by: J.N. Reyna
“I need to get one of those on the front door,” my mother commented to me, nodding at the television screen. A character on Cold Case was standing at her front door talking to a suspicious person through a partially opened door with two sliding-chain locks.
I remarked, “What? A double sliding-chain lock? You already have three locks and a storm door with a lock. Geez. At this point, the locks are a safety hazard. In case of a fire, you’re going to get trapped -cooked, Mom.”
“Pfft. No way. I’d jump out of a window. Either this window here or the one by the bathroom,” she said nonchalantly. Just moments prior she was wholly convinced of the necessity of adding multiple locks to her already adequately equipped front door. Now she casually detailed her acrobatic fire evacuation plan that included launching herself out of a window—presumably pivoting off her good knee.
I laughed. “Yeah. Sure. All these windows are double-locked, too. Good luck.”
This Saturday evening, I found myself enjoying some quality time with my retired mom, fast approaching her seventies. I decided to join her in one of her favorite pastimes: watching CBS non-stop. Starting at seven p.m., there was CSI. Then an episode of CSI: Miami. That was followed by two episodes of Cold Case. I enjoy the occasional TV crime drama. But, damn. What I thought was some sort of special detective marathon was their normal Saturday night programming. Obviously, as CBS knows, my mother is not alone in her love of the police investigation genre—we all know old folks love crime shows. But why?
While I had made this observation some time ago, only recently have I given it serious thought. After having listened to my mother tell me a story of an assault and murder featured on the nightly news, I suspected her of confabulating some of the details of the real-life case, injecting storyline from what I believe was an old episode of Law & Order. I had no proof, though. And if she did, was it time to call a neurologist? Is Alzheimer’s kicking in? Or, was it more likely that since L&O comes on right before the nightly news, blending the drama plot and news stories into one nightmare is to be expected? After all, the scare tactics are the same whether they are coming from scriptwriters or news reporters. Stay inside! Lock your doors! Murderers are on the loose!
The love of the crime drama is a part of our cultural heritage. From Gunsmoke to Dragnet to more modern incarnations of the same narrative, we know that no misdeeds will go unpunished in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Good guys always get the bad guys. Every wrong gets resolved, in one hour or less, following these messages from our sponsors. My inner conspiracist believes corporations leach off this kind of television programming, as it induces a special type of mortality salience in viewers. Making us aware of our own vulnerability and our eventual death in violent stories usually based on real life events, advertisers capitalize off selling us solutions to those very same mortality-based anxieties provoked by the show. Commercial breaks bring us ads for safe cars, insurance policies, cholesterol medication, the U.S. military and whatever other thing that we better cling to for life. Seniors, perhaps being more aware of their vulnerability than younger folks, find these programs particularly engrossing.
Maybe the appeal among our elders for shows like CSI, staring a firm-browed, white-haired Ted Danson as the lead investigator, has something to do with seeing themselves represented as strong and wise. In a youth-obsessed society where elders are preyed upon or sent to rot and die in institutions, what elder wouldn’t enjoy watching senior citizen protagonists show these goshdarn whippersnappers a thing or two about making the world a better place?
As people age, there is a tendency to become more conservative. And possibly more fearful in general. Or both. The police dramas of primetime television grant senior viewers an opportunity to watch hard and swift justice get doled out to deserving lowlifes—in contrast to the real world, where justice is slow coming, if it comes at all. I’d imagine knowledge of that reality would only harden over time, leaving many seniors with a need to know the increments of justice and peace they sacrificed for and won are being protected—or even still exist.
Inching over the arc of our life, there will be a point at which we will begin to spend more time looking back upon our experiences and increasingly less time anticipating the future. As a thirty-something, I am already beginning to notice the clutter of my memory build, at times obstructing plans for the life ahead of me. That point where we find ourselves looking forward less and reflecting more will be the exact same point at which CBS bids for our loyal viewership with their flashy fiction of American order and justice.
If reality is anything like television, at the end of that arc, on our deathbeds, we will be treated to a montage of our life’s greatest hits. There will definitely be appearances by villains and cruel thieves. Selfish rat bastards. Evil-doers never brought to justice. But, so will there be a hero or two. Loving kin. Good neighbors, caring teachers. Kind strangers.
And hopefully, no window jumps from burning buildings.
J.N. Reyna is a queer Chicana born and raised in Chicago. She is a
writer and researcher currently working toward obtaining her doctorate
in social psychology. Broadly, her academic research interests
include the self, social identity, and consumer psychology. To stay
current with her daily musings, you can find her on Twitter @reynabot
and at her blog, http://www.SoDamnTired.com.