Homicide: Death on the Screen
By Eric ThurmOctober 30, 2014
THE CLASSIC OPENING of Law & Order is so formulaic it almost seems unnecessary to describe: In its purest form, people are going about their daily business, maybe on a date, maybe just heading to the grocery store. If there’s a group, they bicker about something banal — trouble at work, the in-laws are coming to stay — until someone walks around a corner and screams. They’ve found a corpse. Smash cut to the arrival of the police, who busily stake out the crime scene accompanied by flashing cameras, people taking forensic samples, and a whole heap of caution tape. One of our heroes looks at the body and uses it as fodder for a dry, world-weary wisecrack while stoically preparing to catch the killer. Dun dun.
This level of consistency in crime dramas is a relatively recent development. Earlier procedurals like Hawaii Five-0 or Dragnet focused on a much wider variety of cases, from racketeering to kidnapping to assault, but now corpses are the prime movers of the modern police procedural. This historical turn is in part because of Standards and Practices’s shifts in what producers could and couldn’t do on television, but that only explains the lack of restriction on murder, not why it’s become the focus of cop shows. And that isn’t so hard to explain — murder presents the highest, most immediate stakes for solving a crime. (Someone is, after all, irreversibly dead.)
It’s difficult to deny the continuing popularity of this genre: police procedurals have been one of the mainstays of the medium, and they’re still some of the most widely consumed entertainment in America. (NCIS is neck and neck with The Big Bang Theory for highest-rated series on television.) It’s no surprise, then, that several recent prestige shows have focused on a single case (The Killing, True Detective, The Bridge), a trend stretching back to Twin Peaks, a series that used its central question “Who killed Laura Palmer?” as a MacGuffin, a strategy for getting audiences to swallow a David Lynch–created soap about a bizarre town in the Pacific Northwest. In newer shows, though, murder (and the attendant corpses) becomes the primary focus, asking us to adopt a certain relationship to death.
In the original murder procedural — of which Law & Order is the prime example — corpses are plot engines. After the cold open, the cops will usually learn something by visiting the corpse, but they’re rarely presented as anything but clinical objects, relegated to a single scene in which they are secondary to a medical examiner delivering more exposition. In fact, in most Law & Order episodes, particularly early ones, the corpse only actually enters the frame when some detail about it is visually important, and often disappears immediately after the cold open. Instead, a medical examiner summarizes the findings, condensing the relevant information about the victim into a few lines of dialogue and a sheet of paper. Here, the show marginalizes the body as much as possible, hiding the fact that it used to be a person.
Law & Order cops to this tendency in the episode most frequently cited as a break from this status quo, season six’s “Aftershock.” The episode begins with an unusually drawn-out execution witnessed by most of the main cast, mapping the transformation from life to death. Though the body of the killer isn’t seen for the rest of the episode, it’s on everyone’s mind: In the one scene that could have come from a typical episode of the show, Steven Hill’s District Attorney Adam Schiff is asked in a press conference, “What’s going to happen to the body?” Meanwhile, Lennie Briscoe tells his estranged daughter, “I see dead people all the time, only they’re already dead when I show up.” His resignation points to the failings of the cop show: “I guess I’m better when they’re already dead.” Briscoe’s admission is a somewhat surprising nod to the human, psychic costs of police work — something that, with the exception of the very particular juicy and titillating personal drama of an Elliot Stabler, Frank Furillo, or even a Jimmy McNulty, most series do their best to ignore. Murder cases are exciting, but these sorts of series do their best to abstract the fun parts of crime solving from the act and people who make them necessary.
What does this suggest about what we’re getting out of our cop shows? It’s entertainment, yes, but entertainment that raises the clear specter of death-as-statistic, making it easier for us to ignore the dead and the dying. (One show that came out of the Law & Order/Homicide: Life On The Street mold that does manage to make this incidental, clinical approach to the body successful is The Wire, which simply allows the camera to linger a moment too long on corpses, discomforting the viewer with the blunt reality of Baltimore’s deaths.) In her essay titled “Man vs. Corpse,” Zadie Smith finds the thread of our relationship to death in post-apocalyptic fiction, “the future in which everyone’s a corpse (except you).” Similarly, in the Law & Order–style cop show, there’s only one corpse, and it’s never going to be you. By abjecting death, these series create a world where no one confronts their own mortality, a world Smith finds “consisting only of thrusting, vigorous men walking boldly out of frame.” But even turning corpses into utilitarian plot engines is easy to take when the successors to Law & Order, exemplified by the CSI franchise and Bones, among others, present the body as a different sort of object — a puzzle.
On these shows, the body is placed front and center. The goriness or morbid fascination with the body becomes the whole point, as it does in the shift from police officers investigating crimes in the standard, door-knocking, sense to CSI, where forensic exploration of the body becomes the point of the investigation. Or take the entirety of Bones, where police work often resembles nothing so much as an English class, where very small clues contribute to a reading (theory) of the text (case). Bones’s most substantial skill is deducing facts about victims from, well, bones. The show even occasionally includes holographic reconstructions of the deceased in an attempt to raise the emotional stakes of the crime, literalizing this emphasis on the body as a text and blowing it up into the entire point of the show. These series are playing into a version of “realism” by displaying the corpses while simultaneously making them objects of almost purely visual fascination. The aesthetic nature of the body extends to the way in which corpses are transformed into all sorts of odd shapes. (A recent episode included a skull embedded in plants.)
At its worst, this tendency to transform the body into a scavenger hunt combines with a sort of morbid fascination, making the entertainment value of the human body horrifyingly explicit. Take one of the more successful new cop shows of this decade: The Following, where corpses are jettisoned unless they can become toys in the show’s twisted amoral funhouse. (Series creator Kevin Williamson has a poor recent track record with the ethical implications of crime, turning his new series Stalker into an excuse to trivialize something a little different.) In the Following’s second season premiere, newly introduced antagonist/cultist Luke goes on a “date” with the body of Heather, a girl he has seduced and murdered. He dances with her body, talking to it repeatedly, taking pleasure in his activities for no discernable reason. Predictably, the focus throughout the scene is on Luke — Heather’s face is almost never seen. Death is simply an easy tool to make stories “gritty,” The Following says, simultaneously lazy and practically psychotic.
Where earlier procedurals remove the weight of death by minimizing the body and its presence, recent ones move in the opposite direction, forcing attention onto the corpse, transforming it from a crude necessity for detective work to the focus of fetishized entertainment — an art object. Here, we’re asked to derive enjoyment not merely from the solving of the crime, but also from the corpse itself, becoming increasingly shocked at the gruesome way heroes find these victims and the ingenious “science” that goes into drawing information from them. If the characters experience any revulsion at a corpse, it’s generally treated as a source of humor. The show ensures we remain abstracted from the truth that we, too, will eventually be corpses, if not necessarily one that winds up on a slab to be picked apart by Temperance Brennan. By presenting these corpses as objects of fascination, the modern police procedural demonstrates its adeptness at what Smith calls “false advertising” — we’re not objects, and we never will be. The way Law & Order sweeps the body under the rug seems tasteful by comparison.
That this attitude toward murder has permeated network television makes Hannibal’s treatment of the corpse even more striking, refreshing, and necessary. Hannibal, a serial-killer procedural currently running on NBC and based on a long-existing property most commonly associated with over-the-top acting, doesn’t seem like it should be particularly innovative programming. But it’s the type of show that a new generation of TV lovers will take up as their own, forcing an older cohort to pretend that they watched it during its first run (e.g., Twin Peaks). Hannibal finds the only logical explanation for the body count of a Law & Order or NCIS: evil — real, tangible evil — exists, embodied most prominently by one Dr. Hannibal Lecter (a serpentine, seductive, and stunning Mads Mikkelsen). The serial killers that litter the show’s world take impossible amounts of time to present their victims as aesthetic objects, to make statements with their work — surely more time than it took to actually do the deed. The murder tableaus and the statements they make are the real end goal of the crimes, not the deaths themselves.
The show’s production team puts a level of detail into the presentation of these corpses that simultaneously abstracts them into art objects and maintains the humanity and horror that we might ordinarily feel in the presence of a corpse. The body is a canvas, and the serial killers, the artists. Take “Trou Normand,” in which the FBI team led by Will Graham comes upon a totem pole made of dead bodies. There are any number of other examples, but a few particularly potent ones: in season one’s “Coquilles,” the killer flays his victims’ backs and uses their skin as wings so they can be hung, angel-like, in a barn. The second season premiere literalizes the killer-as-artist in its first episode, featuring a man who functionally laminates the bodies of dozens of people to create an eye that can be seen from the heavens. In each case, corpses induce excitement, but also revulsion, painstakingly manifesting the consequences of murder (and, notably, are also positioned as religious art).
The intentionally beautiful, unsettling presentation of these corpses is an attempt to force us to question our relationship to televised human bodies — it is difficult to pretend that these angels were not once living people before they ascended. In her essay, the closest thing Smith finds to an ideal depiction of corpses is Warhol, whose bodies are “presented with no whiff of human pity — although neither are they quite cold abstractions,” doing their best to impose upon the viewer the reality of his imminent corpsification. Hannibal’s corpses aren’t about confirming our own deaths, though — rather, they confirm the importance of the deaths of others. The corpses might be us, but they’re also other people, a recognition of the other’s humanity that is perhaps more important than our own coming to terms with mortality.
But Hannibal also uses its living protagonist to say something about the relationship it wants us to have with the human body. Will understands another person from observing the murder tableaus, taking the way they’ve positioned a corpse as evidence in a case, yes, but also as suggestive of the shape of the killer’s mind. The show dramatizes his “empathy disorder” as a reenactment of the murder — a show within a show, starring Will as the murderer-protagonist and audience surrogate. The price of his gift — of seeing all of the killings in their full detail, and of understanding what happened and why — is ever-increasing temptation, being lured into violence by the aesthetic beauty promised by the tableaus and objectification of the body.
That’s how, over the course of the second season, Will is slowly but surely lured into Hannibal’s way of seeing the world. It’s under the pretense of actually catching the killer (it always is), but he does eventually commit a murder himself, beating Randall Tier, yet another killer, to death with his bare hands. And after sustained exposure to these displays, and to Hannibal, Will transforms the corpse into a snarling beast in his very own murder tableau. He admits to Hannibal that the killing made him feel “alive.” It was fun. (And why else would we watch CSI?) Tier’s murder, and Will’s active participation in Hannibal’s climate of death, suggests the possibilities for consistent, unadulterated exposure to the sorts of corpses that litter the rest of our cop shows. According to Hannibal, the presentation of Tier’s body is representative of the “informality of death,” an attitude that equally applies to the way death is received by the audience of the modern police procedural. But the nature of death is at odds with the way we ought to respond to it. Hannibal’s opinion is the opinion of the devil — his seduction of Will is an attempt to blur the distinction between the nature of death and our perception of it.
Death is presented as aggressively formal on cop shows — the rituals of the cold open and the accidental stumbling upon a body, the way corpses are framed, sliding out from the morgue drawer, even the grimace when a cop resolves that he’s going to catch the guy who did this, damn it. These tropes allow the no longer living to disappear before our eyes, to merely become parts of the ritual, like so many communion wafers. They allow us to ignore death’s real, terrifying chaos — its informality. Hannibal, then, acts as a corrective to this tendency, confronting us with the informality of death in an effort to get us to take it seriously. It might be easy, even natural, to treat death lightly, especially when it’s on television. But even then, especially then, our response to these fictional corpses deserves an element of the formality that the dead are denied.
Eric Thurm writes about pop culture for publications including The A.V. Club, Complex, and The Week. He writes about the ethical implications of watching Breaking Bad and Nazi propaganda board games for himself. Follow him on Twitter @EricThurm for partially founded speculation.
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