Some crimes are just simply more difficult to get all upset about than others. Some guy walks into a school and kills a teacher for no reason…yet, we should be even more outraged as a nation than we are. One drug dealer kills another? Not gonna keep us up at night. One of the crimes that just doesn’t really ever seem likely to stimulate outrage is insurance fraud. In fact, in many cases, it is more likely that many of us will look up the guy who outsmarts the insurance company as a hero. Or at least a Robin Hood. After all, insurance companies commit fraud on average people every day. If someone can get them as good as they get us, what’s to get upset about? The only thing missing from these memorable cases of insurance fraud on TV is the satisfaction derived from watching them get away with it.
The great thing about “The Judas Tree” is that you don’t even find out that it is about insurance fraud until the end. I can’t say more about it without putting up the dreaded Spoiler Alert sign, but suffice to say that killer in this particular episode of “Ellery Queen” has to have another heaping layer of immorality tossed into the mix to get the viewer worked up. The writers realized early on, I’d say, that nobody except an insurance agent out there in TV land was going to actually find it all that horrific a crime. The murder part, yes. But there is more than meets the eye to his mystery.
“Banacek” was about a guy who made a living investigating insurance fraud. It is certainly no accident that Banacek was one of more idiosyncratic investigators in TV history. The plain truth of the matter is that you cannot make an addictive habit out of watching some guy investigate insurance fraud. The audience had no moral investment in the deal. As a result, Banacek is a hip Polish guy who got involved in some of the most outrageous cases of insurance fraud ever seen on TV. The single greatest episode of a mystery show saw Banacek solving the riddle of how a football could literally disappear off the field in front of millions watching a nationally televised game. See, that’s the kind of gimmick you need to make audiences even care about insurance fraud.
One of the recurring characters who was victim of the small time crime that was the hallmark of those brought up to the 12th Precinct detective room was one Mr. Cotterman. Over the course of the series, we got to know Mr. Cotterman as a result of his being victimized by robbers, drug addicts and the like on a regular basis. Trying to run a liquor store when your business depends to such a degree upon the dregs of society and other assorted people who can’t seem to find a way to enjoy life without a stiff belt or two cannot be a picnic. So when a serial arsonist shows up in the old 1-2, who could blame Mr. Cotterman for trying to get his rightful due? After all, he had paid his insurance premiums regularly like a good sucker. Too bad that he decided to torch his store and then place himself in the detectives room as a perfect alibi just when the arsonist happened to be actually get caught. Mr. Cotterman might well have gone to jail himself if he hadn’t been able to get back to his store to stop the conflagration, but you can bet no insurance agent would have gone to jail if they’d come up with a plan not to pay out to Cotterman if he really had been a victim of arson. Welcome to the real world.
Insurance fraud seems to be a regular occurrence in Springfield. Krusty the Klown successfully pulls it off twice by faking his death. And, buddy, if you think that ripping off an insurance company by defrauding them in the name of a person who doesn’t even really exist wouldn’t be the biggest rush in the world, you must be one of those people who doesn’t take an escalator because of your fear they could suddenly become stairs. The brilliantly titled “Dumbbell Indemnity” finds Homer taking part in a fake theft of Moe’s car as a means of insurance fraud to fund Moe’s plans to keep living the high life with the one woman who seems capable of seeing Moe as an object of romance. So the question here becomes what is the greater crime: stealing a few thousand from the billions made by insurance companies with the help of government agencies legally compelling people to buy insurance they may very likely never, ever need in their life…or coming between Moe and his only shot at romance?