If network TV has taught us anything, it’s that America’s heart and soul reside in its small towns. "The Andy Griffith Show," "Father Knows Best," "Little House on the Prairie" taught us about the frontier spirit that built the nation and the moral clarity that guides it.
Crime, we learned, was entirely urban, a social disease that festered in big cities.
That was before Walter White took us into the New Mexico desert on AMC’s "Breaking Bad"; before Raylan Givens, the Stetson-sporting lawman on FX’s "Justified," gave us a tour of the Kentucky trailer parks where prostitutes and gun dealers ply their trade; before Detective Rustin "Rust" Cohle introduced us to a Louisiana scarred by abandoned factories and polluted waterways in HBO’s stunning masterwork "True Detective."
While the networks continue setting crime shows in New York and Los Angeles, cable channels have introduced a new breed of drama that puts the lie to the notion that violent crimes are fundamentally urban phenomena.
The list of shows is impressive: "The Red Road," which premiered Thursday on SundanceTV (review this page), is about the unlikely partnership of a white cop and a Native American career criminal who live in a tiny mountain town in North Jersey.
"Banshee" on Cinemax is about a convicted jewel thief who cons his way into becoming the sheriff of a small burg in Pennsylvania Dutch country. A&E’s contemporary western "Longmire" features gorgeous horses and even more beautiful Wyoming landscapes. "Rectify" on Sundance is about a convicted rapist and murderer who returns to his small Georgia community after his sentence is suspended. "Sons of Anarchy" on FX tells of the comings and goings in Charming, an ideal Northern California town run by a violent outlaw motorcycle club. And HBO’s eerie, David Lynchian epic "True Detective," stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as detectives who hunt a serial killer through a desolate countryside that’s home to some of America’s poorest, most disenfranchised citizens.
Even "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf has gotten in on the act with "Cold Justice," a reality series about two former big-city law enforcement officials who solve cold cases in small towns across the country.
"It’s a myth that you can move to a small town and leave your windows open and your door unlocked," said "Cold Justice" star Yolanda McClary, a former Las Vegas Police Department detective and crime scene investigator. "But what makes small towns different is the effect violent crime has on the whole community. Everyone knows each other and is connected emotionally."
That crucible effect can make for exciting drama, said "Banshee" cocreator Jonathan Tropper. Set amid Amish farms, the fictional town of Banshee not only has a crook as its top cop; its richest citizen, Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), is an Amish outcast who rules a violent criminal empire.
"It’s so much more horrifying to be confronted with the evil that exists in an otherwise Norman Rockwellian town," Tropper said. "If small towns are the bedrock of America, then it’s like showing that bedrock is riddled with termites."
Cable TV’s focus on rural crime doesn’t reflect a change in crime rates, University of Pennsylvania criminologist Emily Owens said. "Violent crime rates are far higher in urban than suburban and rural areas. And the differences have remained stable" over five decades.
Yet there is a difference in perception: Urban-renewal programs in the 1990s were so successful they captured the media’s attention, Owens said. When the crack epidemic in the inner cities subsided, more headlines were devoted to the meth problem in suburban and rural areas.
Even if they tackle modern problems such as meth, "Breaking Bad" and its sister shows reiterate familiar themes from the Western, said Wyoming author Craig Johnson, whose "Longmire" novels form the basis of the A&E show.