This post is going to be shorter than the subject deserves, but I was reading this post about the possible killers on The Killing (I think I may have accidentally found out who the killer was in the original, but luckily the U.S. version may go differently) and thinking again about the issue so many murder mysteries have with characterization. It’s an issue that is forced on them by the format, and it’s as follows: when you have to create a world with a lot of potential murderers, you have to create a whole bunch of characters who “read” the same whether they turn out to be murderers or not.
A murder mystery needs potential suspects, but the trickiest part is not simply finding a reason why each of them might have wanted to kill the dead person, or leaving each one of them without a true alibi. It’s that every one of the suspects must be a plausible murderer, meaning that someone who would never kill anybody – which describes most of the people I have known in my life, even the meanest ones – is not a very useful part of the story. And all the suspects’ actions must make sense if they committed the crime, or if they didn’t. A lot of good drama is about creating very specific characteristics and motivations for characters. In a murder mystery, any potential killer has to be a somewhat vague character, because everything they do must be justified by two very different outcomes. It doesn’t even matter if the creator has already decided that this person isn’t the killer – unless it’s one of those early suspects who obviously didn’t do it. To make the mystery work, most suspects can’t be clearly innocent. So the result is a sort of choose-your-own-adventure characterization. It’s similar to those stories that pull Shocking Twists on you that reveal everything we knew about the character was a lie. That’s fine, and it can work, but it doesn’t make for deep characterization when you have to admit that characterization is so totally subordinate to the plot.
I think this is another reason why murder mystery procedurals, no matter how realistic they may be detail-for-detail, often seem to take place in a strange world that’s nothing like our own. They have to expand the number of potential murderers beyond what that number would be in most cases – not even because real people are so nice, but because real people are squeamish, or channel their rage into alcoholism, or just have alibis that won’t fall apart. The Killing feels a bit more realistic than most such shows because it spreads the mystery and the pool of murderers over a season, where the average mystery show packs several suspects into one 40-minute episode. But it still exists in that Agatha Christie world where the motive and the will to kill is potentially found in every single person. That works as a comment on human nature, but it is of necessity a very stylized portrayal of the world.
There are ways to populate a mystery with interesting characters even if they are suspects, of course. The Killing has several, and other shows use various tricks: one of them is to portray a suspect as a bad guy through and through, and then reveal that he wanted to commit the murder but just didn’t get the chance – so the writers don’t have to construct two completely separate characterizations for him. And I think this is one reason shows are so in love with pinning the murder on some minor character we met early on. It’s not great mystery storytelling, and founded on the belief that we don’t really care about solving it (which NCIS showrunner Shane Brennan, for one, has more or less admitted, saying that audiences care about moments and scenes, not about the plot). But it means they don’t have to work for a great length of screen time to construct a character who is completely believable as a murderer and a non-murderer.
And then there’s Twin Peaks, where the world was completely stylized and the creator didn’t really care who did it anyway. (Update: Or maybe that’s too glib – about not caring who did it, not about the stylization, I mean. See comments.) That’s why comparisons of any long-form mystery show to Twin Peaks are a bit of a, shall I say, red herring.
Finally, with all the murder mysteries on TV, you’d think someone would try finding a way to bring back a form where you don’t need as many plausible suspects – like a Columbo reboot. Granted those stories are very hard to write, but at least you only need two plausible murderers: one who did it, and the person the murderer tries to frame for it. And Columbo already suspects the real murderer from the get-go, allowing the episode to focus on building each guest character as a fixed, set character, not two completely separate characters.