When I was young, Westerns dominated prime time television screens. Shows like The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza were simple morality plays where a new set of bad guys road into town each week and were eventually taught a lesson by the sheriff wielding a fancy rifle or a six shooter. Maverick, one of my favorite Westerns, was different because the brothers on the show, the protagonists, were not sheriffs; they were gamblers. They were honest ones, who generally tried to avoid trouble, but they always ended up getting into it. They used their brains rather than their guns to solve their problems. Bret and Bart Maverick also helped others; they probably rescued as many damsels in distress as Hoss and Little Joe Cartwright.
Westerns, like those above, began in the black and white era of television and had fairly long runs. The shows were extremely popular. Bonanza, for example, was the number one TV show three years in a row in the mid-sixties. Most scholars agree that the popularity of a particular show or genre reflects something about the society that consumes them. One theory is that we use media as “equipment for living,” meaning we learn how the characters resolve problems and apply those same kind of solutions in the real world. While it’s true that most viewers in the early to mid-sixties were not solving problems by going around shooting people in gunfights, the shows may have made people more accepting of war as a solution to international conflicts than people who lived when MASH came on the air. The effects of media may be more subtle. Western characters had clearly defined roles: the males were either aggressors or cowards, and the females were the girl next door type or bartenders. The law was to be respected. The bad guys paid a price if they rustled horses, cheated at cards, or disrespected women. Our values arise from many sources, and media is undoubtedly prominent among them. The debate about whether society causes certain kinds of shows to be created or whether the shows we watch effect our attitudes is ongoing. But, it seems that the media often leads the way: think about All in the Family and its effect on race relations, and 24 and its suggestion that a Black man could be president of the United States). Coincidence? Not likely.
Have you seen many Westerns on television lately? They were replaced by detective shows. The private eye became the hero when the sheriff’s took off his boots to rest. Private detective shows were among the most popular shows on television for quite a while. Mannix, Longstreet, Perry Mason, Barnaby Jones, the Rockford Files, Charlie’s Angels, and Magnum P.I. involved bad guys, solving crimes, and gun fights. Police procedurals replaced the private detective show. Have you watched The Streets of San Francisco, The Mod Squad, Starsky and Hutch, Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, Cagney and Lacey, Miami Vice, or Law and Order? After many if these shows were canceled, police procedurals evolved by focusing on forensic investigation. Bones comes to mind. Quincy, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, NCIS, and the nonfiction Forensic Files are shows of this type. Today, another variety of mystery involving the police has emerged. These newer shows view the crime from the criminal’s perspective. The recently canceled show, Dexter, is a good example.
Dexter is a show about a sociopathic forensic scientist. He collects evidence from murder scenes, then he tracks down the killers and kills them himself. He can’t help himself; he has to kill. But he was taught to live by a code which requires him to find murders to satisfy his “dark traveler.” If you watch this show, you will probably grow to like Dexter and hope that he gets away with his crimes. He is a vigilante we forgive because he solves the problem of his compulsion to kill by helping preserve law and order, often killing people the law can’t touch. While he is constantly deceiving people, we feel sympathy for him. Why?
The most recent show of this type I’ve seen is called Spotless. It is a dark comedy about two brothers: Jean, whose job is to clean up crime scenes and Martin, who is a criminal involved with transporting drugs. Martin arrives in town, on the run, with a refrigerator stuffed with a dead drug mule. He enlists his brother’s help in covering up her death and extracting the drugs she swallowed. Of course, other criminals want the drugs. Things snowball when a crime king forces the brothers to clean up murders he and his gang have committed. Neither brother is admirable. Jean bribed the police to get the clean-up jobs and he lies to his wife and he cheats on her without regret. Martin is a thug whose most redeeming action so far is that he didn’t have sex with his young, underage niece when she offered.
Why do we care what happens to the Spotless brothers? Is Spotless a culmination of a trend? What is our attitude toward death and those who commit murder? Many of today’s shows explicitly portray death and make serial killers somewhat heroic in shows such as The Killing, Scream Queens, and American Horror Story. Are we preoccupied with death? Do these shows help us come to grips with the fact that we will all die? Does the decline of organized religion have anything to do with this?
To find topics to investigate, media researchers seem to use two basic approaches. The first approach is to select a show they like, one that is rich in symbolism, and start asking questions about it. Something about the show has to be interesting, puzzling or suggestive. They compare the show to others and ask what various parts of the show mean. They break down the text and look at the narrative, the characters, and the symbols and ask what messages are being sent. They watch episodes over and over. Then, inductively, they piece together what they have thought about and develop an interpretation. The second approach is to start with an issue or theory and see what media products they can find that relate to their issues. Both approaches to research are valid. Researchers seek something hidden, surprising and/or interesting to say about the meaning of the media they study and draw conclusions about society from their analyses. One of my professors, Dr. Roger Aden, who is extraordinarily talented at media analysis, told me years ago, being a rhetorician is a great job. I get paid, he said, to spend my time watching, studying, and writing about the media I love.
I hope you will take the time to study the media you love and enjoy solving the mystery of what it means. Westerns, detective shows, or police shows. It doesn’t matter. What counts is developing a justifiable reading that reveals what’s hidden in the text and helps us understand more about society.