Haunting Crime: the Gothic, the Grotesque and the Paranormal
Yvonne Tasker / University of East Anglia

The X-Files, Screen Capture

The X-Files

“There is a paranormal turn in popular culture,” writes Annette Hill, a turn which for her encompasses both popular beliefs and popular cultural texts. ((Annette Hill, Paranormal Media: Audiences, Spirits and Magic in Popular Culture, Routledge, New York, 2011, p.1.)) Perhaps it goes without saying, but crime television has a longstanding relationship to both the Gothic and the paranormal—after all murder, death and ideas of evil are central to the genre. For decades both sociological perspectives and procedural conventions have framed crime television in terms of realism, emphasising the ways in which the genre involves contemporary concerns of surveillance or deals with societal perceptions of crime, deviance and danger in a risk society. A preoccupation with realism certainly makes sense for thinking about much crime television, with its delineation of evidence and motive, its exposure of brutal social forces set against the more mundane everyday qualities discerned through the interaction of professionals under pressure. The genre’s evocation of modern urban life with its marked class divisions and racial inequalities certainly speaks to social realities, making these crucial questions for an analysis of crime television. Yet preoccupations with realism have a tendency to occlude discussions of style, as if realism were unmarked by conventions even when we know—as critics and students—that this is not so. In what Derek Kompare’s analysis might deem a particular sort of CSI-effect, style has forcefully re-emerged in scholarly work on crime over the last decade. ((Kompare astutely argues that the “’CSI-effect’ is itself a media production” and that it is over all within television that the show has had most obvious effects. Derek Kompare, CSI, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, p.81.)) In this context it may also be worth thinking about connections between crime and the highly stylised traditions of the Gothic.

Criminal Minds, screen capture

Criminal Minds

Where such connections are discussed, there is a tendency to loop back to literature and to the rich Gothic heritage of crime fiction. Television crime may have a shorter history, but it too has a striking repertoire of Gothic texts on which to draw. Two rather different, yet equally quirky (and at times distinctly arty) hybrid shows of the 1990s stand out as foregrounding crime’s Gothic intertexts: Twin Peaks [1990-91] and The X-Files [1993-2002]. These shows have been extensively discussed for their distinctive evocation of elements drawn from crime, horror, noir, melodrama as well as soap and science-fiction. However culturally visible and even influential these shows have proven to be, they are also both marked by the seeming difficulty of drawing them into accounts of crime television as a genre. My guess is that this has to do with the long time association of crime television with the police drama series and its characteristic realist aesthetic (so that the 1990s is the decade of Law and Order [1990-2010], Homicide [1993-99] and NYPD: Blue [1993-2005]). Through the 2000s however, crime television has not only proliferated but is also far less wedded to the urban squad room. With shows focused on special units, private investigators and scientific advisors, crime television is plainly a space that exceeds any one genre even while it remains absolutely generic. Gothic tropes provide one of several ways into the historical development different contemporary crime genres.

Ghost Whisperer

Ghost Whisperer

Helen Wheatley writes that “Gothic television is visually dark, with a mise-en-scene dominated by drab and dismal colours, shadows and closed-in spaces.” ((Helen Wheatley, Gothic Television, Manchester University Press, p.3.)) Gothic tropes feature in crime television in two distinct ways. Firstly, there is the presence of explicitly supernatural or paranormal elements within crime or investigative shows. Obvious examples would be vampire crime television (the crime fighters of Angel [1999-2004], Blood Ties [2007], Forever Knight [1992-96] or Moonlight [2007-8]) and psychic crime or mystery shows such as Ghost Whisperer [2005-10] or Medium [2005-] in which visions and/or communication with the dead initiate and are central to the development of the investigative plot. (Evidentially there is an intriguing, if rather predictable, gendered dimension to these examples with male vampire crime fighters figuring the supernatural in somewhat different terms to female psychics.) ((Diane Negra has remarked on the inscription of male vampires as “safe erotic objects” who are represented within popular culture as “less likely to commit crimes than to solve them.” “Television’s Vampire Detectives,” paper presented to Society of Cinema and Media Studies Conference, Los Angeles 2010.)) On the other hand there is crime television’s widespread use of macabre, Gothic imagery—particularly the low key lighting and expressionist aesthetic associated with gothic film—a phenomenon that has attracted attention through the bodily fascinations foregrounded in forensic crime television (a mode that foregrounds the scientific not the paranormal). The grotesque and macabre is a presence even in crime shows which tend towards a very different aesthetic, with the figure of the serial killer – imagined as a sort of artist, staging darkly elaborate crime scenes – as one linchpin. (Criminal Minds [2005-], CSI [2000-] and Dexter [2006-] have all deployed Gothic tropes to visualise the serial killer and his/her crimes but so has a realist show such as Law and Order). Interestingly, crime shows premised on the supernatural do not necessarily deploy a Gothic aesthetic. For example, Warehouse 13 [2009-] which clearly trades off The X-Files while playing for comic effect in its characterisation of Secret Service agents ambivalent in their assignment to the policing of supernatural artifacts. We might also contrast the very different style of psychic shows Medium and Ghost Whisperer, the latter redolent with Gothic imagery while the former is more conventional in its styling.

Cold Case

Cold Case

In their discussion of Dexter, Simon Brown and Stacey Abbott suggest that Gothic is in many ways a culturally acceptable term for talking about horror. While there may well be an argument to be made about terminology and cultural value (witness the mobilisation of “noir” as a designator of quality in the context of potentially sensationalistic subject matter), the Gothic brings together a sense of darkness and dread with the evocation of social disruption which stretches from the uncanny to the overtly paranormal. It is here we might productively situate a crime show like Cold Case [2003-10] in relation to the Gothic. Cold Case showcases cop Lily Rush’s heightened intuitive sense which allows a sort of resurrection of the dead, amidst a stirring up and re-staging of past events. In this, Cold Case couples a generic staple of crime television—the investigator, often though not always female, who is haunted by the past—to the uncanny juxtaposition of past and present and the uncovering of secrets so characteristic of the Gothic. The connections between American crime television and the Gothic reside as much in the uncanny ability of the investigator to uncover such secrets, as in explicitly grotesque imagery. This uncanny intuition is the insistent premise not only of Cold Case’s Rush but also of Detective Goren in Law & Order: Criminal Intent [2001-]. As Wheatley argues, the Gothic turns on the domestic; if crime television is more often thought of as dealing with the public world—as its defining preoccupation with themes of law and justice would suggest—the genre’s use of Gothic tropes allows a blurring of the official and the intimate concerns of the domestic. It is through such strategies that crime television suggests and exploits the haunting presence of personal pain in the disciplinary structures of public morality.

Image Credits:

1. The X-Files, screen capture provided by author
2. Criminal Minds, screen capture provided by author
3. The Ghost Whisperer
4. Cold Case

Please feel free to comment.




Action Television/Crime Television: Sensation and Attraction
Yvonne Tasker / University of East Anglia

csi explosion

Screen Capture: CSI Miami, Episode 88

For decades action was a defining feature of television crime series – hit shows of the 1960s and 70s such as the recently remade Hawaii Five-O (1968-80), or Starsky and Hutch (1976-9) routinely exploited the exhilarating pleasures of the action sequence, whether in the form of car chases and shoot-outs, explosions, fights or scenes of urban pursuit. The credit sequences for these action-oriented crime shows featured spectacle of all kinds: explosive, urban, natural and sexual (whether the characteristic cut-ins of nameless erotic dancers and bikini-clad women or, on occasion, the male cop characters). Rapid montage sequences juxtapose guns, ocean waves, and movement – of cars and cops – while rock derived soundtracks set a pace characterised by energy. As this capsule description suggests, spectacular scenery is a staple of many action-oriented crime shows. While Hawaii-set Magnum PI (1980-88) and Miami Vice (1984-1989) each had a distinct look, both made use of spectacular landscapes just as CSI Miami (2002–), the credit sequence of which features a craft racing across Florida wetlands, does today. Yet I’m struck by how rarely scholarship on crime television takes account of action or even spectacle as significant features of the genre. Of course crime is intensely narrative driven. But we need a language to talk about these dimensions of contemporary crime programming, quite as much as we need one to discuss the distinctive narrative emphasis of crime drama –- the deductive processes of the procedural, for example, with its emphasis on the reconstruction of events; forensic formats which centre on laboratory work and feature sidebar explanations of techniques and phenomena; or specialist units with their employment of particular knowledge and skills.

NCIS Man

Screen Capture: NCIS, Episode 8-1

From a position of relative neglect, action cinema has been pretty extensively theorised in recent years. Action television, by contrast, has less often been named and discussed as such. Can some of the themes explored in action cinema studies help us make sense of action on television, and particularly what I’m foregrounding here, action as a distinctive yet neglected aspect of crime television? I’d argue so, but the process is also a two-way one, not least since there has been a high degree of exchange between televisual and cinematic action forms. For example, while the intensely paced editing of the action sequence – and the action film as effectively an extended action sequence – is described by Eric Lichtenfeld as a characteristic of 1990s movies, a development signified by the distinctive authorial presence of Michael Bay, a show like Miami Vice had already been associated with what some critics termed an MTV aesthetic. ((Eric Lichtenfeld, Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle and the American Action Movie, Wesleyan University Press, 2007)) The show’s signature use of rock music and montage garnered both praise and blame; as James Lyons notes in his study of the series: “It is perhaps no coincidence that all the deficiencies cited by critics in relation to Miami Vice were also key attributes of the action-adventure genre, foremost of which was an emphasis on style and spectacle at the expense of ‘literary sophistication’”. ((James Lyons, Miami Vice, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, pp.34-5)) Action rarely – if at all – receives the designation quality television, but crime more frequently does. Lyons notes how Miami Vice was compared by contemporary critics to ensemble cop show Hill Street Blues (1981-87), and found wanting.

Hawaii Five-O Wave

Screen Capture: Hawaii Five-O Opening Sequence

The relationship between narrative and spectacle alluded to here has been a significant focus in scholarship on action cinema and has, I would argue, a definite purchase for action television. Far from being extraneous to the development of the narrative or themes of the action film, critics have noted how the spectacular action sequence is intimately and even intricately bound up with these elements. (( Geoff King makes this point well in his Spectacular Narratives: Hollywood in the Age of the Blockbuster, I.B. Taruis, 2000. See also my editor’s introduction to Action and Adventure Cinema, Routledge, 2004.)) If crime in the 1990s was often procedural in character, foregrounding narrative processes of detection, both action and what I term here sensation seem central to crime as a genre as it has developed over the last decade: from the explicitly action-based formats such as NCIS (2003–) with its military context, explosions, chases and espionage-informed gunplay, to the spectacular forensic procedurals of which CSI is the forerunner (here we find an aesthetic which foregrounds effects work, exploiting sound and image to generate television spectacle, as Lisa Coutlhard recently suggested in her FLOW essay on CSI Miami’s use of montage sequences). (( Lisa Coulthard, “We’re gonna need a montage: musical cliché and the CSI franchise, FLOW, September 10th 2010, http://flowjournal.org/2010/09/gonna-need-a-montage )) As this suggests, the broad generic umbrella of crime drama provides a context for contemporary action-oriented shows as well as for series that make extensive use of the strategies associated with action: for example, dynamic movement within the confines of the screen; montage exploited to convey urgency; the particular temporal quality achieved by the rapid cutting together of still images. In the 2000s, action-heavy shows such as 24 (2001-10) or NCIS: Los Angeles (2009–) nonetheless serve as recognisable variants of crime – featuring what are effectively squad rooms as recurrent sets, coupled with the sort of high-tech equipment showcased in now familiar forensic formats. To some degree this is down to the collapsing together of – or at least mutual exchange between – espionage and crime formats in proliferating specialist units linked to themes of homeland security. That is, these developments have a lot to do with the way that television genres combine and evolve, suggesting just how expansive crime television is today.

NCIS LA

Screen Capture: NCIS: Los Angeles

Action sequences are a recurrent element of these shows, underpinning an aesthetic of spectacle which in turn seems to respond to technological innovations in image quality. Tom Gunning’s account of the cinema of attractions foregrounds the discrete elements of cinematic spectacle gathered together in an early exhibition context – both he and subsequent critics have speculated on the potential connections between such an early cinema of attractions and more recent action and adventure cinema. Gunning evokes the film as rollercoaster ride, referencing filmmakers such as Spielberg and Lucas; in action television, producers Donald P. Bellisario and Jerry Bruckheimer are proponents of such exhilarating spectacular work.

NCISLA 4

Screen Capture: NCIS: Los Angeles Season 4

A televisual model of attraction takes us so far with action-oriented crime, underlining the significance of sequences and effects that are not firmly tied to – or perhaps exceed – the necessities of narrative development (after all, this is a genre geared around investigation in one form or another). Sensation suggests different nuances to attraction which seem useful for thinking about action-oriented crime. The centrality of effects work – and particularly the work of sound – in achieving both the power of the cinematic action sequence and the visceral qualities of the much-discussed televisual CSI-shot is suggestive. Sensation captures not only the formal emphasis on speed and explosive imagery, but also the sensationalist aspects of these forms – this is evident in the staging of crime scenes and corpses, perhaps the genre’s most marked connection to an earlier era of grotesque attractions.

Image Credits:

1. CSI Miami
2. NCIS
3. Hawaii Five-O
4. NCIS: Los Angeles
5. NCIS: Los Angeles, Season 4

Please feel free to comment.




Meet the Dead – Live!: Paranormal Programming

Most Haunted

Most Haunted

With roots in the nineteenth century, spritualism has long been a feature of the European and US landscape, bridging intimate experiences of loss and public spectacle. The sorts of personal connection and intimacies exploited by spiritualism seem in some ways quite at odds with the constitution of television as a mass medium. And yet the marked success of paranormal programming in recent years suggests a broad compatibility between the intensity of personal recognition (a lost loved one; distant family members trying to communicate, albeit for no apparent reason) and the experience of watching TV. In fact, although TV exploits interest in the paranormal and spirituality in a number of ways, the staging of personalised connection with a formerly known individual is relatively rare. Rather, it is the spectacle of communicating with the dead, whether as religious affirmation or source of ghost story shocks that predominates.

Paranormal programming has thrived on various niche channels, with Living TV's Most Haunted by far the most popular and high profile UK example to date. The team explore a series of supposedly haunted locations by day and night. Regular and guest mediums are brought in (supposedly with no foreknowledge of the location) and narrate their sense of the past and haunting presence of these locations. Titles and Yvette Fielding's voiceover provide us with historical information about the settings, enabling the audience to judge whether the mediums are getting “hits” or “misses” in their reading of their surroundings (and thus effectively placing us in a comparable position to the audience members at spiritualist meetings or live mediumship). Like Crossing Over with John Edward (Sci Fi Channel, 2000-2004), Most Haunted has been hit by accusations of fakery.1 Even so, it remains a consistent ratings success with the main series supplemented by live specials and behind the scenes extras. Medium Derek Acorah (star of series 1-6) may have been “exposed” in British newspaper The Mirror,2 but his celebrity has not noticeably waned (his post-Most Haunted endeavour, Derek Acorah's Ghost Towns, has completed a second series).

Both Acorah and Edward are celebrity mediums, charismatic figures whose persona forms a significant part of their performance. Celebrity features as an attraction in other paranormal shows too such as I'm Famous and Frightened (Living, 2004-5), a “Big Brother” variant featuring a cast of minor celebrities locked in a spooky location, facing challenges and eviction, or Dead Famous (Living, 2004–) in which “sceptic” presenter Gail Porter and “psychic” Chris Fleming search various locations for contact with deceased stage and screen celebrities.

What is perhaps most striking about Most Haunted is the show's effective presentation of the paranormal as entertainment, engaging in but also rendering redundant (at least partially) the opposition of sceptic and believer that structures much media coverage of the paranormal. This is not to say that the program is not premised on belief in the paranormal: it clearly is, despite the presence of a parapsychologist figure intent on scrutinising the team's observations and experiences. Yet as entertainment Most Haunted requires no such belief. At a formal level the show exploits horror and documentary/reality TV conventions, from the close, infrared photography and skilful editing (including multiple repetition of key moments) to the soundtrack with its atmospheric music and ambient sound, and, crucially, the performance of the cast, notably the screams of presenter and executive producer Yvette Fielding and the “possessions” experienced by Acorah (and occasionally other cast members). Even the positions of “sceptic” and “believer” are generically familiar, notably enacted in the hugely successful 1990s series The X-Files (Fox, 1993-2002).

Most Haunted functions as a hybrid mystery/reality entertainment, deploying spooky camerawork and shock effects in sensationalist style. While the show's legitimacy is certainly a question (the Mirror expose suggested that producer/presenters Fielding and Karl Beattie faked responses, noises and even pushed other crew members to evoke fear/interest), Most Haunted is unfettered by the accusations of poor taste (centred on the attempt to exploit the personal grief of audience members) that critics levelled at John Edward's show.3 The night time “vigils” and “investigations” offer the pleasure of fear and the spectacle of “possession” at several removes; repeated images of fearful faces peering in the dark, the sound of bleeps signalling the jumpiness of Fielding et al (“what the **** was that?” she cries with regularity) are all now familiar markers of mystery.

Cast of Most Haunted

Cast of Most Haunted


Television's paranormal programming crosses a variety of genres, encompassing documentary, reality, talk-shows, travel and crime formats as well as the more immediately receptive generic sites of mystery and science-fiction. That Most Haunted has played on the Travel Channel in the US indicates how effectively it employs its historic and atmospheric locations, for instance. Other paranormal shows link the sort of ghoulish fascination with crime evident in Most Haunted (murder is a particular focus, unsurprisingly) with procedural variants
of crime TV. Hence the New Zealand production Sensing Murder (2006) in which psychics and private investigators work on unsolved crimes.

We can note a further generic connection between the paranormal and crime in highly produced US dramas such as Tru Calling (Fox, 2003-4), Medium (NBC, 2005–) and Ghost Whisperer (CBS, 2005–). These last all centre on strong female leads who speak to the dead (the CBS series Joan of Arcadia [2003-5] has its youthful protagonist speak to God). Indeed I'm tempted to speculate that paranormal programming is founded on the female audience (scheduling, sponsorship and casting underline the centrality of the female demographic), but this seems
altogether too reductive. Gender is certainly an issue however, with a number of paranormal shows both targeting women and exploiting longstanding associations between femininity and spirituality (a series like Charmed [WB, 1998-2006] does this in a very different way, as several feminist critics have noted4).

The young women of Medium or Ghost Whisperer define themselves in traditionally feminine terms of their relationship to others (mother, wife) and as participants within a male-oriented setting or genre (crime TV). Such strategies are reminiscent of many other female-oriented crime/investigative fictions such as Close to Home, discussed recently in Flow5. In contrast to the male celebrity mediums of reality TV (Edward, Acorah), these dramas emphasise the connected ordinariness of women as mediums or as acutely (uncannily) intuitive figures. The “tabloid knowledge”6 which suggests a particular connection between women and the paranormal is comically explicit in the shortlived Canadian show The Girly Ghosthunters (2004) in which the team's spiritualist/program making “skills” (“spirit summoner Nicole, photographer Corrie, spirit communicator Dana and history aficionado Jen”) and teenage laughter compete for dominance. The show's website invokes Buffy and Scooby Doo (a show which still manages to scare my kids senseless), describing the series as “a campy, entertaining romp on a genre that often portrays girls as weak and scared.”7 In this context, Yvette Fielding's contradictory command (as executive producer and confrontational presenter of Most Haunted) and hysteria (perpetually and comically terrified at the slightest sound on location) seems as telling as the shows (highly lucrative) unexplained phenomena.

Notes:
1 For a discussion of strategies used on Edward's show see Leon Jaroff, “Talking to the Dead” Time 157:9, 3/5/01
2“Spooky Truth: TV's Most Haunted Con Exposed” 10.28.05.
www.mirror.co.uk
3Edward reportedly taped segments he which he contacted victims of the 9/11 attacks, although these were not aired. Lisa de Moraes, “Medium Crosses The Line: WTC Segment Canned” Washington Post 10.26.01 C01.
4On girls and magic in general see Rachel Moseley, “Glamorous witchcraft: gender and magic in teen film and television.” Screen 43 (4) 2002, 403-422; on Charmed see Hannah Sanders “Living a Charmed Life: The Magic of Postfeminist Sisterhood” in Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra (eds) Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, forthcoming 2007, Duke University Press.
5Diane Negra, “Trauma Time: Family, Community and Criminality in Close to Home” Flow Vol 3, Issue 9
6I'm thinking here of what Kevin Glynn terms “tabloid incredulity toward official knowledges,” Tabloid Culture: Trash Taste, Popular Power and the Transformation of American Television, Durham, Duke University Press, 2000 (69).
7http://www.thegirlyghosthunters.com/website/index.html

Image Credits:

1. Most Haunted

2. Cast of Most Haunted

Please feel free to comment.




Enforced Talk: Crime and Confessional in Family Forensics

Family Forensics
Cast of Family Forensics

That families form a recurrent site of violence and disruption is a cliché shared by crime and reality television. Both come to mind when viewing LivingTV's Family Forensics, a UK version of the show originally produced for the Fox network by A&E. The show combines two familiar genres: crime shows driven by “expert” knowledge (forensics, profiling), and the confessional mode favoured by a number of lifestyle formats. US Crime drama (CSI reruns; Criminal Minds; Close to Home) and lifestyle shows (Extreme Makeover) are both prominent features of LivingTV's schedule, making the choice to adapt Family Forensics for a UK audience seem logical. I certainly wouldn't claim there is anything particularly new here, nor that Family Forensics is culturally central. What intrigues me about its particular form of genre hybridity is the ways in which it speaks to the connections between seemingly quite distinct programme traditions and pleasures.

The format unfolds as follow: each episode sees a family dispatched for the weekend while a team of experts pick over their home and possessions. The family are fingerprinted, must hand over their phones and provide samples of hair for comparison. Should partners/teens attempt to smuggle evidence out of the family home, now designated a “crime scene,” their bags are searched and personal items confiscated before they are packed off into a limousine. The home as crime scene is searched and the resulting “evidence” used to build a profile with which the family is confronted in the final part of the show, a perverse version of the “reveal” that serves as the makeover's climax. Interview inserts feature the participants commenting on their reactions to the experience and the experts' revelations. Ultimately it is suggested that revealing the family's hidden secrets is a healthy activity, the therapeutic rhetoric of self-discovery and openness presenting a rationale for voyeurism.

The Family Forensics team consists of a forensic scientist, a relationship therapist and a private detective, ensuring the effective combination of disciplinary regimes associated with law enforcement and the sort of public counselling familiar from talk shows. The show's revelations are banal more often than they are shocking, necessitating repeated teasers that rarely deliver: is the eldest son gay? (no, he isn't); has mum had an affair? (no, and the accusation is no secret); are the teens sexually active? (usually). Despite the state of the art mobile crime lab which appears on the scene like a removals truck, the most recurrent “crime” identified by the programme is the failure to communicate. Indeed that failure underpins the show's whole rationale since it depends on one member (typically the mother) nominating the family for scrutiny. One mum, who seems to realize pretty late in the day that the investigative process has implications for her too, explains that she “wanted them [her two teenage children] to be able to talk to me.” Since the children are not talking to their parents, Family Forensics offers enforced talk – on TV.

Family Forensics color

Family Forensics team goes through family’s belongings

The iconic signs of crime television (the yellow crime scene tape; the suited up forensic expert; the detective sifting documents) are all mobilized to enforce talk. The awkwardness of Family Forensics, the gut-churning embarrassment as intimate webchats, mobile phone pornography and stained bedding are paraded not only in front of siblings and parents but on television, has to do precisely with this coerced intimacy. As Martin Roberts argues in relation to the BBC's What Not to Wear, the conventions of crime television (surveillance, line ups, seizure and confiscation) have already been effectively deployed in makeover shows. The combination of bullying and therapy that characterizes What Not to Wear lays the ground for a show like Family Forensics, the latter promising to uncover the truth in the name of both sensational entertainment (“Every family keeps secrets from each other, but in this show they're about to be exposed…”) and redemptive talk (the insistent offer of counselling at each episode's end).

The tropes of guilt, crime and punishment associated with crime TV might seem to be at odds with the successful lifestyle formula of consumption / surgery as redemptive. Yet lifestyle television in both the US and UK routinely brings the two together in a fantasy of disciplined family life centred on the perceived need to regulate public and private selves. Thus the investment in discipline which Laurie Oullette identifies as a defining feature of “Nanny TV” and which is manifest in the punitive subtexts of shows like Brat Camp and That'll Teach 'Em (in which contemporary kids are subjected to a 1950s style education).

Of course the teens featured in Family Forensics are talking, though not necessarily to their parents: revelations typically focus on text messages, video phone images and recovered online chat (for instance, the revelation that one teenage daughter had been engaged in late night webchats with someone describing himself as a 56 year old man). The process emphasizes the transitional status of teens: not children but not yet adults, they have no option but to sit and take it (younger children are either excluded from the process or asked to leave the room when particularly salacious revelations – such as the display of their parents' sex toys – are imminent).

Reality TV thrives on viewer/participant hierarchies, on our incredulity and delight at others willingness to reveal their vulnerability, weakness or even avarice on television's intimate public stage. The most immediate response to Family Forensics (as indeed other lifestyle shows) is to ask why anyone would volunteer for this show: the edge is of course that most of the participants have not volunteered. They think they are going on a holiday programme (the participating family does at least win/earn a holiday in the UK version). Like the kids on Wife Swap (a reality format which crossed the Atlantic in the other direction), the partners, children and teens forced to take part on Family Forensics are instead subjected to an unwelcome scrutiny. The contradictory imagery that sees “ordinary” families first designated as suspects and then rewarded with treats (champagne, family time at a spa or swanky hotel), represents a telling evocation of the trading of public humiliation for low level luxury items and experiences that characterise lifestyle television.

These conflicts are particularly acute in the final segment, which sees presenter Jayne Middlemiss and the team's relationship therapist confronting the family. The crime scene metaphor begins to give way to revelation and reflection, but the process is deeply uneasy, underlining the generic mismatch on which the show is premised. The teams “profiles” lead to embarrassment, comedy, emotion and explanations/new revelations. Part of the pleasure of these scenes stems from the participant's ability to defend themselves against normative moralizing (asked, “Do you like porn?” one participant replies with admirable understatement: “I'm a sixteen year old boy”). But these scenarios don't always bring the emotional closure so valued by lifestyle genres: what does a family do with a step-dad's admissions that he likes but does not love the kids sitting
next to him? Or how do we respond (emotionally, politically) to the way in which a mother's admission of her desire for a lesbian encounter leads to the revelation of her childhood experience of abuse? It is a notable feature of the episodes aired thus far that, as in this instance, the most significant revelations relate to the person who nominated the family for the process in the first place: it is mum who wanted to talk and be heard. The conventions and certainties of crime and investigation – profiling, questioning, evidence – and enforced talk here cede to the confessional. And as much as the family is portrayed as a site of disruption and stalled communication, the fantasy of connection and intimacy remains intact.

Image Credits:

1. Family Forensics cast

2. Family Forensics team

Please feel free to comment.