“Forensic Files” debuted in 1996 and had an impact on our culture (and me) that’s still felt today. This extremely well-produced, fact-based documentary that reveals how forensics have solved every conceivable mystery — from accidents to illness to murder — was not only one of the inspirations for the “CSI” franchise, but if I’m any kind of example, it was also the gateway drug for a genre that would eventually become popular enough to sustain its own network.
When it was still called “Medical Detectives” and aired on TLC, I came across the show not long after it debuted, and was immediately hooked. But not out of some grisly detective-magazine-desire to wallow in a sordid and exploitative examination of the human condition. Quite the opposite. The appeal of the show is that executive producer Paul Dowling turned all of that completely on its head.
While “Forensic Files” doesn’t shy away from the grisly details of the crimes examined, those details are presented clinically and only when necessary as story points. Because that’s what the show really is — a story – a compelling, frequently chilling, half-hour piece of dramatic storytelling with heroes, villains, a mystery, and a satisfying conclusion.
That doesn’t mean the bad guys are always brought to justice or even tracked down. But within the first 90 seconds, each episode hooks you and never lets go. And without fail, the characters are as compelling as the story itself.
With humanity and compassion — whether they’re prostitutes, drug addicts, or Snow White — we meet the victim and the loved ones that person has (usually) left behind. Without romanticizing them in any way, we also meet the villain. But best of all, we meet the determined, caring, resourceful, and professional members of our judicial system who hunt (sometimes for decades) the worst of the worst.
Over 16 years and 400-plus episodes, I’ve never seen an episode that didn’t fascinate, and because the stories are real and therefore more bizarre than what fiction allows, some of the plot turns are jaw-dropping — literally.
Everything, of course, comes down to how well-produced the series is — how well the stories are told, structured, paced, scored, edited, and presented. All of that is top-shelf. And although some of the science and other investigative methods can get complicated, computer graphics and strong writing never allows you to get lost.
The real star of the show, though, is narrator Peter Thomas — one of the best in the business. Without ever intruding on the story, the tone he sets informs, horrifies, and frequently moves you.
As something of a connoisseur of this genre, what I very much appreciate is how the series avoids one of the worst pitfalls many of its counterparts fall into. Because of the channel-flipping culture we now live in, too many of these shows feel the need to rerun in painful detail absolutely everything that happened prior when you return from a commercial break (around 4 per half-hour). You hardly notice how “Forensic Files” does this.
It’s a small but crucial detail, and especially appreciated when you watch the DVD collection, which has no commercial breaks.
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