A Criminal Justice Student’s Guide to TV Procedurals

Life offers a little of everything: pathos, tragedy, comedy, and confusion. Television procedural dramas seek to do the same. Producers and writers hope to lure us in, to make us care enough to watch through all of the commercials. To that end, they often draw on true life stories from the news and reshape them into 40-42 minutes of entertainment.

Imagine if someone were able to condense the most dramatic events of your life into a 40 minute story. That lawsuit you once faced? It would be introduced, investigated, and tied up in no time at all. That’s not the way the real world works, though.

One of the things trial attorneys have recently noticed is how impatient juries seem to be for “results.” After all, shows like CSI and Law and Order make a practice of revealing the bad guy, discovering DNA evidence, and eliciting a confession before the final credits roll.

The truth is likely to be far more complicated, and a bit less satisfying for anyone with a short attention span. The now-retired show Cold Case takes a more realistic view of criminal justice. In real life, information can fall between the cracks, eye witnesses may die or disappear, and law enforcement does make mistakes. Cases sometimes linger for decades, with the most basic evidence hidden away in a box, filed away in a cold case room. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the majority of cases come together one piece at a time.

Shows like The Mentalist are pure fun. For one mindless hour you can watch a former con man ply his trade on criminals, manipulating them until they reveal their culpability. The real world, of course, would not look so kindly on a police department “advisor” who blatantly ignores civil rights. While a good defense attorney would destroy his methodology in court, it is fun to make believe that it could happen.

But, in the end, pursuing a degree in criminal justice is about writing your own story, rather than following those of your favorite characters on TV. It’s just plain more interesting that way.