Thursday, June 27, 2013

Watching Yesterday’s TV Series with Today’s Eye

Elizabeth Zelvin

I got an iPad for Christmas last year, the new one with the brilliant Retina display, and to get the most out of it, I let go my longstanding resistance to Netflix. As a result, I’m doing less reading and a lot more TV watching. I’m enjoying a few current series, including Sherlock and Inspector Lewis on the mystery front as well as Nashville (right up my other alley as a singer-songwriter and filmed in locations I visited while attending Killer Nashville) and Downton Abbey (which I’d been hearing about on DorothyL since it started). But most of my viewing consists of crime shows: some I’d enjoyed and wanted to revisit and some that I’d missed for one reason or another.

There’s no better way to observe how rapidly the new technology has changed the way we live than to watch TV shows from the 1990s and even the early 2000s. Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren must have been one of the first shows to feature gritty forensics. Yet in the early episodes, she’s still using a phone with a rotary dial. In Inspector Morse, the plot frequently hinges on someone’s not being able to get to a phone, while in Inspector Lewis, Lewis and his sidekick, Sergeant Hathaway, are always excusing themselves in the midst of inspecting the crime scene or interviewing a witness to take a call on their cell phones.

I do watch the occasional old movie, and the farther back they go, the funnier some of the outmoded visions of technology are to the postmodern eye. In The Desk Set (1957), Spencer Tracy’s room-sized “electronic brain,” ie computer, was pitted against Katharine Hepburn’s retentive memory for facts. In Sabrina (1954) with Humphrey Bogart as a millionaire tycoon and Sabrina as the chauffeur’s daughter who undergoes a Pygmalion-like transformation by studying at a cooking school in Paris, the scene meant to show how mega-rich Bogart is has him sitting in the back of his chauffeur-driven limo talking on a phone with a curly black cord and a black refrigerator-handle receiver. Note that in 2013, “millionaire” is not even a synonym for “rich” any more. But technology is not the only thing that’s changed. I’ve changed too. In some cases, maybe it’s my memory that’s at fault. I loved the PBS show Cadfael, based on Ellis Peters’s wonderful historical novels about a twelfth-century monk, a former crusader turned herbalist and detective. I read and loved the books, too, and I remember them as relatively sunny, considering they took place during a civil war in the Middle Ages. In my memory, every one of those stories had a happy ending, with Cadfael helping at least one pair of lovers to find love and safety. On watching all fifteen episodes again, I found all but the first few disturbingly grim and dark.

Worst of all, as a mystery writer, I can no longer watch a detective story with the innocence and wonder that I used to bring to mysteries. I’ve just seen the first episode of The Closer, another favorite on DorothyL that I’d missed. Kyra Sedgwick’s acting is as wonderful as everyone said it is. But the twisty puzzle that has all her colleagues baffled? I figured it out in the first five minutes.


Sandra Parshall said...

The old shows that relied on brain work and clues can be more entertaining than the ones that lean heavily on forensics. Most crimes today are still solved without much in the way of forensic evidence. That's the reality, but both writers and readers, TV writers and viewers, are so entranced by forensics that every fictional case turns on lab work rather than the detective's brain power.

I can't believe you had never watched The Closer before! I loved that show because it depended far more on detection than forensics.

Susan said...

I'm smiling because you've watched the same series of shows that I've watched and right now I am working my way through Inspector Lewis on Netflix. If you missed "Hill Street Blues" years ago, you might try that also.

Sheila Connolly said...

The advent of the cell phone and the computer have had such an impact on crime-solving (and on many other aspects of life--you can't walk down a street anywhere without seeing at least half the people with a phone glued to their ear). I've finally given in and had my protagonist in the Orchard series carry her cell phone everywhere, even while watering apple trees.

I've been enjoying the current Inspector Lewis series (I really like Hathaway), but I found I was getting annoyed when almost every conversation among the police was interrupted by a cell phone call that someone just had to take immediately. It bordered on rude.

But we can't turn back the clock, digital or otherwise.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Susan, it may take a while for the new series of three Inspector Lewis episodes (the last to air this Sunday night) to appear on Netflix. I have an app for PBS on my iPad that's currently offering the second of the two (last Sunday's) and the Inspector Morse prequel, Endeavour, which aired in the spring and which Masterpiece is following up with a series.