Why All The Interest In Forensics?


I just read some work by a man named Lee Goldberg. Lee is quite a famous television producer/writer who has worked on series such as Diagnosis MurderSpenser for HirePsych, and Monk. He sheds some interesting insight about the early days of forensics on television.

In the early days of cop shows, rare was the occasion when white lab coats invaded the world of police investigation. In the days of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, rare was the day when the investigators of a grisly murder migrated to the lab or morgue to work on a case. They seemed too busy with their complicated lives, bureaucracy of the DA's office, or other tangential issues. The writers of these programs thought the viewers would have no interest in showing the behind the scenes of laboratory and crime scene forensics. They thought their viewership cared more about the ‘whodunit and whydunit’, not particularly the 'howdunit'.

Then, two programs turned the world of television forensics upside down. The real life trial of O.J. Simpson and the hit television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The gavel to gavel television coverage of the famous Southern California murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman was displayed for microscopic study for the entire television world. And boy, did the world love it! Television ratings for this trial sent seismic tremors throughout Hollywood. The details of the trial introduced viewers to aspects of forensic science they had never before heard of. They were hooked.

Shortly after that Simpson trial, CSI was launched. It featured vague similiarities to the ever popular crime investigation television shows, mixed with white lab coats taking the viewers ‘behind the scenes’ where all the criminal evidence was being processed. Suddenly the motives for committing the crimes and the serial madness of a crazed killer took a back seat to studying the analysis of microscopic fibers or a human tooth left at the scene. These guys ventured out on a limb and broke every rule of television. And they knocked it out of the park.

CSI was an instant success, with ratings off the charts, almost from the first episode. Almost instantly, it changed the landscape of the methods television writers used to captivate their audiences. It has even bled over into real life courtrooms, as now jury members expect to see and hear from both sides of the bench in today’s murder trials.

The real fact of the matter, though, are that these types of shows remain quite unrealistic. Few state and local crime labs even remotely resemble the high end, lightning fast technology that Hollywood has created. Most institutions are on tight budgets and lack the banks of flat screen monitors and LED flashing multicolored lights that spit out the forensic clues as fast as the viewer can digest them. Rare is the occasion that the real cast of CSI-type have an opportunity to sport wardrobes from Armani and hairstyles of the rich and famous. They don’t carry guns, and they don’t go around questioning persons of interest in an attempt to solve the case in the next five minutes.

DNA comparison, the now universally accepted ‘gold standard’ of the industry, usually takes 4-6 weeks for a read, not the immediate turn-around the television viewers see. Television results return in the same amount of time it takes to sell a 30 second spot of toothpaste. John or Jane Doe often take years to solve their true identities ( aka Walk of Death), not over the course of a 60 minute production.

So it’s fiction, really inaccurate fiction! But you know what? It doesn’t matter. It is what it is. And television has made it the new benchmark by what other television programmers seek to emulate. The number of forensics based television shows has grown by geometric proportions, with no sign of retreating. Several cable channel stations, like ID, have their entire bank of programming dedicated to this pseudoscience of television forensics. And the world totally loves it!

It’s nice to have your forensic discipline be so trendy. The glitz and glamour that network television has given the subject has helped propel its world- wide interest far beyond what anyone ever imagined, including those stumblng upon it in the earliest of days! The next generation of these types of programs including Bones and Law & Order, now have been born and have enjoyed massive success with no signs of tapering.

So what makes forensic science so fascinating to its viewers? Is it because of some sinister or morbid fascination with death, or the dark world of drugs, crime and violence? Might it be that just perhaps that people are just naturally curious and have always had a morbid fascination for the truth? Dr. D.P. Lyle, renowned cardiologist and television consultant to many forensic based programs, thinks it is probably a combination of all of the above. Science and drama can be a powerful combination.

Whether it is extracting the DNA from a single pubic hair, or a salivary cheek swab to help a missing person’s body be reunited with their loved ones, we have become attached to television to view exactly how it was done.

Many different subspecialities exist in the world of forensic science. Toxicology, anthropology, odontology, physics, psychology and many more. In our next blog, we will discuss the specifics of each of those.