“CSI” might seem like it was the TV crime drama that brought investigation out of the era of hunches, suspect interviews and brainy connections over evidence chains overlooked by viewers, but that is not the case. A steady stream of TV shows sought to bring crime detection out of the complicated machinery of the mind that called 221B Baker Street home and put it into 20th century technological innovations.
Almost from the very beginning of the era of TV when the original four networks all have full prime time schedules, some crime dramas were looking to add a little science into the mix. “The Plainclothesman” was groundbreaking TV in two ways. First, the lead character of the Lieutenant wasn’t seen, merely heard, since the show was filmed with a subjective camera. In other words, the viewer at home saw everything taking place in the criminal investigation of “The Plainclothesman” through his own eyes. The other aspect setting this early crime drama from the others that would proliferate prime time programming over the next fifty years was its reliance on scientific investigative techniques that clearly placed it at odds with all the other footwork and questioning being done by cops on most shows.
“Whispering Smith” looked to a real life pioneer in the advancement of investigative techniques as way to update criminology methods practiced in the 1870s. That was the plan, anyway. “Whispering Smith” was loosely based on the life of Alan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Episodes were inspired by real life crime cases from the files of the Denver Police Dept. Real life collided with dramatic license pretty early on to really tick off the morality police. Apparently, Mr. Pinkerton’s methods relied not entirely on scientific analysis. A Congressional committee examining the causes of juvenile delinquency screened the second episode titled “The Grudge” which prompted one of Colorado’s Senators at the time to call it a libel on Denver due to what the committee viewed as the show’s excessive violence.
The Telltale Clue
As far back as 1954, crime shows were looking for ways to introduce scientific analysis more heavily into crime scene investigations. “The Telltale Clue” focused on a police lieutenant in charge of the criminology department and the means by which he utilized scientific advancements in the field to help figure out how an explosion was murder and not an accident or how to uncover evidence of a murder three years after the victim was tossed into a lake.
A British series that aired briefly on NBC took to the London of the Swinging Sixties to present itself almost as an answer to the stupidity routinely portrayed at Scotland Yard in the stories of Sherlock Holmes. While the crimes that “Strange Report” routinely investigated fulfilled the expectations of its title (which actually referred to Adam Strange, late of the Yard), the means utilized to solve the bizarre cases relied on forensic investigation more than Mulder-style thinking outside the box.
The New Breed
You could dig the new breed of investigative techniques used by cops in this 1961 series about the LAPD. Considering the black hole that is the history of the real life LAPD getting it right through standard investigative techniques, it’s no wonder “The New Breed” lasted just one season. That’s probably how long the introduction of high tech instruments used to capture suspects who too easily remained at large using traditional methods lasted in the real life police department in L.A..
This Canadian production not only beat “CSI” to the screen by a fear years, but also “Cold Case” which it also resembles. The scientific advancements for law enforcement with the rise of the computer and internet made it possible to go back and re-investigate much older crimes that had remained unsolved when standard interrogation and evidence gathering techniques had been all that was available. “Cold Squad” clearly was a leader in the pack in the new breed of 21st century TV shows that sought to introduce forensic science more deeply into the process of solving crimes.