Recently, I have been enjoying the television drama “Longmire” through my Netflix streaming service. Longmire is a good show, set in the fictional Wyoming county of Absaroka within its principle (also fictional) town of Durant. Featuring interesting and complex characters, the series engages the viewer in a way that is peculiar to television—giving us people and places we come to know and love over a long period of time.
Unlike a film that dazzles and can create lifetime memories during the two hours or so it commands our attention (how many of us remember vividly and still quote lines from The Princess Bride?), a television series can be a slow addiction, comfortable as a neighborhood watering hole.
If only the writers and producers would credit audiences with interest in the ordinary dramas of life! Notwithstanding that the setting is one of law enforcement—the show’s eponymous title refers to Sheriff Longmire, who is surrounded at work by three deputies, Vic, Branch, and Ferg (each important characters) and secretary Ruby, and in his off hours by best friend Henry Standing Bear, grown daughter, Cady, and a handful of other characters. As in life, sometimes these characters cross the lines of work and leisure, making them the more interesting for it. Not to mention the gorgeous landscapes of New Mexico subbing for Wyoming, and the fascinating mix of cultures old and new: cowboys and high tech mining; horses and SUVs; Native Americans on the “res” and in swanky offices; tribal customs by the fire and golf practice from the mountaintops…the list is endless and provokes the most compelling cultural tensions I’ve seen since Witness.
But no, the show’s writers feel that human drama among this ensemble and the ordinary affairs of back country law enforcement on and off the res are not enough and instead produce a gruesome murder in almost every episode.
Having reached the halfway point of Season 2, and observing that the Longmire murder rate continues apace, it occurred to me that this sparsely populated corner of the Western United States has a murder rate that would put Honduras and Guatemala to shame.
According to the most recent data (2012), the annual murder rate in the U.S. is approximately 4.7 murders per 100,000 people. In the state of Wyoming, the rate is about half the national average, at 2.4 per 100,000. So for a weekly series to feature a murder per episode, i.e., something on the order of 52 murders per year, you would need a population of approximately 2.1 million, or roughly four times the state of Wyoming’s entire population, never mind one rural county.
Stuff and nonsense. No wonder the U.S. has such a reputation for guns and violence. Between news media and television fiction, it’s all we project. Nor am I convinced that it is necessary for ratings. Eventually, even viewers who want to suspend disbelief and enjoy the show might find the body count more laughable than dramatic.
To my way of thinking, the Longmire writers should consider peering over the transom at a comedy series, Brooklyn 99, for inspiration on how to write a great law enforcement show. Though admittedly a comedy that isn’t trying to engage with tense music, dramatic scenes, and impressive scenery, Brooklyn 99 depicts law enforcement activity we can believe is real. Actual murders are few and far between—and this is in a borough of the country’s largest city. Yet when we see the law enforcement moments between comedic lines, it is done with an equal or greater amount of entertainment value. How? Because it feels real, and we rejoice in both the comedy and dramas of human existence.
These writers know that while viewers may think they are interested in plot, it’s rarely true—or at least rarely important enough to either retain or discourage a television audience. We consume episodic television for its characters. Plot is simply an excuse for characters to act a certain way, and daily life may cause them to act with equal or far greater intensity. Longmire’s most dramatic moments involve friendship, traditions, family, personal sacrifice, and true love. Did anyone mention The Princess Bride?