What’s all the drama about detective tv shows?

Recently, my comments were featured in an article for an online art platform, Why Now. The journalist Ellie Calnan is an avid police drama fan and decided to write the article on what makes police drama so popular with British audiences. She contrasted the popularity with the scandals that the police as an institution has been involved in in recent years.

While being interviewed by her, I thought of a hero’s journey, a familiar narrative archetype that can be found in many stories, including police dramas. An archetype is a pattern that connects people across time and culture. They are characters or symbols that are recognisable irrespective of their place or time of origin. Swiss analyst Carl Jung first introduced the idea of the archetype. One of the attributes of the hero archetype is overcoming odds in service to completing extraordinary acts of strength, courage and goodness. The Hero acts to redeem society or save someone through self-sacrifice and triumph over adversity and evil.

Here is an example of how a hero's journey might be presented in a police drama:

  • The Call to Adventure: The hero, often a police officer or detective, is presented with a challenge or mystery that requires their skills and expertise to solve. This could be a complex case that has stumped other investigators or a personal vendetta against a criminal.
  • Refusal of the Call: Initially, the hero might resist taking on the challenge, perhaps because they doubt their abilities or fear the risks involved.
  • Meeting the Mentor: The hero meets someone who can help guide them on their journey. This could be a senior officer, a forensic specialist, or a criminal informant.
  • Crossing the Threshold: The hero commits to the challenge and sets out on their journey, leaving behind their everyday life and entering the world of the case or criminal they are pursuing.
  • Tests, Allies, and Enemies: Along the way, the hero faces various obstacles and challenges but also gains allies who support them and enemies who oppose them. They might also encounter clues or revelations that help them solve the mystery.
  • Approach to the Inmost Cave: The hero faces their greatest challenge yet, often in a confrontation with the criminal they are pursuing.
  • Ordeal: The hero faces their darkest moment, often where all hope seems lost. They might suffer a personal setback, such as being injured or losing a loved one.
  • Reward: The hero emerges from the ordeal, having overcome their challenges and achieved their goal. They might arrest the criminal or solve the case and, in doing so, restore justice and order.
  • The Road Back: The hero returns to their everyday life but has been changed by their journey. They might have gained new insights or skills or have a newfound appreciation for their colleagues and loved ones.
  • Resurrection: The hero faces a final challenge, often a confrontation with the criminal or a showdown that puts them at risk.
  • Return with the Elixir: The hero emerges victorious, having completed their journey and achieved their goal. They return to their everyday lives with a new perspective and appreciation for their challenges. They might also have gained recognition or respect from their colleagues and the public.

Some police dramas introduce a character who may be more of an anti-hero. The anti-hero archetype is a character who possesses both heroic and villainous qualities. These characters are often depicted as rebellious, morally ambiguous, and flawed individuals who challenge law enforcement's traditional norms and values.

The anti-hero in police dramas may engage in questionable tactics, such as using excessive force, breaking the law, or bending the rules to achieve their goals. They may also have personal demons, such as addiction or emotional trauma, that affect their behaviour and decision-making.

Despite their flaws, anti-heroes in police dramas often have a strong sense of justice and a desire to make a positive difference. They may also be highly skilled and capable of taking down dangerous criminals.

Examples of anti-heroes in police dramas include characters like Vic Mackey from "The Shield," Jimmy McNulty from "The Wire," and John Luther from "Luther." These characters challenge the traditional hero archetype and provide a more nuanced and complex portrayal of who a police detective may be.

©Anna Sergent

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