Resisting the CSI Effect: UK TV and the Crime Series

Curator's Note

 The cop show/crime series has been a staple of both British and American television programming. Cop/crime shows have been unique and important to television in using the technology and narrative functions of television to depict criminals, the crimes they commit, and the cops who work tirelessly to bring them to justice (Snauffer 1).  Moreover these shows and our viewing of them provide us with an understanding of our feelings about crime and hence what we think about the social contract that exists between state and citizen (Sabin, 1).  It is for these reasons that the cop show works to entertain and educate audiences about the changing nature of policing whether it was in the 1950s with series like Dragnet (1951-59, NBC) in the US and Dixon of Dock Green (1955-76, BBC) in the UK. These series with their focus on procedure and the methods solving crimes thus established the framework of the genre and still influence new iterations of the genre.
    Yet in 2000 a new American series C.S.I. reshaped the genre and the public’s perception of policing creating the “CSI effect,” where technology and forensics were seen as more important than police conducting interviews or analyzing evidence to solve their cases. However, contemporary UK cop shows like Midsomer Murders (1997-present, ITV), and Shetland (2013-, BBC) or shows about private eyes like Shakespeare & Hathaway (2018-, BBC) have resisted the “CSI effect.” If technology is presented, it is not the focus of the series in terms of aesthetics or narrative. Rather these shows emphasize the investigative process: conducting interviews, investigating crime scenes, and creating a list of suspects (often put up on a white board or chalk board). Then, the series depict the investigators piecing together evidence and motives, which are also placed up on a board. It is this combination of procedure and skill as investigators that is emphasized as they solve the crimes only using technology and science as corroborating pieces of evidence, unlike in American crime series where the cops rely on technology and forensics to solve their cases.


Douglas Snauffer, Crime Television. Prager, 2006, 1.

 Roger Sabin, “Introduction” Cop Shows: A Critical History of Police Dramas on Television by Roger Sabin, Ronald Wilson, Linda Speidel, Brian Faucette and Ben Bethell. 2015, 1. 



Thanks for this, Brian. I find the interplay between elements of crime series fascinating. There are elements of Holmesian intellect in shows like CSI (Gil's stragely deep understanding of bugs, for instance), and then certain forensic elements of even shows like Sherlock. But I've always been sruck by the way shows like CSI push the ratiocination off onto what forensic technologies can tell them, which is what I think is that "CSI-effect" is all about: the willingness to let (unrealistic) technology do the proving. What you show us here is that older elements of police work are still viable narrative and aesthetic elements which could go some way to changing our own social and plitical relationship to the world of policing and what we expect of evidence. In a world that is rapidly letting go of reasoned thought, a good dose of ratiocination in place of stunning techno-visuals might not be a bad thing. 

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.