From Cops to FBI: The Evolution of TV Crime Dramas


I recently watched the series premiere episodes of two new FBI crime dramas, Blindspot and Quantico. Neither show really jumped out at me as worth discussing, although I’d definitely recommend Quantico over the clichéd, plothole riddled mess that is Blindspot. But they did highlight the evolution of TV crime dramas, and the subsequent evolution of us as viewers.

Police procedurals, crime dramas that depict police actions as they work to solve a crime, are older than television. Dragnet, the first crime series in the U.S., made its debut on radio in 1949 before moving to television in 1951. The show was supported by the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department), the same department its characters were a part of, and offered technical advice that hadn’t been seen before.

We’ve been inundated with crime drama after crime drama ever since. Sure, each one takes on a life and style of its own, but at heart they’re all about police catching bad guys. While these shows have worked to entertain audiences for decades, there’s been a recent change that has networks going back to the drawing board.

Audiences Want More

Not only are audiences changing the way they watch, they’re tastes are also evolving. Regular stories of good versus evil with no real stakes don’t interest people like they used to pre-Game of Thrones. Audiences don’t accept subpar stories or performances, they’ve been given higher and higher quality television year after year and now expect the very best studios have to offer.

You can see signs of this change everywhere. The line between TV and movie actors is now blurred. Movie directors like JJ Abrams and Steven Spielberg are producing television properties like Person of Interest and Falling Skies. Television budgets continue to rise, costing $2 - $3 million per episode on average while your favorite shows tend to cost much more.

Giving the People What They Want

What have networks decided to do to slake the ever-growing thirst of television audiences nowadays? Upgrade the police force.

More and more series are starting to step away from police departments in favor of the FBI, CIA or some other form of higher law enforcement that deals with more complex crimes. After all, one of the main characteristics of the genre is believability. Traditional police departments don’t handle terrorist attacks, but the FBI does.

TV crime dramas aren’t going anywhere, they’re just evolving. You’re going to continue seeing more agents than officers on TV as audience tastes progress, and those few police departments left will start dealing with more and more FBI-esque investigations. It’s the nature of everything to evolve and TV genres are no exception.

I do wonder what’s next though. What happens after shows exhaust higher forms of police enforcement agencies? Do we start seeing a plethora of imaginative law enforcement offices, or are people going to be content with the current status quo until the end of time? (Or at least until our VR rooms are ready.)