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The skilled bystander theory

I’ve noticed a new trend in TV shows recently… one completely ignored in Australia of course… and not an entirely new idea, but a trend nonetheless.

The skilled bystander: Someone who is skilled and talented in a certain area, that can through design or happenstance be transferred into crime solving. So teaming them with a crime solving professional, usually a cop or FBI agent, will create a new crime solving story.


Bones, with the forensic anthropologist and the FBI agent.

Numbers, with the mathematician and the fed

Lie to Me: The lie expert and the feds/cops

Castle: The mystery author and the cop

The Mentalist: Magic/con/illusion expert assists cops in solving crime

It’s all about the hook really, and all these shows veer into high concept land… ie: what fancy new way can we think of to create new crime solving stories? They’re all so desperate to not look the same as the last show, they’re kind of crazy about finding new ways to hook into the crime-solving paradigm. It’s all about being the same but different: crime shows will never run out of ideas, but if you can get yourself a new niche, a new take on the genre, you’ll distinguish yourself from the competition.

A shout out here to Life, one of my favourite shows in the last couple of years, and sadly one no longer in production, having just been cancelled after two seasons. The whole zen master thing didn’t exactly fit the skilled bystander paradigm, but the “cop wrongly imprisoned and now very wealthy” thing did, in a way. Still, I like it, with Damian Lewis’ Charlie Crews a fascinating and quirky main character, a regular cop but not quite. And Sarah Shahi’s troubled but tough Dani Reese, the classic cops daughter turned cop herself a great character too… not to mention being eternally gorgeous and worth watching all day 🙂 Will be missed, and I hope to see both of them in new projects soon.

I’m racking my brain to think of anything in Australia that’s been made anywhere near this story theory… nothing really comes to mind. Local screens are full of cop dramas as well, but they seem to go out of their way to be as conventional as possible. It’s like we’re just discovering the “gritty” genre now that US TV got into with NYPD Blue 15 years ago… it’s not that they’re bad shows (quite like Rush and City Homicide really), but they’re not cutting edge or glaringly new either. Like I always say, at least local shows are being made that are worth watching at all… which is sometimes surprising to be honest…

For anyone out there in reader land, I’d love to hear more suggestions of “skilled bystander” shows, new or old…

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