As the global television landscape only continues to expand exponentially, one tried and true genre that shows no signs of slowing down is crime. From “case of the week” style procedurals, to longer-form mysteries and character-centric dramas, to true crime factual formats, the challenge for new series is paying respects to the programs that came before them while still finding new things to say. Now, rather than relying on splashy, outrageous crimes to grab an audience’s attention, creatives are leaning on and into character.
“The genre is popular because people like when these puzzles are laid out and pieced together in an entertaining, thrilling way. It can be very satisfying,” says Damon Vignale, showrunner of “The Murders.” “Part of the job is remembering why people have come to your show in the first place and not cheating them out of that. And of course, you want to bring interesting characters to the screen that the audience can relate to.”
Vignale’s show, which About Premium Content will launch at MipTV, centers on a rookie homicide detective (played by Jessica Lucas), who gets another officer killed her first week on the job, and a more seasoned detective (Lochlyn Munro). The season-long arc sees them hunt for a mysterious killer who marries music to his crimes.
A slightly higher concept than other police procedurals due to that murder-ballad inspiration, what is key about his show, Vignale says, is that the characters have so much going on in their personal lives that relates to their work in both positive and negative ways, keeping their emotional arcs “always in flux from episode to episode.”
“We have a character searching for redemption, having lost her partner on the job and feeling responsible,” he says. “Another character is struggling to keep his marriage afloat, as the job makes him mostly unavailable. And while I think audiences like ongoing struggles for the characters, they equally like to see the cases matter to them individually. So we’re always looking for ways to connect our detectives to the emotional themes of the stories week to week.”
Similarly, there is screenwriter Steve Thompson’s crime drama “Vienna Blood,” set at the start of the 20th century based on Frank Tallis’ novels of the same name. As with their source material, the three 90-minute films that can also run as a limited series follow a doctor who is studying new developments in psychology, and who gets involved in solving murders as one of the first profilers.
“We’re seeing the science in its infancy,” Thompson says.
“Vienna Blood” is being launched at MipTV by Red Arrow Studios Intl.
Each of the films is adapted from one of the novels, and therefore each follows a specific murder case. However, the character’s personal struggles come to the forefront in various moments throughout each of the films, as the young Dr. Max Liebermann, who is engaged at the start of the story, becomes infatuated with a research scientist and destroys his family relationships as his work and personal lives overlap.
Additionally, Max is from a Jewish family, living in Vienna when nationalism was thriving, Thompson points out. That comes into play in the past, but also delivers “some uncomfortable echoes of modern Europe” for today’s viewers.
While Thompson stresses that “accuracy is vital” in creating period piece crime dramas, he believes the central character is the most important element in inviting an audience in. For one thing, “wits alone solve cases” in the time before DNA, fingerprints and GPS, so the character must be clever. But he must also be fun.
“The detective, or in this case the doctor, simply has to be somebody you want to hang out with,” Thompson says. “We want to be in their gang. We want to do the job alongside them.”
Sky’s “Bulletproof,” which is in production on its second season, follows the buddy cop format, in which its lead characters are bonded by the same moral code but have other differences that come into play on cases. For executive producer Allan Niblo, who also co-founded Vertigo Films, that character relationship is “the heart of the show” and the duo of Aaron Bishop (Noel Clarke) and Ronnie Pike (Ashley Walters) takes precedence over crime tropes.
“When we were looking for comparative shows for reference there was virtually nothing out there that had two black leads, was inherently commercial and normalized black family life,” Niblo says. “These were the good guys, the heroes — not gangsters, drug dealers or pimps. This was hugely significant for a mainstream police drama — and one that audiences really responded to.”
Yet, because it is a high-octane world in which the characters live and work, Niblo notes the importance of creating “exhilarating” action moments for those characters to experience. “Audiences need to be drawn in by exceptional storytelling,” Niblo says, adding that they prefer moments such as car chases over “tired tropes like kicking in front doors.”
While it may not be comfortable to call those featured in true crime formats or docuseries “characters,” such players are key to the success of new factual shows of the genre, too. “Detectives: My Killer Case” (distributed by DRG) is banking on an audience connecting to a real-life detective as, in each episode, a different one recounts the details of the investigation that defined his or her career. Through “step-by-step narrative” of what the detective did from the first day on the case to the conviction in court, the show will reconstruct crimes from all across the U.K., says executive producer Gillane Seaborne, who is also CEO of Midnight Oil Pictures.
“Everything is told from their point of view, including their thoughts and theories at each stage of the case,” Seaborne says. “By concentrating on the one testimony of the person at the heart of the case we aim to give a different point of view to the case, and a clearer insight into the police process.”
And Sky Vision is distributing “Killer,” centered on tales of people consumed with the idea of revenge, divided into four themes: “Killer Lovers,” “Killer Neighbors,” “Killer Colleagues” and “Killer Families.” Each episode of the series opens with a dramatic crime scene reconstruction but the majority of the storytelling tracks the background of the players, their relationship and the moment that sparked the emotion that led to the crime.
“Within the true crime genre, there’s something very compelling about cases where the killer knew the victim,” says Deborah Allen, who executive produces the show. “Understanding the history of their relationship and the psychology behind the conflict that ultimately led to murder was something we wanted to explore.”
Despite the abundance of crime programming saturating the market these days, Allen says they stayed true to how they would have selected stories at various points over the past decade.
“We look for stories that will be relatable to the viewer. Generally, this means the killer has no history of violence and their relationship with the victim appears to be very ordinary, at least to begin with,” she explains. “At one time or another, most of us have experienced conflict with our spouses, our neighbors, our co-workers and our families. Having disagreements with people you are close to, either emotionally or in proximity, is very normal. But, in these cases, the people become so desperate to resolve their conflict that they believe murder is their only option.”