Sun, Jun

Could Television Writers Show a Little More Imagination When Writing about Crime?


GELFAND’S WORLD-A wise pundit once pointed out that in the television industry, there is so much screen time to fill that even mediocrity is in short supply. We see this most directly in the cookie-cutter villains of each era. In westerns, outlaws preyed on honest settlers. We even got new meanings for the terms "white hat" and "black hat." Eventually, audiences had seen enough of the western genre, and television producers moved on to other kinds of bad guys. For a while, we had urban crime to scare us, both on television and in real life. 

A later era made drug dealers (and then the term drug cartel) into the villains du jour. 

The advantage to the scriptwriter of going to the standard cliche is that there is no need to establish villainy. It is taken as a given that the outlaw and the drug cartel are definably evil. You don't have to spend 4 or 5 minutes out of your 23 minute show to establish that the bandit had an abusive childhood but still deserves hanging. 

Then we went through an era in which the term serial killer reigned supreme. It's still going on in the show Criminal Minds, as well as occasional episodes written into other crime dramas. 

I can understand that television producers are under a lot of pressure to deliver a suitably scary product 13 times a season, so they are bound to go to the well fairly often. But at a certain point, all the western bandits and drug runners begin to form a blur, and its time to find something else. Too often, it's just another cliche. 

For the past couple of years, the well that they have gone to has been computer hacking, or as it is more officially known, cyber crime. 

Unlike drug running, computer expertise by itself is not something that can be treated by the scriptwriter as an automatic evil. That would be an insult to the vast majority of viewers, since most of us use computers. 

So it's necessary for the writer to at least mention that there are good guys and bad guys in the internet realm. The writers of the new show CSI:Cyber introduce each episode with a sad story about how the protagonist was hacked, and out of that she has become the anti-hacker par excellence. And now she leads an FBI unit of crack crime fighting hackers. 

CSI:Cyber likes to point out that there are black hat hackers and white hat hackers. We've gone back to the days of the westerns, except that skill with a firearm has been replaced by skill at the keyboard. 

If you look closely at the modern computer crime genre, you will eventually come to realize something that I previously mentioned about the show Numb3rs. These shows don't actually teach the viewer anything about the core subject matter. Numb3rs really didn't communicate anything mathematical to the viewer. The ability to do partial differentials was just the Pasadena version of being skilled with a six-shooter. Some have it, and some don't. Charlie had it in Numb3rs. 

In CSI:Cyber, there are a couple or three whiz kids who self-identify as white hat hackers. They do the same sorts of things as the black hat hackers -- intrude into private computers, mess with other peoples' software, that sort of thing -- but they do it for good, not evil, you see. 

And just like Numb3rs, the technical wizardry displayed by the protagonists is a facade. What the viewer gets is the shot of fingers hitting keys and the sound of key clicks. This is usually accompanied by some technical-sounding language that introduces the name of a system or component (router seems to come up fairly often) without actually telling us anything about it. 

We might contrast this approach to the traditional war movie, in which tactics and techniques are displayed to the viewer, even as grand strategies are discussed. One only has to consider the story of the Battle of the Bulge to understand this, as it has been covered in several major films and documentaries. Or you can go back and find out about the Battle of Midway, from the achievements of American codebreakers to the maneuverings of the aircraft carriers to the fatal decision by a Japanese commander that put his carriers at risk. It's all there. 

In the modern cyber-drama, it's not there. We understand that the protagonists are using some kind of strategy, but what we get is just mumbo-jumbo. Then we get key clicks, and then (at the propitious moment), we get a shot of a computer screen that says "password accepted" as our weary crime fighters give a cheer. 

It would be like showing the Battle of Midway without including the airplanes. 

CSI:Cyber is pioneering a genre in which cyber crime is the well, much as its earlier counterpart CSI pioneered the idea of featuring laboratory technicians as central characters and protagonists in their own right. The difference, I think, is that in the earlier CSI shows, the evidence is described, and the logical progression that the evidence provoked became the plotline. You got to see the butterfly wing or the bullet fragment, and you got to see the comparison of bullets as done under the microscope. We are not getting an explanation of the UNIX command line in CSI:Cyber. 

This latest incarnation of the computer genre is an outgrowth of an earlier style epitomized by shows such as NCIS Los Angeles. In these shows, the computer wizardry is just one crime fighting tool among others. In NCIS LA, the character Nell finds out information that serves as tactical intelligence, and she does it in moments, rather than the weeks that it would take if done by more traditional police procedures. You might compare Nell's exploits with Dragnet, in which Sgt Friday and his partner drive around and talk to people all day long in order to get a lead on a suspect. Nell does her clickity click routine, and up pops a drivers license and a full criminal history within seconds. 

In other words, the immediately previous style was to feature black hat hackers (since they routinely violated peoples' privacy, often illegally), but they were working for the public good. Hence they became the white hat hackers of the modern day. 

As we all know, cyber crime is real. The problem for us the audience, as it is for the television writer, is that our society hasn't been very effective at battling cyber crime. Massive thefts of personal information from Target, to give one example, caused problems for tens of thousands of people, but the sense of relief that comes from the arrest of a suspect has evaded us so far. Shows like CSI:Cyber present us a wish fulfillment fantasy. 

Perhaps this new genre will provoke our elected leadership to demand that additional resources be provided in order to elicit an effective response to cyber crime.


(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])  





Vol 13 Issue 32

Pub: Apr 17, 2015

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