Gone Mental: Why Do So Many Crime Series Heroes Have a Twisted Psyche?

Our TV critic charts the path of the unstable criminal mind from Sophocles' 'Oedipus Rex' to CBS' 'The Mentalist.'

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Following prolonged exposure to many seasons of “to-be-continued” (or not) TV crime procedurals, one may feel enmeshed in a mishmash of detectives and criminals (aka “cops and robbers”) who all look and act in pretty much the same rather ugly way. Alternatively, one may become particularly adept at discerning the recurring trends and fads in this net(work) of fictional TV life.

With me, like “Love and Marriage” (as in the 1955 Frank Sinatra song – not in life, as he, of all people, should have known), the two approaches mentioned above are not mutually exclusive. They – like too many things in life – do go together like a horse and carriage, and you can’t have one without the other.

The trend I seem to have discerned lately is the need of said series’ producers to endow their protagonists – both formal (the police) and informal (the amateur consultants ) of any sex or gender who are chasing the criminals – with an array of flaws and disabilities in body, mind and soul.

It apparently started with the first crime-and-detection story ever, “Oedipus Rex,” originally put into words and on stage by Sophocles (although the plot most probably existed even before his time). In that play, the protagonist, who is both detective and culprit – come on, that’s no longer a spoiler – is both lame (from the outset) and blind (by the end), not to mention the posthumously eponymous complexes that torture and twist his psyche.

The physical disabilities of the crime solver and chaser served a purpose in those old fables: They were supposed to show that the human mind (aka brain) will always persevere. The body might be infirm – think Raymond Burr in the “Ironside” TV series of the 1960s – but reason will prevail; he will catch the thieves no matter how fast they may run or how well they can hide. We have had detectives blind, deaf, lame, confined to their homes or beds. I don’t think there was ever a case of a mute detective, for pretty obvious reasons, but I’m not willing to bet my tongue on it.

However, disabilities and infirmities of the mind provide a much more interesting and varied playing field. The most notable precursor is the father of detection in modern fiction, that thinking machine named Sherlock Holmes, a borderline personality with a tendency to cross the border more often than not. Benedict Cumberbatch, his latest and most popular TV incarnation, is decidedly on the far side of the autism spectrum; but he is only one specimen of a law-and-order upholder with a severe personality disorder. What about the very socially awkward Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan or the severely OCD-impaired Monk, in the eponymous series?

Please note: I’m not talking about the personal back stories of the good guys and gals. Each one of them has his or her share of mild or severe traumas, which are intensified and return to haunt them while they hunt the criminals. Each of the “Criminal Minds” TV series profilers, or CSI and Law & Order teams delve into their own psychic wounds and scars while doing their jobs. That is part of the point, so it seems: We are all burdened with potentially twisted psyches, and only a quirk of fate makes some of us into killers and others into killer-hunters.

But the two series I want to draw your attention to are not about your everyday, “normal” complexes or traumas that people can live (and die or kill) with. I’m talking about TV crime series in which the detective (consulting and male in both cases) is a certified mentally challenged individual: the paranoid, schizophrenic and dark Dr. Daniel Pierce of “Perception” and the seemingly charming and normal former “psychic” con-man with a history of confinement in a mental institution, the fair Patrick Jane of “The Mentalist” (both on HOT Zone, channel 5).

“The Mentalist,” produced by CBS, is now in its seventh and final season in the U.S. Its premise seems to be that there is no such thing as paranormal activities. Jane (played by Simon Baker with the screen charm of Roger Moore in his incarnation as “The Saint”) made a living as a “psychic” entertainer. Now he supports the law by debunking a lot of the psychological mumbo-jumbo bandied about by investigators and lawyers when they explain away horrid crimes and criminal behavior. But he has a dark side, and some painful secrets in his own life, and it all seems to tell us that it’s “all in the mind.” While the abnormal criminal mind may be simpler than we think, the apparently normal detecting mind may be much more twisted and tormented than we might expect.

Each episode of “Perception,” produced for TNT, (and cancelled in the middle of its third season, with five more episodes to go in the U.S.) opens and ends with Dr. Pierce (played by Eric McCormack) delivering a lecture in neuropsychiatry at a fictional university; in it he explores the quirks and foibles of the forever plastic and adapable human brain. But unlike the seemingly normal Jane in “The Mentalist,” Pierce is taking medication (or stops taking them), has been in and out of mental institutions, on a probation of sorts, and is prone to hallucinating and conversing with imaginary characters. He and the viewers are constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Needless to say, both “psychos” are handled by young, charming female agents, who have to constantly shield their unstable wards from the machinations of the much squarer minds of their law-enforcing male superiors.

What does it boil down to? Most probably to the notion that “it takes one to know one.” If the criminal mind is supposed to be twisted in some very weird way, let’s use another twisted, but brilliant, mind to try to unravel, predict and apprehend it. And in the process, let’s hammer in the notion that there is a very thin line between normal and abnormal, between sane and insane, between good and bad.

You can’t have one without the other, and more often than not you must have them both simultaneously. It’s up to you, and fate, to decide anew every moment, again and again, which is which, and whether they are at all distinguishable.

It’s a mad world out there, my masters and mistresses. It may make life pretty exhausting, but it does make for intriguing TV watching.