Why Most TV Detectives Don't Have Powers

The Listener has gotten such terrible reviews (deservedly) that it seems pointless to kick it while it’s down, but it does answer a question that’s sometimes raised: why are there so many characters on TV who kinda sorta have unearthly abilities (like the Mentalist and the Lie to Me Guy) but so few who go all the way and have actual supernatural abilities? It isn’t just because networks don’t want the shows to be typed as fantasy/sci-fi. It’s also because, when your lead character has supernatural powers and nobody else on the show does, the show winds up tying itself in knots trying to come up with plausible conflicts for this absurdly powerful character.

Put it this way: if a real guy had the ability to read people’s minds, then he would solve every crime pretty easily. To create plots where this kind of power will not enable the lead character to solve crimes in three seconds, a show has to a) Set up situations where he should be able to use his powers, but doesn’t, b) Confuse us as to what he can and can’t do at any particular moment, c) Make him unusually ungrateful and whiny about his amazing gift.

The supernatural shows that work usually give the character more tightly-limited powers, so that they can only get a clue or a hint (this is what Pushing Daisies, Medium and Ghost Whisperer among others do) or give the supernatural hero equally supernatural antagonists, so it’s a fair fight. Then there’s the supernatural comedy, where everything the hero does will backfire in some way and good old-fashioned non-supernatural thinking will be required to save the day. But give us a character who is unusually powerful and unusually unimaginative at using his power, and you wind up with the mystery-show equivalent of Alexandra Cabot. Not a good thing.

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