Dear Netflix: What makes good crime TV?

Columnist Elana Williams waxes philosophical on shows like “NCIS,” “Criminal Minds.”

Hello, I’m Elana, your lovely TV columnist, and each week I’ll be writing a letter to Netflix, a dear friend of mine, about a new TV show I’ve seen that week. Pretty simple, right?

Dear Netflix, oh technological titan, Mediacom’s unquestionable master and Dish Network’s eye-watering foe… you get the picture.

Because I had a lot of free time over break, I got to have the kind of insight for my first column that comes with binge-watching a series.

I set out in search of a quirky British drama or laid-back sitcom to get me through the holidays but instead landed on a show I didn’t quite see coming: Criminal Minds.

Why, Netflix?! Why, after countless “Law and Order: SVU” marathons, “NCIS” binges and “Psych” obsessions, am I still drawn to episodic crime TV? Why are any of us? After all, it is an entire subgenre I can browse.

In order to answer this, I think I have to look to the opposite answer: why do people dislike crime TV?

I turned to Facebook and posed my inquiry. One friend (full disclosure, my lovely editor) pointed to the “ripped-from-the-headlines” episodes that may seem to trivialize real criminal tragedies.

The most recent example of this comes from “The Good Wife,” which IMDb classifies as a “crime,” “drama” and “mystery” program.

One recent episode of the series, “The Debate,” which touched on recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York but, unfortunately for the show, was filmed before the grand jury decision about either, got sweepingly negative reviews

“The Good Wife” evidently does this kind of thing successfully quite often but pretty obviously dropped the ball with this one.

According to a review in The Atlantic, the problem wasn’t the decision to base an episode around the issues in Ferguson and New York but the ultimately inconclusive ending it gave. “The Good Wife” made no strong argument either way, and that hurt its integrity.

I’d like to pose an idea as to why we collectively can’t stop watching these shows: crime TV parallels journalism.

One of my favorite parts of “Criminal Minds” is that every episode starts and ends with a quote, spoken by a different character.

“There is no formula for success, except perhaps an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings,” a lead quoted at the end of an episode about a developmentally challenged killer. “Arthur Rubenstein,” he attributed.

A certain inherent beauty comes with combining someone else’s words with your own to tell a story.

Just as journalists do every day, “Criminal Minds” takes the words of the notable and quotable and uses them to make us, the Netflixians (a working community name of mine), feel something powerful.

In the same sense, this is a technique to tie the story together and reach a conclusion, which crime TV and journalism are both obligated to do.

What sort of conclusion? Well, that depends. We know what to expect out of crime TV. We’ve seen the plots before, the characters are hardly ever anything exciting, and for the junkie like me, we know their protocol just as well as they do, so by this point so we have little to learn.

We watch them for the execution, for the impact, for the strength of the messages and the subtleties of the insights.

I sobbed at the end of an episode last night. This isn’t because I was taken by the repetitiveness of the series (“IT’S JUST SO MUCH OF THE SAME; I HAVE SO MANY EMOTIONS”), which all crime TV is.

Rather, because “Criminal Minds” succeeded at doing what “The Good Wife” did not. It did not flounder in controversy, failing to find solid ground.

Crime TV, dearest Netflix, can be thought-provoking, enticing and utterly moving.

Like great journalism, great crime TV must tell us a story we’ve heard before in a way that will make us keep paying attention.

I think there’s something to be said for exploring the darkest parts of the human consciousness to find the lightest, starting with a strong basis in respect, good storytelling and remarkably emotional characterization.

Dear Netflix, keep around the crime TV.

Ever yours, Elana.

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