly don’t know what I would have done without them as a viewer these last few years. They’ve changed my mind as a viewer and writer both about a genre that’s too easily subject to convention and mediocrity by a lack of invention on the part of its producers. The bar has been raised by these and other series and I sincerely hope we see some imitators upcoming.