Scripted crime series have always been a central part of the American TV landscape, dating back to the earliest days of television and shows like Dragnet and Stand By for Crime. But the current boom of crime-focused TV — dominated by highbrow limited series, high-wattage actors, and tantalizing whodunits — really began five years ago, in 2014. Prior to that moment, there had been no shortage of shows about murders, bad guys, and investigators attempting to get to the bottom of horrible acts. But the number of these shows swelled in the wake of that watershed year, and, perhaps more importantly, so did their perceived artistic value.
This happened because of a confluence of factors, but I’ll start by focusing on a specific one: the success of HBO’s True Detective, which debuted in January 2014 and infused the buddy-cop formula with movie-star protagonists, a time-hopping narrative, an auteurist’s visual flair, and long digressions into philosophy and theology. That first season, written by creator Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, took familiar elements from classic police shows and movies — two partners not seeing eye-to-eye, heavy doses of misogyny, a murderer with a twisted psyche — and paired them with an idiosyncratic artistry that made True Detective feel like something new.
To be clear, this was hardly the first time in recent American television that a well-regarded drama focused on crime. Some of the most celebrated shows of TV’s second golden age, including The Sopranos, The Wire, Dexter, and Breaking Bad (which ended its run a few months before True Detective debuted), zeroed in on antiheroes involved in criminal enterprises. But those shows weren’t whodunit mysteries as much as character and cultural studies that made the audience wonder how long the guilty could survive without getting caught or killed. Top of the Lake, Hannibal, and The Killing (whose fourth and final season landed on Netflix in the summer of 2014), hewed closer to the crime-solving model, inviting their audiences to piece together clues in individual episodes or over entire seasons. But their audiences were more niche than the first season of True Detective’s turned out to be. The latter drama straddled the line between being the show that everyone was talking about and being the show that had, or at least was being perceived as having, art-house sensibilities. Perhaps the closest corollary to this interest in Rust Cohle’s stream-of-consciousness philosophizing was the early-‘90s obsession with Twin Peaks, which, coincidentally, was first publicly pegged for a planned revival in the fall of … 2014.
While Twin Peaks and those other prior series boasted fine actors, some of whom had certainly appeared in feature films before, none starred an actor in the same position that Matthew McConaughey was in during 2014. At the time, the actor was actively campaigning for an Academy Award for his role in the film Dallas Buyers Club, and the quality of his work in True Detective actually seemed to boost his chances to win, which he ultimately did. By 2014, the idea that acting in a TV series was “lesser” than starring a movie was pretty much outmoded. But seeing how much True Detective raised McConaughey’s stature — the McConaissance would not have been the McConaissance without Rust Cohle — cemented the fact that TV not only offered equally challenging roles, but commanded just as much, if not more, industry respect and public appreciation.
Whether it was because of True Detective or not, over the next five years, a lot of high-profile film stars signed up to appear in shows that were either crime dramas or series with crimes embedded in their narrative structures. When I say a lot, I do mean a lot.
Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon produced and starred in Big Little Lies, which drew audiences into its study of upper-class mommy politics with the tease of a murder mystery. Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson steeped themselves in family dysfunction and a Gothic-tinged murder mystery in Sharp Objects. Ewan McGregor played dual roles in season three of Fargo. Jessica Biel starred in the first season of The Sinner, and also acted as executive producer. Winona Ryder made a career comeback with Stranger Things, which is technically sci-fi but still involves the case of a missing child, as well as the murder of a Barb. Daniel Brühl, Dakota Fanning, and Luke Evans teamed up in The Alienist, a TNT period piece about the attempt to track a serial killer. Chris Pine headlines the forthcoming I Am the Night, another TNT limited series, inspired by the Black Dahlia murders. Patricia Arquette has spent much of her post–Oscar-for-Boyhood career on scripted crime projects, including the network series CSI: Cyber and the limited series Escape at Dannemora and The Act, debuting next month on Hulu. And because scripted television is a flat circle, we come back to True Detective, which attracted Rachel McAdams, Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, and Taylor Kitsch for its unfortunate second season, and recent Oscar winner Mahershala Ali for its much-less–unfortunate third one. Like McConaughey before him, Ali is starring in True Detective while his name is in the mix for another Oscar, this time for his performance in Green Book.
Though these shows differ in tone and point of view, most share one thing in common: They are limited or anthology series, in which the primary story is wrapped up in a single season. That category of television has also expanded significantly since 2014, partly because it enables actors and directors to take on TV projects without committing to the years that an ongoing series requires. But also, with peak TV just starting to hit peakiness in 2014 — there were 389 scripted original shows that year, compared to 495 in 2018; what did we do with all that free time back then? — the limited series began to hold an increasing appeal. Watching a single, contained story over eight or ten episodes would come to seem more manageable to viewers overwhelmed by choices and the prospect of binging multiple seasons of something else. And for limited series that took their time to reveal the circumstances behind a crime (which, per the list above, is a lot of them), closing the loop on a mystery avoided the pitfall of dragging out suspense for too long, an issue for previous series like The Killing or Twin Peaks.
In other words, the bread crumbs for the limited crime-series explosion in America were laid in 2014, and not just by True Detective. That same year, ABC announced plans to partner with John Ridley on American Crime, Kidman and Witherspoon revealed that they were optioning the rights to Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies novel, and FX confirmed that Ryan Murphy was embarking on a new anthology series, American Crime Story, with a first season focused on the O.J. Simpson case. (The U.K., which had already given us Sherlock, Luther, and Criminal Justice, the inspiration for HBO’s The Night Of, were, as usual, way ahead of us.)
That last Ryan Murphy–related announcement dovetails with another major 2014 moment in crime storytelling: the release of Serial. The popularity of Sarah Koenig’s podcast about the murder of a Baltimore high-school student helped build true crime into its own swelling phenomenon, as did the buzz around HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making a Murderer in 2015. A lot of scripted crime has tapped into the same public fascination with reexamining real sins, but placing them within the framework of narrative. Murphy’s The People v. O.J. Simpson was the first to demonstrate the possibilities in that arena, and has been followed since by The Assassination of Gianni Versace, the second of the American Crime Story series; Netflix’s Mindhunter; Escape at Dannemora; Unsolved: The Murders of Biggie and Tupac; and Dirty John, itself an adaptation of a true-crime podcast.
All of the series I’ve name-checked also share something else in common: They are not the thin, plot-by-numbers crime procedurals typical of network television. All of these works of crime fiction, whether inspired by real cases or not, are as interested in the interpersonal and social dynamics at play as they are about revealing who a killer really is. That kind of nuanced storytelling is a direct byproduct of the prestige dramas like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, which trained us to expect something richer from television, especially television on cable or streaming networks.
That has also lent itself to the representation of different perspectives than we often see in standard crime shows. To be clear: There are still plenty of women and girls being killed, raped, or otherwise abused in these smarter crime dramas, and plenty of white dudes being cast as protagonists. But there’s at least some interesting flipping of typical scripts in many of them. Shots Fired, a Fox limited series that aired in 2017 and didn’t get the attention it deserved, examined racial justice through the prism of two cases: a white kid shot to death by an African-American police officer, and the largely overlooked murder of a black boy. Those cases were investigated by two black representatives of the DOJ, played by Sanaa Lathan and Stephan James.
HBO’s The Night Of cast Riz Ahmed in the role of Naz, a Pakistani-American accused of committing a murder he swears he didn’t commit, while raising questions about the assumptions made when a suspect is a man of Middle Eastern descent. The Assassination of Gianni Versace, as well as the British series A Very English Scandal, explored sociopathic behavior that flourished in self-loathing gay men. And in limited series after limited series, women have been given much more layered characters to play, whether they are cast as perpetrators, victims, heroes, or some overlapping combination of the three.
That gender-based trend also can be traced back to 2014. Gone Girl, the adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel that turned the trope of the innocent missing white lady upside-down, became one of the highest grossing movies of that year, proving what would eventually become a known piece of data: Crime-based stories appeal as much, if not more, to women as they do to men. That may explain why shows like Big Little Lies, Sharp Objects, Dirty John, or even The People v. O.J. Simpson, which humanized the once demonized Marcia Clark, have found such a following. While these shows don’t uniformly sidestep certain female stereotypes, each one is written, directed, and performed with a depth and complexity that makes it hard to dismiss them even when they occasionally hit an overly familiar note.
There has been some debate, since the most recent Golden Age of Television in the early ‘00s, about exactly what age of television we are in now. The Platinum Age? The Overwhelming Age? I don’t know the answer, but we’re certainly in a golden era for limited crime drama. After five years, the question isn’t whether there’s been a boom in quality programming in this very specific subgenre; it’s whether that bubble might burst. Looking at what’s ahead on the 2019 TV calendar and beyond — Big Little Lies 2; the aforementioned I Am the Night and The Act; Ava DuVernay’s The Central Park Five; HBO’s The Undoing, which stars Nicole Kidman; and Hulu’s adaptation of the Celeste Ng novel Little Fires Everywhere — it doesn’t seem like there’s a tipping point in sight.
More From This Series
- True Detecting True Detective: Let’s Lay Odds on Who the Killer Is
- A Very Simple Guide to True Detective’s Multiple Timelines
- Extremely Wicked Director on How Ted Bundy ‘Seduced’ His Victims
- The Ocean’s Effect: How the 2001 Film Changed the Heist Movie For a Generation
- Why Is TV So Addicted to Crime?