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Here's Why We're Actually Still Watching Crime Shows

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SHOOTING GUN
David De Lossy via Getty Images

Since I write television, allow me to begin by stating the obvious: America has become more polarized than at any time since the 1960s. People on opposite sides of the partisan divide have not only ceased listening to each other, they are also looking to buy homes and rent apartments in politically homogenous neighborhoods (and cities!); so that the newspaper resting at the bottom of their cages won't ruffle their ideological feathers; so they can tell birds singing different songs to flock off.

In another chapter from the hard to believe, crossing party lines has become a criminal offense, so that it's impossible to get anything done without offering insult to one side or the other. And every action by moderately opposing forces is greeted with hysteria. Democrats adopt a Republican health care proposal from the 1990s, which was actually implemented by a Republican governor (and eventual Republican presidential nominee), and the rage on the right cannot be contained. Democrats furiously condemn a policy of fighting a war in Iraq and keeping prisoners in Guantanamo and the ethics of drone strikes and then, when they gain power...oh, the list is too long.

For better or worse, the justice system has become the last refuge for those of us looking for common ties with our fellow Americans. The need to arrest criminals and put them on trial transcends our petty differences, and allows varied communities to unite in common cause. Murder is terribly hard to politicize. As one of Henry the II's sons says in The Lion in Winter, "I've never heard a corpse ask how it got so cold."

And homicide investigations are largely successful. In most big cities, perhaps especially in Los Angeles and New York, every effort is made to comply with the law while hunting down those who have not. The LAPD polls regularly as the most respected municipal institution in Los Angeles. Our law enforcement agencies exist as working proof that government can move competently - even with bravery and selflessness - to do the right thing.

The unconscious fantasy element of procedural drama has evolved, from marveling at the intelligence of a particular detective, into a wistful desire that our entire body politic could put aside our mostly imaginary arguments long enough to focus on the crisis at hand: to drop our opinions in favor of the pattern of facts.

We love a good whodunit; bringing a murderer to heel satisfies our heroic impulses, and unites the audience with shared, public approval. If only we could figure out how to respect each other as well as we do the abstract principles of the justice system! That, ladies and gentlemen, is a mystery we ought to solve together.

In the meantime, procedural drama will have to do.