Detecting the detectives: an anthropological puzzle

Horatio_2Whis is this man so very tedious.  It’s a puzzle.  You’ll have to solve it.  I can’t.

TV detectives were once paragons of manly competence.  Mannix, Peter Gunn, Kojak, all of these were masterful males.

Then came an interregnum.  In the 1970s and 80s, we saw a new crime solver: Magnum PI, Jim Rockford of the Rockford files, and Columbo.  All these characters practiced self deprecation.  They actually made jokes against themselves. Plots sometimes unfolded at their expense.  Occasionally, they were made to look foolish.

And now the present crew: Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon on NCIS), Horatio Caine (David Caruso on CSI: Miami), Mac Taylor (Gary Sinise on CSI: NY) and Gil Grissom (William Petersen of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) all of these characters appear to take us back to the old model. 

Grissom can be a little quirky and bookish.  Occasionally, Gibbs exhibits a sense of humor.  But Caine and Taylor are dour and melodramatic.  The idea of self deprecation!  Never!  Occasionally, these characters endure inner conflict, but this never rises to the level of real complexity and never ever are they allowed to get down off the high horse of steely competence and manly self control. 

Now, we know that the while these shows were taking shape, there were two crime dramas on cable, Homicide and The Wire, that were doing what cable is done so well elsewhere, opening things up for the mainstream players.   More recently, Monk and Psych have offered almost perfect inversions of the usual model.  So there was both precedent and inspiration for a more complicated view of the lead detective.

Furthermore, we know this character descends in part from Sherlock Holmes who was flawed and conflicted.  He also descends from the Noir detective that Humphrey Bogart captured so well and the Noire detective was nothing if not complicated clock work.

But most important, there was a brief moment in popular culture in which the detective took on a sense of humor. 

What happened?

10 thoughts on “Detecting the detectives: an anthropological puzzle”

  1. Sounds like you’re referring to Get Smart! > Pink Panther > Inspector Gadget, and according to wikipedia the result was a “direct-to-video sequel starring French Stewart”.

    Maybe he’s just conscious of not being remembered as the guy who talked to his shoe.

  2. I hate this guy. Has anyone else noticed he speaks EXACTLY like Agent Smith from the matrix? It freaks me out and bores me to death at the same time.

  3. “What happened?”

    A very interesting question. Maybe characters who do real detecting and also have a sense of humor (Philip Marlowe) or are unintentionally humorous (Monk) are just harder to write.

  4. Grant, slight correction: Homicide aired on NBC (’93-’99), not on cable. And have you seen Veronica Mars? She definitely fits in the self-deprecating/humorous model.

  5. Jeff, great points, Get Smart and the Pink Panther delighted in undoing the stereotype. thanks, Grant

    Hatter, well said, he’s sententious, isn’t he? And the funny thing is he used to manage quite a lot more on NYPD Blue. Thanks, Grant

    Lester, I would have thoughts that flawed or funny characters would be more fun to write. Thanks, Grant

    Bryan, I stand corrected, for which many thanks. Veronica Mars is an interesting case in point. Yes, Veronica Mars feels to me a little Buffyish. Formidable but not without a sense of humor about it. I haven’t seen enough shows to see her actually engage in self deprecation, though. Thanks, Grant

  6. That red haired guy on one of those CSI shows – agree – so annoying – almost laughable – Horatio or on occaision “H” –
    is he for real, or do they just wind him up every week ? He’s always the same – Jim Carey did a funny impression of him on one of the latenights a couple of weeks ago. He, (Horatio) has the most irritating mannerisms and speech pattern. Do they call that “acting”?

  7. I think you have to factor in the character’s employer — weren’t Rockford and Columbo private investigators, not government or city law enforcement officials? They solved crimes the police couldn’t and their comic, outsider image might have been a crucial part of their appeal to a still anti-establishment 1970s audience. I’ve never watched the CSI shows but they’re government/police guys right? Maybe in a post-9/11 world, we want to believe our government’s crime-fighting bodies can always catch the bad guys. We want those guys to be serious and solid. I may be wildly oversimplifying here, but I think the different images relate to the times and our changing attitudes towards national and local law enforcement officials.

  8. And don’t forget David Janssen’s Harry O in the self-deprecating detective roles of the 70’s.

  9. Kudos to you for mentioning Jim Rockford! Aside from self deprecation, it’s the motivation of the characters which have really changed. These new CSI’ers have an unwavering commitment to ‘truth’ and ‘honor’. With Rockford, it was much more profit motivated (At least that’s what he explicitly said) with occasions of conscience.

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