Why Are TV Detectives Always So Sad?

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Deeply sad. Photo: Netflix/HBO

Not long into the pilot for Veena Sud’s new Netflix series, Seven Seconds, we’re introduced to KJ Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a prosecutor who investigates the cover-up of a hit-and-run involving a young black kid. It’s early in the day, and she’s sitting in a bar, eyes closed, telling the bartender she’s ready for another one. The next time we see her, she’s shuffling a massive pile of folders, reading aloud from the wrong case file. She’s drunk. Later, she talks to a homicide cop who gently chides her about her drinking and her seeming indifference to the details of the crime. She can’t look at crime-scene photos, she tells him. She can’t handle looking at their eyes anymore. The pressures of the job are too much. Parker is very, very sad.

Well, of course she is. If the premise of a TV show is that a detective searches for justice, it follows that the detective will be almost unbearably sad. Her ability to do her job will occasionally be hindered by her alcoholism, or her post-traumatic stress, or her grief. A scene depicting professional competence will come hand in hand with a scene where the detective walks into his sad lonely apartment and eats out of a can while hunched on a mattress sitting on the floor. Searches for social justice are fueled by the need for personal vengeance. It’s so common, it’s now difficult to even imagine a happy detective.

The word “detective” is a shorthand here – Seven Seconds’ Parker is a prosecutor, and many of the characters who fall into this well are not official, professional police detectives. The defining characteristic is to be seeking the truth, and it doesn’t especially matter if the seeker is a homicide cop or a psychic or a lawyer or private eye. What matters is that they are dogged individuals who can’t help but notice that the evidence just doesn’t add up. They’d like to just ignore this case, because what does it matter in the grand scheme of things anyhow? But they can’t ignore it, because they’re detectives, and it’s just not right. And by the way, they are deeply sad.

Here’s an incomplete list of sad TV detectives from the past few decades: Luther from Luther (dead wife), Wallander from Wallander (divorce, existential angst), Jessica Jones from Jessica Jones (gaslighting by supervillain), Veronica Mars from Veronica Mars (dead best friend), the mentalist from The Mentalist (dead family), the medium from Medium (overwhelming empathy for victims). There’s also Catherine Cawood from Happy Valley (daughter killed herself), Rust Cohle from True Detective (dead daughter, divorce), Kate Beckett from Castle (dead mother), Alec Hardy from Broadchurch (failed case, estranged family), Robin Griffin from Top of the Lake (assaulted as a teen), and Jimmy McNulty from The Wire (divorce, sense of entitlement). Darkness is a familiar trope of the cable and streaming crime TV productions, but even on the most staid, network-y procedurals, detectives are often driven by tragedy or trauma. Sadness is not Olivia Benson’s defining quality, but knowing herself as a child of rape is a dominant feature of early Law & Order: SVU. On CSI: NY, Mac Taylor’s wife died in 9/11.

This is not a TV-specific trope; detectives have been sad nearly as long as we’ve been collectively obsessed with fictional detection. My personal favorite has always been Lord Peter Wimsey from Dorothy Sayers’s series of detective stories, who sets off with his butler Bunter to detect his way out of WWI-related post-traumatic stress. Wimsey was written in the 1930s, but there are shades of that same idea in Sherlock Holmes (who would hit the drugs and the classical violin whenever he got too melancholy), and even in Edgar Allen Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, who, in 1841, becomes a detective after having been “reduced to such poverty that the energy of his character succumbed beneath it.” From the beginning, we’ve been enamored of the idea that a detective is someone who rights social wrongs by looking for answers, and we’ve associated that figure with great, unshakable misery.

There are some simple storytelling reasons why a sad detective works well, especially on TV. Fictional detectives exist solely to solve mysteries. They are tension-ending machines. Their presence in a story is a guarantee that the mystery will get solved, and in a storytelling situation where the detective returns again and again (and succeeds at her job again and again), you’re more likely to stick with that detective and that series if you have some additional buy-in. Watch Kate Beckett solve various crimes around the city … and her own mother’s murder. Hang on for the ride while Jessica Jones tries to get to the bottom of the biggest mystery of all … herself. It gives you all the goodness of a procedural rhythm, a steady beat of mystery-solving satisfaction, while still holding out a carrot for some unresolved question down the road. Solve the little mysteries now, solve the big mystery of their personal life later.

Sad detectives are about more than just getting you to stick around for future episodes, though. We’re so inundated with detective tropes that the detective has become her own breed of superhero — a figure who restores the status quo, who maintains the social fabric, who arrives in the midst of some unbearable horror and has the ability to not just interpret it, but track down the wrongdoer and bring him to justice. She brings order out of chaos. She finds answers. She is superhuman. Unless the goal is a cozy mystery where the resolution is never, ever in doubt (see: Poirot, Matlock, Jessica Fletcher), our collective vision of the fictional detective is of someone who’s arguably too powerful. Of course she’ll solve the crime! She’s a detective! Her sadness is a way to modulate that power, to soften her. It motivates her, perhaps — it explains why any person would be willing to show up and stare at murdered corpses day after day. But it’s also the convenient veil we all hold up to prevent ourselves from seeing how inevitable the mystery’s resolution still is. “Maybe this time she won’t solve it,” we think, “because she’s so, so sad.” She’ll solve it. But it’s a little easier for us all to briefly pretend she won’t.

Especially in an already oversaturated body of dark, violent TV, the problem of the sad detective is that she’s gotten so common that the trope no longer works the way it’s supposed to. It feels inevitable that a detective will be mired in sadness, and it’s become more of an eye-rolling box to check than a meaningful measure of humanity. And the glut of sad TV investigators comes now at a moment when we’re so cognizant and so frightened of a social fabric spinning out of control, the fictional detective drunk past the point of caring feels less like someone full of interesting messy flaws. Now, she feels like yet another way for our heroes to fail us, or to require our emotional labor. The sad detective may have once been a useful way for a superhuman character to come down to earth. Right now, a cheerfully competent detective might seem even more subversive than yet another broken cog in a broken system. What could be more of a middle finger to the world than a detective who tries to restore order to a late-stage capitalist hellscape full of corruption and cruelty, a detective who smiles while doing it, because someone still needs to find the truth?

Detective fiction has such a grip on us because it’s so good at doing two apparently opposite things at the same time. It thrills us. It titillates us with criminality and the mysterious unknown of another person’s mind. And then it soothes us with answers, or at the very least, with process. It calms us with the comforting gestures of investigation, and the figure of someone who cares. The sad detective is a deliberate wrench in those works, and I wonder if we’re all just too exhausted for those familiar, hoary investigative hurdles. The sad detective is a partially faulty security blanket. I’m in a place where I’d prefer my fictional security blankets be fully functional.

TV Detectives: Why Are They Always So Sad?