Broadchurch. Image from BBC America.
Neda Semnani,  September 20, 2013

TV Noir: The Saddest Cliche in the World

Broadchurch. Image from BBC America.


Are we witnessing the crystallization of the saddest cliché in the world? With one episode left in the first season of the addictive British series Broadchurch, the audience still doesn’t know who killed young Danny Latimer and time is running out for both the detectives and, at this point in the series, for the writers to wrap this thing up. However, in order for the plot to move along from one suspect to another, the show has fallen into a trap that has plagued many of the best crime dramas on television: When the story gets difficult, television writers rape, molest, or exploit little girls.

Obviously, the writers don’t actually do anything to their young actors, but they do create a world where the sexual exploitation and torture of their youngest, most vulnerable characters are pretty much a given. Indeed, this is happening so often in today’s television programming that the sexual exploitation, rape, and incest of young television characters is sliding dangerously into the realm of the predictable.

It is worth remembering that the rape, abuse, and incest of children and young adults are among the most shocking and horrific crimes in society. In 1974, when Roman Polanski’s Chinatown was released, the final reveal was, and remains, one of the most powerful and horrifying in cinema. “She’s my daughter,” Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn sobs, as Jack Nicholson’s Jake smacks her over and over, “she’s my sister. She’s my sister and my daughter.” One realizes, as the scene unfolds, that its horror isn’t that Dunaway’s character was raped or that that rape happened while she was a teenager, but that she was raped by her father. The distinction is perhaps only important when considering director Polanski’s own sex crime against a thirteen-year-old girl, a stark illustration of how society half-condoned the sexual relationships between middle-aged men and teenaged girls.

Over the past few television seasons, the film noir sensibility that Chinatown paid tribute to has come back, and with gusto. Three examples of the most interesting programs include The Killing (based on the Dutch series Forbrydelsen), Top of the Lake (directed by Jane Campion), and BBC’s Broadchurch.

Each of these modern noir programs has challenged the classic genre trope of the femme fatale. In these shows, there is a female detective who is leading, or helping to lead, the investigation. Excepting Broadchurch, these female protagonists are more broken, troubled, and obsessive than their male counterparts. In Top of the Lake, for example, Det. Robin Griffin, played by Elizabeth Moss, all but misses her mother’s final weeks of life. As Robin’s mother is taking her last breaths, she has to leave her daughter a voicemail to say goodbye. In the second season of The Killing Det. Sarah Linden, played by Mireille Enos, keeps locking her thirteen-year-old son in hotel rooms and leaving him by himself to sweat out a raging fever. Rather than figuring out how to be a good mother to the kid, Linden simply drags him behind her as she devotes herself completely to the case at hand. In Broadchurch, Detective Sargent Ellie Miller, played by Olivia Coleman, spends her days investigating the murder of her friend’s son – an investigation which is laying havoc to her conception of trust, love, safety, and community. Meanwhile, her kind, lovely husband stays home to take care of their new baby and their dodgy ten-year-old son, Tom.

Although these shows have created interesting and flawed female protagonists, these well-crafted, dark detective stories also rely on the sexual abuse and exploitation of young girls to move the story along to such an extent that it feels, at times, gratuitous.

In each of these crimescapes, the audience is introduced to worlds where men, young or old, are not to be trusted around young girls. The central plot point of Top of the Lake, for example, is that the twelve-year-old daughter of the town’s druglord is discovered to be pregnant. She says no one is the father, and she goes missing. After, the audience and the characters learn that not only has the child’s father raped her, but so have many of the most powerful men in town. What’s more, these men have videotaped what they’ve done to her and the town’s other vulnerable children. This poor child has no real depth of character, outside of being a mirror and a target for the horrifying impulses of the show’s grown men. By its end, the girl has the dubious distinction of being the most abused child on television.

This plot point appears again early on in the first season of AMC’s The Killing. The show centers around the murder investigation of a girl named Rosie Larsen. Over two seasons the audience follows along as the trail to Rosie’s killer goes all the way up to the mayor’s office and the heads of the police department. However, before the audience even gets to the public corruption part of the plot, they are first led through the sexual exploitation of a young teenage girl.

In the third episode, “El Diablo,” the detectives discover a video that shows two teenage boys in terrifying costumes taking turns having sex with Rosie’s best friend, Sterling (Kasey Rohl). The boys have carried out some pretty base acts on the girl in a dark basement room at the high school. The room, called the cage, is splattered with blood and the boys leer at the camera as they switch off with her. If the boys faced serious repercussions for this, it happened far off screen.

For most of the first season of Broadchurch, however, the series avoided the sexually-abused child trope, which is laudable in a detective tale that pivots on the murder of a child. Indeed, the series creators play with the audience’s wincing expectation that something sexual must have happened to Danny before he was murdered. Then, after several episodes, there was some relief that the audience wouldn’t have to sit through the graphic and systematic sexual abuse of a child. Indeed, the writers’ restraint felt so unusual, it was almost revolutionary.

Then, in the penultimate episode of the series, the show’s writers ruined everything. The super creepy dogwalking townsperson, Susan Wright, played by Pauline Quirke, admits to the police that she once had a family: two daughters and a husband. For years, her husband, and father to her children, was having sex with her eldest daughter. The daughter retaliated when the father turned his attention to the younger daughter. Father kills older daughter. And Susan finds out about everything following her child’s murder.

It may be old-fashioned to put it this way, but using the rape of a young girl or boy to move the plot of a television series forward feels, well, exploitative. It’s not that we shouldn’t be exposed to the horror of it: bad things happen to children, often to girls, and we don’t talk about it enough. But to use it constantly as another tool of storytelling serves to downplay the real horror. Put another way: every time a young girl is on screen, I don’t want to roll my eyes and simply expect that something horribly sexual or exploitative will follow.

Neda Semnani is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The Week, Los Angeles Review of BooksBuzzfeed, and others.

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