Criminally Good TV

Criminologists watching TV

From the earliest days of broadcast television, viewers have been enthralled by the crime show. From Dixon of Dock Green, via Z-Cars, Cagney and Lacey, the Bill and Hill Street Blues, to Happy Valley, Law and Order and Sherlock, the popularity of these types of programmes has rarely waned. As time has moved on, the complexity of these shows has increased; blurring the lines between hero and anti-hero, criminal and copper.

It’s hard to image the 1950s producing a show as morally ambiguous as Breaking Bad, for example, but it’s equally hard to imagine the 2000s producing a version of the Sweeney that a hadn’t been put through a modern-day lens, even if it’s period set like Life on Mars.

Each generation produces a slew of crime-based television that reflects the narratives prevalent in that society at that time, but how accurate are they in terms of portraying personal experience, systems and processes or the wider context of the criminal justice system?

To seek the answer to this, and to celebrate the latest run of our course Crime, Justice and Society, we turned to the School of Law and made our academics binge a box set or two as they hunted for that most elusive of television goals – authenticity.

When it comes to crime shows with scope and ambition, few would argue against David Simon’s The Wire being the mack-daddy of them all. Across five seasons and six years, the Wire explored all hierarchies of the criminal justice system in Baltimore. From dime-bag dealers to the highest echelons of political office, the Wire told the deeply personal stories of those living within the shadow of law enforcement but also managed to look at how the city operates as a whole.

In this video, Dr Matthew Bacon and Dr Tara Lai Quinlan take a fresh look at what the show can teach us in 2017.

Orange is the New Black was, in many ways, the first jewel in the Netflix crown. Currently still going strong on it’s sixth season, it is a multi-character, multi-layered look at like inside a minimum security prison for women in upstate New York. The show deals with issues of incarceration, and in this video PhD Reader Abigail Stark and Dr Cormac Behan examine the characters react to isolation, the fear of the outside world and the forming of new friendships.

Our final video sees Dr Maggie Wykes and Doctoral Researcher Olivia Sinclair look at the ITV show Broadchurch, specifically how the third season dealt with the crime of sexual assault. This season is ITV’s most watched crime drama, with nearly 11 million viewers, and Maggie and Olivia discuss what the show got right in its portrayal of offenders, victims and criminal processes – and what it got wrong.

Crime, Justice and Society is a free online course from the University of Sheffield and was produced in collaboration with the School of Law. Across 8 weeks, you can examine such topics as crime and criminal justice, policing, victims and victim support, imprisonment and desistance from crime. You’ll learn alongside specialists from the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Criminological Research and hear from those with firsthand experience of the criminal justice system, like the police, probation officers, former prisoners and criminal lawyers.

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About Dave Holloway

Dave Holloway
Dave Holloway is a Production Manager in the University of Sheffield's Online Learning Team. In previous professional lives, Dave has been a filmmaker, editor, VJ, and events producer, notably with FutureEverything and Sheffield Doc/Fest.

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