Tuesday, July 20, 2010

When good TV shows go bad - its criminal


I don't know why but I've always been interested in criminal profiling, like the types developed as a speciality by the FBI. Lately, the genre has been turned into entertainment by shows like Criminal Minds, which feature the antics of a group of FBI profilers.

I suspect I am attracted to the genre because I like logic and I like to see it used in action. I like things to fit together and its fun when someone figures out how things work. And let's face it, there's a bit of the "carny" aspect to profilers. They look at a bunch of things and then start drawing a portrait of what the serial killer looks like and how he thinks and what he might be thinking. And sometimes they seem to be right.

When Criminal Minds first began, I was impressed. The writing was good and the characters were a lot of fun to get to know. But something bad has happened to the series - to the point where I can't even watch it now. When it began, we didn't know any more about the killers than the team did. We watched as they gathered clues and put together the story, while we followed along. There was the usual license taken with space and time and technology, but in general, the episodes were character driven and smartly done.

But now, the show has degenerated into a silly parody of itself. We are usually shown the killer right off the bat and watch while the team makes improbable connections to come up with the answer that we knew about all along. And the characters are caricatures of themselves. It's hard to believe they can take seriously the lines they're forced to repeat. It must be frustrating as an actor to see your character turned into a cartoon-like dummy.

That little rant on Criminal Minds is my way of backing into an article I came across on FBI profiling in The New Yorker, posted on writer Malcolm Gladwell's website. (By the way, the New Yorker Archive of articles he's done for the magazine over the last 14 years is a real treasure-trove of interesting stuff.)

The article is called Dangerous Minds and it delves into the history of criminal profiling. It was written back in 2007 but I haven't come across it before. It starts off with a look at some famous profiling success stories and the people who were a part of them. But as it moves along, you begin to realize that those successes are not all they appear to be.

As Gladwell develops his theme, you realize how much of what is going on can be likened to the type of thing that an accomplished "psychic" can do by asking questions and refining their probing based on the answers they receive. When its done well, just about anyone can start to believe that the person is coming up with genuine insights.
Astrologers and psychics have known these tricks for years. The magician Ian Rowland, in his classic "The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading," itemizes them one by one, in what could easily serve as a manual for the beginner profiler. First is the Rainbow Ruse—the "statement which credits the client with both a personality trait and its opposite." ("I would say that on the whole you can be rather a quiet, self effacing type, but when the circumstances are right, you can be quite the life and soul of the party if the mood strikes you.") The Jacques Statement, named for the character in "As You Like It" who gives the Seven Ages of Man speech, tailors the prediction to the age of the subject. To someone in his late thirties or early forties, for example, the psychic says, "If you are honest about it, you often get to wondering what happened to all those dreams you had when you were younger." There is the Barnum Statement, the assertion so general that anyone would agree, and the Fuzzy Fact, the seemingly factual statement couched in a way that "leaves plenty of scope to be developed into something more specific." ("I can see a connection with Europe, possibly Britain, or it could be the warmer, Mediterranean part?") And that's only the start: there is the Greener Grass technique, the Diverted Question, the Russian Doll, Sugar Lumps, not to mention Forking and the Good Chance Guess—all of which, when put together in skillful combination, can convince even the most skeptical observer that he or she is in the presence of real insight.
The article got me thinking about the nature of profiling and certainly raised some interesting questions. In many ways, it mirrors the evolution of the TV show spawned by it. What starts off as a convincing demonstration of some clever insights turn start to look tired and less convincing the more you know about it.

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