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The Gory Details

What does it mean that today's hit television crime dramas dwell not on whodunit but on how it was done?

When the new prosecutor showed up this season on Law & Order: Sexual Victims Unit, she tried to explain to her boss why she had been reluctant to take the job. "I wanted straight homicide," she said. "All the glory, no living victims."

She may have been exaggerating about the glory, but she's definitely got a point about the victims. In the prime-time juggernaut that is Law & Order, SVU stands out as the most painful to watch -- not because of the acting or the writing but simply because of the people against whom its crimes are committed. They are not just plot devices, not just actors getting a day's pay for playing dead and setting the story in motion. They are living, breathing, suffering humans, and their pain is almost unbearable.

Still, we watch. And we watch that other juggernaut, CSI, where we can learn more than any layperson should ever want to know about just what kinds of flies like to hatch from a corpse. The weird thing is that we do want to know. The flies and the blood-spatter patterns and the other minutiae of the crime scene aren't distractions or offhand trivia in these shows; they are the show. If the classic mystery question was "Whodunit?," the more interesting question was always "Why?" Now, though, we've reduced it all to "How?"

It's enough to make you long for Miss Marple. Quaint she unquestionably was, but the source of her appeal was her sharp eye for the quirks and failings of ordinary human beings. And she was looking at the suspects, not the corpses. What interested her, and her fans, was not usually the method a murderer used but the particular form of madness or envy or greed that drove him to it. Motive, not means, propelled those stories along.

Now, though, we see every detail of the pain inflicted on the victims: just where the bullet went in, the kind of knife the slasher used, the bruise from the strangling fingers. What we get less of is the kind of wound a makeup artist can't simulate: the pain or sickness or just plain evil that would lead a person to do these things. "What a sicko," the cop says, and that's all the analysis we're likely to get. Instead, our attention is focused on one question: What exactly happened at the moment of the attack, and what exactly did it feel like for the victim?

And it's not squeamishness, or not just squeamishness, that makes this focus on the gory details objectionable. The problem is that the lurid fascination of blood and bruising and bullets distracts us from the deeper mysteries that are the real subject of any mystery worth attending to: how crime and violence are born, how we could come to hate each other enough to inflict such pain, not just how we die but how we live until we do.

When we allow our stories to reduce those large questions to the tiny ones of what a body looks like when it has been destroyed in a particular way, we lose something essential. It's the same kind of loss we experience when all the strangeness and mystery of erotic love is reduced to the sight of two perfect (or perfectly enhanced) bodies colliding in grinding detail on the screen. We see it all, but we understand nothing.

Perhaps this is the price we pay, or one of the prices, for living in a relentlessly visual culture. The maw of the screen demands image upon image upon image: "Show something that's never been seen!" And so we see everything there is to see, but always with a new angle, a fresh twist, a startling detail. It's only new or fresh or startling once, though; the screen is always hungry for something more -- more graphic, more disturbing, more grotesque. Next thing you know, we're watching blowflies. And we're still no closer to seeing a story that might really make a difference in our lives.

Let's not just blame the media, though. They're giving us something we want, and the real question is why we want it. Maybe we want to see exactly what death looks like on TV because we're less likely than our grandparents were to see it in real life. Death is managed now, removed from home to hospital and left to professionals to witness. Perhaps, in bringing it into our living rooms, we're simply trying to domesticate it again.

But, of course, there's also the moment of death that almost all of us witnessed, together but alone, on our millions of screens. Who could watch the unfolding horror of September 11, 2001, and not imagine the fatal narratives of the people in those buildings and on those planes? We saw death that day, and we could not bear it. No wonder we can't stop watching it now.

(Illustration / Hadley Hooper)
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