When was the last time you watched 48 Hour Mystery? Or Dateline?
While once these television "news magazines" hung their shows on relatively important, topical subject matter, over recent years they've gone more the "fibers-in-the-carpet," "no woman should ever die that way" route. Gone are the hard-hitting interviews and investigative reports into political scandals and deadbeat financiers (how tragic for us, by the way!).
Clearly some wiser-than-me TV mogul reading sliding Nielsen numbers noticed the success of certain A&E cable shows that rampaged through police files and came up with footage of murderers, dead people, lotsa quaint and grotesque town folk, grisly black & white stills, bazillions of crime experts, and reenactments of whatever was missing. Surely you saw these shows too. I'm not talking about the revamped ones on Tru TV. Those shows are now imitating the network shows that imitated them. I'm talking about City Confidential, with melodious narration by the late Paul Winfield, American Justice, or Cold Case Files, the original forensic fiesta, and more.
There must have been loud sighs of relief at CBS when some ambitious hotshot announced, "I know! We could be a 'TV murder magazine' show instead of a 'TV news magazine' show!" Naturally, the ratings righted themselves quickly. After all, aside from election time or world political calamities, only 60 Minutes can haul along enough viewers to do hard news without kiss, kiss, bang, bang. And they have tough weeks too.
But it's hardly up-to-the-minute information that political news shows have become who-done-it entertainment. What's catching my breath is something stranger that's been happening on 48 Hours Mystery and more than occasionally Dateline. I'm not sure exactly when it started. I didn't used to watch these shows all the time, but once I noticed what was troubling me, I started to watch them a lot to be sure I was right. It all began one evening when I found myself saying to my spouse, "Do you really want to watch 48 Hours Mystery again? We know how it ends. Either the husband did it or the wife did it." We looked at each other. It was the truth. Week after week we'd been watching the same basic murder template.
And sure enough, as we sat through another gruesome installment, we were served up a "loving" husband utterly distraught about his dead wife who had been brutally strangled, mangled, cut up, boxed up, and dropped to the bottom of the sea. Naturally there were at least two other shady characters that could have done it--and maybe I would have let my attention span meander through those theories if I didn't know what was inevitably coming. You see, the interviews with the husband were all being done in tight close-ups. This is a trick. It inevitably leads to a final wide or medium-angle sequence revealing the husband (or wife, as the case may be) in his/her orange jail outfit. But even if we hadn't noticed the camera shenanigans, it still had to be him. These are REAL court cases and apparently this is the trend, folks.
If you doubt 48HM, try Dateline. While less inclined to hammer you with them one after another, you can still depend on Dateline to offer up cases like last week's doozy about a hideous hubby who slowly poisoned his wife to death by having her unknowingly drink anti-freeze in the Gatorade he was giving her for her failing kidneys. When an autopsy revealed traces of anti-freeze in her body, horrid hubby simply went about trying to convince family, friends, and a jury that she was lacing the Gatorade herself because she was depressed over not feeling well. (So she decided to kill herself very slowly in an agonizingly painful way? It's amazing what people come up with under stress, don't you think? ).
In case after case, spouses are knocking each other off. It's as if divorce doesn't exist. Statistics and reports on every web search I did indicate its been getting worse and worse. Why? And what does this say about the state of marriage, this "sacred union" that caused America such emotional upheaval this year when people, other than one man and one woman, tried to enter into it legally through ballot measures last November 4th? DOMA, The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (giving states the right to ignore legal same-sex marriages in other states, as well as giving the Federal government the right to ignore any marriage not between a man and a woman) was brought back to life with ongoing battles over California's Proposition 8's defeat. Watching these crime shows, one wonders what exactly these folks are defending marriage against? Who is doing it the most harm? Judging from what we see on TV, it's unquestionably one man and one woman:
They fall out of love, or never were in love, cheat on each other, marry for money and then kill for the same money. They take lovers who turn into accomplices and marry their next victim before anyone's discovered the body of the last one. As for the poor children, they're usually on the witness stand siding with one parent or the other (living or dead), reporting how stunned they are or how they always suspected. Either way, it's obvious their lives are poop from here on out.
And here's another grim thought. Let's say that programs like 48HM are loading the dice. (Duh.) Let's say there are all sorts of murder cases to chose from, and that "spouseicide" is not the 80-90% of murder cases that they're making it out to be. Instead they're purposely picking homicides where marriage is the setting.
Why would they do that? Well, wouldn't it be the same reason that they went from being a hard-news show to a crime show: ratings? People like these stories. People respond to, are drawn into, and are attracted to narratives that explore the frightening idea that someone you rely on and love could wig-out and kill you.
Viewers will turn on these shows, week after week, (bringing not only a big audience, but big advertisers). It's something a network or cable station can count on, and that surely answers why they commission these shows. But it still doesn't answer the demand for them. If they're on the air because they sell tickets, then...
Why does America want to watch this?
Is it the same reason people like scary movies? So they can get that kick, that thrill, and screech and yell and claw the person next to them. After all, stories about a killer you know, trust, love, go to bed with, and maybe have children with, who says, "Drink this, dear, it's just Gatorade with a funny taste," are pretty disturbing. And guess whom many of us are grabbing onto when we're watching? Our husbands and wives who are trying to comfort us with hugs and hot tea that has a funny acid-like odor? (Kidding, kidding.)
Oh, and just as an aside, is 48HM leaving out non-straight marriages (still legal in California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, as I write this) because the shows don't want to deal with them or because gay spouses don't kill each other? Just wondering.
And if it isn't the chill factor, is there something else that makes these "I-now-pronounce-you-dead-and-gone" shows so compelling and popular? Do they have some influence on couples watching? Maybe even positive: "Thank God that isn't us, honey." Or "I guess our problems aren't that bad, after all, Bliss." You know, the misery-loves-really-miserable-company theory. I suppose if you're having marital problems or you know other couples having marital problems, you could call and say, "Whoa, Bret, you gotta watch 48 Hours Mystery. You and Tiffany aren't doing that bad at all. We watch the show all the time and, hell, there are some atrocious marriages out there. People actually die in them!"
Whatever is happening, it's creepy. And I admit as a non-straight woman living in California, currently legally married to my partner of 20 years, but living in fear of Proposition 8's final outcome, it kills me to see married heterosexuals slaughtering each other on a weekly basis for high ratings.
I mean, please, show some respect for the institution.
Follow Judy Wieder on Twitter: www.twitter.com/molokai65