How Realistic Is Your Favorite Crime Show?

Who doesn’t love a procedural drama? Whether you’re hooked on Law & Order: SVU or prefer Criminal Minds, these TV shows present a deeply satisfying narrative. There’s the sensationalism of the crime, the hard work and camaraderie of the crime-fighting team, and then the satisfaction of seeing the criminal brought to justice.

But how accurate are these shows? And do they give us a skewed understanding of how the criminal justice system works?


Romantic tension between our favorite characters is one of the most compelling reasons to keep coming back to a long-running TV show. But in real life, fraternizing with your partner–or your boss–could be a problem. At the very least, pursuing a relationship with a coworker would mean disclosing it to a supervisor.

Lab Results

The sad truth is that most law enforcement labs are overwhelmed with a backlog of tests. On TV, DNA tests come through in hours–or even less. And usually the results pop up at the most dramatic moment.

In addition, the cutting-edge technology we see on TV is light years ahead of the real thing. Many police departments struggle with funding for updated technology.

Criminal Profiling

Thanks to 15 years of Criminal Minds, we’re all convinced that we could spot a serial killer with a few behavioral cues. Criminal profiling isn’t nearly as common in real life as it is on TV.

In addition, forensic psychologists aren’t typically in the field. They do more of their work in an office or interview room–but who wants to watch 45 minutes of that?

Circumstantial Evidence

In cop shows and courtroom dramas alike, characters bemoan the fact that they only have circumstantial evidence. The idea is that without an iron-clad forensic case, the bad guy will get away with it.

However, circumstantial evidence is much more common in a courtroom setting than direct evidence. If circumstantial evidence was as worthless as network TV seemed to believe, no one would ever get convicted.

Firing a Gun

It seems like TV law enforcement offers are constantly getting into firefights. In the real world, drawing–let alone firing–a weapon should be the officer’s last resort. In addition, discharging your weapon requires a ton of paperwork and oversight.

Sure, it’s more dramatic to have a shoot-out with the bad guys at the end of an episode. But the way law enforcement is depicted on TV can have an impact on real-life norms.