There’s the old joke about “Murder She Wrote,” that Jessica Fletcher lives in this tiny little town called Cabot Cove (population 3560) and yet at least one body shows up in each of over 260 episodes. Germany didn’t suffer losses of that proportion in World War II, and they pissed off Stalin. During the show’s later seasons, J. Michael Straczynski took over as producer of the show several years before he got caught up in all that silly science fiction nonsense about space stations. He moved the show to New York City to jump start its spiraling ratings, and to at least partially assuage the statistically minded that in such a large city, Fletcher’s weekly blood sating might be a bit less obvious.
Of course, New York City is still the go-to city for police procedurals. At this point, three-fourths of all Americans could probably draw you a fairly decent map of Manhattan’s downtown, along with x’s to mark where they’d heard one could hide bodies most successfully. Hell, if you asked Americans where the most dangerous place to be after dark in the country is, the top three responses would probably be Compton, “my house,” and Central Park. The funny thing is that since the collapse of crime rates in the early 1990s after the harrowing years of the crack epidemic, New York City has actually become one of the safest cities in the country, now having only the 136th highest crime rate among American cities and the lowest of the ten with the highest population.
So how does the murder rate of New York City on television compare to its murder rate in reality?
Let’s focus in on only the procedurals that are set in New York City proper from the 2009-2010 television season, and in particular those that focus on violent crime: “Law and Order,” “Law and Order Criminal Intent,” “Castle,” “CSI:NY,” and “Law and Order SVU.” We’d pick up a few more bodies if we included other shows set in New York City with an occasional death, but overall it probably wouldn’t throw much of a wrench in this back of the envelope calculation. Here’s the number of episodes and murders on each of these shows during that season:
“Law and Order Criminal Intent” 16 episodes, 18 homicides
“Castle” 24 episodes, 24 homicides
“Law and Order” 23 episodes, 28 homicides
“CSI: NY” 23 episodes, 25 homicides
“Law and Order SVU” 24 episodes, 23 homicides
That comes out to a total of 118 homicides in New York City during the 2009-2010 television season. How’s that compare to reality? Well, numbers are kept per calendar year instead of television year, but in 2009 there were 466 murders in New York City.
But that’s a little misleading, since that’s for all the boroughs and it’s quite clear (at least in the Law and Order universe, I’m not sure about “Castle” and “CSI: NY”) that the jurisdiction of the police on the shows is restricted to Manhattan. I recall several instances of “Law and Order” in which linked murders in the Bronx or Queens had to be addressed through their respective police departments. Which means that the proper comparison number isn’t the number for New York City overall, but Manhattan specifically.
The number of murders in real Manhattan in 2009? 59.
Yes, there are actually twice as many murders being committed in fictional Manhattan on network television as there are happening each year in real Manhattan.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.