Hi, my name is Dixie and I’m addicted to TV mysteries. (Hi Dixie.)
I’ve been engaged and comforted by television whodunits since I was a little girl, and I have no intention of stopping, or even trying to stop watching now. From Perry Mason to Columbo, you get something from these TV series you don’t, and never will get, from real life: Order. Someone wants good to triumph, murderers caught, health to be restored. In myths and stories, there are reliable templates. After boy loses girl, he will get girl. After the glass slipper fits, Cinderella can stop scrubbing floors. Crime doesn’t pay. Good will triumph over evil. Unfortunately, this has proven to be utter bullshit.
Growing up, the television was my babysitter, my parent, my Bible. I sucked at that glass teat, drinking in the milk of every recurring archetype, repetitive scenario, persistent plot. A scared, lonely little girl knows Raymond Burr’s understated smarts and big kind eyes will protect the innocent. Later, a frustrated, let-down teen can rely on Lt. Columbo or Jim Rockford to ferret out the bad guys. There are good, smart people who always win out. In a world loaded with the unexpected and the unexplained, genre TV has dependable formats you can lean on. Even whodunits have patterns as detectable as suspects. Thousands of hours of a lifetime of watching means I can usually figure out the murderer in a Perry Mason or a Murder She Wrote within the first 20 minutes.
Nowadays plots and people are twisted and complicated, but there are still reliable templates. I love me some Jack McCoy, Logan, Briscoe, Green, and the parade of supermodel Assistant District Attorneys, but ultimately what gives me succor in Law & Order is the Order. In trying times, pandemics and pandemonium, you can always cuddle up to tried-and-true, always there-for-you detectives and lawyers. Sometimes it’s a dependably annoying ex-cop (Monk) with some serious OCD, or the steadfast sass of a smart-alecky teenage girl (Veronica Mars shout-out), but there’s always somebody who did something, and a someone who’ll figure it out in the end. You can count on that ending, you can count on that someone.
For at least an hour there’s a semblance of stability. The soothing promise of predictability. There’s shutting out a world that’s made you frazzled, frustrated and worn, and you can lie back and live in a realm where things are smart, fair, and just. With modern-day series with flawed heroes and long arcs (like the new Sherlock), there may not be tidy endings but evil will be vanquished, at least for the time being. There’s even comfort in the reliable ubiquity of some series; I can always rely on turning on — turning to — an episode of Law & Order somewhere in TV land.
It may seem counterintuitive to seek solace in crime, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in these series as well. There’s wit, or at the very least a sprinkling of shade or snappy comebacks. For those of us Baby Boomers, there’s also the fun of all the blast from the past guest stars. There are the before-they-were-famous actors popping up on Law & Order. There are the actual stars as murderers on Columbo, your Robert Culps, Jack Cassidys, Robert Conrads. Unexpected bad guys like Ruth Gordon, Dick Van Dyke, Leonard Nimoy, and bit parts by the soon-to-be famous (Martin Sheen, Jamie Lee Curtis for a few minutes as a waitress). My husband is a big Murder She Wrote fan, and he loves to see all the A- and B-list celebrities, and classic movie stars, woven through each episode. “Look how old David Hemmings looks! Look how young Kate Mulgrew looks! Hey, it’s Van Johnson! Hey, it’s Hurd Hatfield, still Hurd Hatfield-y as ever!” (The scripts are corny, but I’d love to write a piece on Jessica Fletcher’s sly proto-feminist, subtle superpowers.)
Personally, I can never get enough Law & Order (OG or Criminal Intent), Monk, and especially Columbo. His faux façade belies a wily good man who notices clues and evidence, sure, but is also an astute judge of character. I love the cat and mouse game as he closes in on the arrogant killer. (Personally, if Jack Cassidy shows up, just save time and arrest him immediately. I mean, him being Jack Cassidy — Robert Culp or Robert Vaughn — is a huge red flag right there. Aside from the fantastic Peter Falk, the killers’ smarm is the charm.)
Whether you’re at home because of COVID or you’re just of an age where the thought of going out at night makes you sigh, curling up and “watching the detectives” can be bracing in a brutal world.
What keeps you comforted? Share your thoughts in comments below.
If you’ve read Dixie’s Age Against the Machine column, you know she’s self-reflective, thoughtful, and tells it like it is.
Over the years, Dixie’s shared her advice for many women in person and for Oxygen, AMC, and other media outlets. Now she’s graciously offered to share her advice and insights for you.
Email your questions to Dixie at email@example.com. We may feature your question and Dixie’s advice on jumbleandflow.com. You can choose to remain anonymous or provide your name — totally up to you.
Dixie Laite has been a second-grade teacher and mechanical bull operator, and for the past 25 years she’s worked for a variety of TV networks as a writer, editorial director, trainer, advice columnist, even an on-air personality. But primarily she’s trotted around New York City in one cowboy shirt or another, lurking around flea markets, gyms, and anywhere they’ll hand her French toast. Currently she lounges around her apartment with one husband, one dog, five parrots, and roughly 2,000 pairs of shoes. Dixie is the main lady behind Age Against the Machine, a column about empowering women over 50. Sign up for the Jumble & Flowdown newsletter to stay in the know about Dixie’s latest columns.
Follow Dixie on Instagram @dixielaite
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