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Why are crime TV series so popular?

CSI ratings show that it’s a very popular series. The same goes for Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Criminal Minds, and dozens of similar shows. What is it about these series that make them so popular?

First of all, let’s assume the general public does not like crime. With this assumption in mind it’s at least a bit peculiar that we all tune in to shows containing so much violence. So what is it about violence that makes us want to watch it on TV? Let’s face it; very few people would like to stick around when they see someone get murdered. Maybe it’s not the violence then, but the crime fighting aspect that makes us watch. After all, we all have a built in sense of justice, proven by all those studies where people would rather let no one have any reward at all than letting someone else (who did not deserve it) receive more of the aforementioned reward. This built in sense of justice could be the basis of our desire to watch the bad man go down.

This sounds like a good explanation, but it doesn’t explain why we keep on watching even when the bad guy doesn’t get caught. Which, in fact, happens more often than one would expect in the perfect world of a TV series. So although this may be a part of the puzzle, it can’t be the entire story. Is it then our desire to feel good about ourselves by seeing someone else has it worse?

Kathryn Erbe as Alexandra Eames on Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Kathryn Erbe as Alexandra Eames on Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

I admit this theory seems to be very mean and there are very few people who would admit they actually feel better about themselves when they know there are people out there who have it worse, mostly because this isn’t a conscious process. But whether you accept it or not, seeing someone on TV in distress makes you think to yourself: ‘thank God that isn’t happening to me’. Of course it’s great if the bad guy gets caught, but it isn’t absolutely necessary for you to feel better about your life. You already feel better just by knowing things could be much, much worse.

So are these factors all? Is this the secret formula? It explains why one would enjoy the episodes, even when the bad guy escapes. This doesn’t explain why there is such a need to make such creative episodes though. Creative episodes in this context meaning very interesting/abnormal deaths, for instance. So why is there a need to make these? The obvious explanation is that is prevents boredom. But why do we get bored with watching ordinary crimes over and over again? Is it perhaps because we like to have puzzles to solve? Over time the human mind has grown to solve puzzle and to see through intricate situations. These skills are of course very useful in society (after all, knowing what someone else is up to could give you quite the advantage), so it’s only logical that we would want to stimulate our ‘puzzle-solving’ skills.

So it seems it is a combination of us trying to satisfy our sense of justice, our desire to feel good about ourselves and our urge to have thorough knowledge of someone else’s intentions that makes us so addicted to crime series. Combine this with good marketing and skilled actors and you have a success formula that has worked and will continue to work for years and years and years.


gypsumgirl from Vail Valley, Colorado on February 09, 2014:

I love NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles. I suppose it's brings about a feeling that justice has been served. More so, however, I love the twists and turns in the plots. The writers are fabulous and keep their audiences engaged through every minute of the shows.

Thanks for the insight! I enjoyed your hub!

Savanna Redshaw on January 20, 2013:

I think it's all about intellect. Being able to say you were smart enough to figure it out. Why do you think Sherlock Holmes is such a big figure in pop culture.

GlstngRosePetals from Wouldn't You Like To Know on October 11, 2012:

I think we all are brain washed by the media and are fasinated by the outlandish thing people do. We don't want crime but we love to watch it in someone elses back yard so to speak. Great hub. Voted up !!!

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jessramblings from New Jersey on December 31, 2011:

Yes! Human behavior is so interesting, especially in that show. Plus the cast just play off each other so brilliantly! CM is the only one I watch, though. I've given others a try, they just didn't grab me as much as CM did.

Robin Oatley (author) on December 31, 2011:

Jess, I share your love for Criminal Minds, although I personally love it because it shows the many different types of psychopathic personalities. I'm quite interested in human behavior, so you can imagine how this intrigues me ;)

jessramblings from New Jersey on December 30, 2011:

I was never into crime dramas. The only one I watch is CRIMINAL MINDS, but didn't start until it was in its fifth season, because I love the Sherlock Holmes aspect of how they manage to find the killer using little clues. It also doesn't need to sell sex between the characters. They are one family and the writing is amazing. I think it's very similar to why mystery is so popular to read. People like intrigue and they get to play detective instead of actually having to take the long training process and potentially put themselves in danger. At least, that's my theory. The ones you wrote were just as thoughtful.

Robin Oatley (author) on December 08, 2011:

Usually I think I've got it all figured out, and then it turns out to be someone completely different, so I know how you feel ;)

laurathegentleman from Chapel Hill, NC on December 08, 2011:

I loooooove to try to figure out who did it (I never do, though... haha, but I definitely try!) and I love the mystery.

Robin Oatley (author) on December 08, 2011:

@Tyra: thanks for reading!

@Alecia: you've got a good point there. I guess the desire to see justice done has been ever-present on the silver (and TV) screen.

Alecia Murphy from Wilmington, North Carolina on December 07, 2011:

Great hub! I think it's more like our modern versions of westerns where the cops are the good guys and the criminals are bad guys. Whereas real life crime can take a long time to be solved or in some cases never be solved, tv crime can be wrapped up within an hour or so.

tyra marieza from Atlanta Georgia on December 07, 2011:

I like the intrigue.

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