Dr Elizabeth Yardley, Reader in Criminology at Birmingham City University

Last night I watched the first episode of Jordskott on ITV Encore with interest. The 10 part series is the latest incarnation of Nordic Noir, following the considerable success of its predecessors which include Wallander, The Killing and The Bridge. Lengthy serialised crime dramas have become entertainment staples in recent years and our insatiable appetite for them requires a closer look.

Savvy producers within and beyond Scandinavia have identified lucrative markets, immensely receptive to this format. HBO’s The Wire gained cult status and ITV’s Broadchurch had viewers glued to their screens for weeks on end, hungry for their next fix and keen to secure a future supply, taking to social media to successfully lobby for a second series. Others followed suit, commissioning similarly engaging programmes – the BBC’s The Missing being one such example that brought high viewing figures and a positive reception from audiences.

Crime drama has come a long way in a short time, from the ‘forensic realism’ embodied in CSI towards ‘post forensics’, where viewers want to look beyond ‘labs and slabs’ (Jermyn, 2013).  Whilst there is still undoubtedly an appetite for the self-contained stories of CSI in which forensic science is the star, there has been a shift in the demands of the contemporary crime drama fan. Viewers in the second decade of the 21st century want more than just bodies, microscopes and DNA  – they want access to the complex lived realities of characters in their intricate social and cultural webs. As Turnbull (2014) notes, this can’t be achieved in an hour or two and as such, requires considerable commitment – tuning in every week for months on end or setting aside entire weekends to binge-watch the latest DVD boxset – all the while going out of one’s way to avoid ‘spoilers’ that give away the endings. Not an easy undertaking in a digital culture saturated with social media.

But where has this come from? Why are we so fixated upon these complex narratives? Why are we slowly turning away from forensic science towards people, their relationships and their motives in our viewing habits? I believe the key to making sense of patterns in crime drama can be found in real life and real crime. For this, we have to revisit our former obsession with forensic science. This can be traced back to the mid 1980s, when research scientist Alec Jeffreys developed techniques to identify individual DNA profiles at the University of Leicester. It didn’t take long after Jeffreys’ discoveries began to be used in criminal investigations that forensic science appeared in the entertainment media – most notably Prime Suspect, which according to Rogers (2007, in Jermyn 2013) marked the first time DNA was ever mentioned on TV in a drama context. Prime Suspect’s creator, Lynda LaPlante, had tapped into a rich social coal stream of curiosity. Through incorporating forensic science into her series, LaPlante enabled viewers to mine this in their living rooms.

Drama is a safe space into which we can escape to expose ourselves to the unfamiliar and attempt to make sense of it. Many of my students arrive to study Criminology with a general familiarity and confidence with the principles of forensic science – often gleaned through their exposure to CSI, Silent Witness and Waking the Dead at home.

However, in recent years, we have come to question the science that not so long ago had us all dazzled. As miscarriages of justice have come to light, we have heard stories of contamination and error in the way forensic evidence is collected, stored and analysed (Gill, 2014). We have become cautious of claims around statistical data and the experts who present juries with ‘very likely’ and ‘highly unlikely’ chances of events having played out this way or that. Roy Meadow is one notorious name here, having given misleading statistical evidence relating to cot death in the trial of Sally Clarke for the murder of her two sons (Dyer, 2005). Amidst problems with petri dishes and puzzles of probability, we have realised that the key problem with forensic scientific evidence is essentially a ‘people’ problem – notably in terms of those charged with interpreting and presenting it to the layperson – the scientists, the lawyers, the so called ‘experts’. As this all unravels it becomes clear that science can be used to build a case rather than get to the truth – the two are not necessarily the same thing.

Inevitably this refocuses our attention on people. We turn to examine the individuals around the evidence – the victims, the suspects, the investigators. We want to make sense of what makes them tick (Jermyn, 2013). This involves looking much more closely at the social, cultural and historical contexts from which these people have emerged. The writers and producers of TV crime drama are all too aware of this and begin developing new spaces in which we can feed this contemporary cultural need, creating complex plots with twists and turns, characters with multiple layers and motives against backdrops that reflect and respond to the zeitgeist. The nature of this output varies from region to region and some interesting trends are emerging. Here, producers are at something of a crossroads. In Scandinavia, as Donaghy (2015) has noted, the creators of Jordskott have drawn upon Norse mythology and there has been some tentative revisiting of the fairytale in the UK.  A few US producers are taking a similar path, for instance NBC’s Grimm. However, others are treading the route of gritty realism through true crime. The phenomenal success of the US podcast Serial and HBO’s The Jinx suggest that sizeable audiences are ready to go beyond the safety of drama and begin asking tough questions about real crimes and the people around them.

We are at an interesting point on a journey of discovery, no longer blinded by science. The serialised crime dramas and true crime stories on our screens are far more than entertainment products in our TV guides, they are a reflection of and a response to contemporary cultural concerns around the quest for truth and justice. Whether making sense of people involves revisiting folklore and mythology or boldly venturing into the contemporary criminal justice system, these are exciting times.

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Donaghy, J. (2015). Jordskott: the latest Swedish import brings a mythical edge to Scandi drama, The Guardian, 9th June. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2015/jun/09/jordskott-the-latest-swedish-import-brings-a-mythical-edge-to-scandi-drama

Dyer, C. (2005) Professor Roy Meadow Struck Off. British Medical Journal, 331: 177.

Gill, P. (2014) Misleading DNA Evidence: Reasons for Miscarriages of Justice. London: Academic Press.

Jermyn, D. (2013) Labs and Slabs: Television crime drama and the quest for forensic realism. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 44: 103-9.

Rogers, J. (2007) A Life of Crime. Broadcast, 30: 25.

Turnbull, S. (2014) The TV Crime Drama. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Reader in Criminology and Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University.