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Picture your favorite character in a crime drama and think of their backstory. Got it? Good.
It’s almost a certainty that they were abused as a child, probably by an alcoholic parent. Was the other parent dead? Maybe even both parents were dead. A stint in foster care is common. How about an irresponsible or troubled younger sibling that said character spent their earlier years taking care of? Do they have a history of failed romances and a fairly dismal personal life?
The probability of most of these criteria matching is higher than not. This is because on crime dramas, almost across the board, this backstory is used for at least one of the lead characters.
The common backstory includes several of the following:
- Child abuse, usually, but not always, at the hands of a parent
- An alcoholic parent
- Missing Mom and/or Disappeared Dad
- A stint in foster care
- Rape, in reference to either the character or someone close to them
- Directly or indirectly, but never on purpose, caused a death
- A close family member or friend who suffered from a mental illness and/or committed suicide
- Very low family income, bordering on poverty
- A troubled or irresponsible younger sibling that the character may feel responsible for/angelic and perfect younger sibling who they feel responsible for or failed to protect
- A dead spouse and/or child
- A trail of failed romances
- Little to no personal life
Some of these characteristics are more popular than others, and a character's backstory, by no means, needs to display all of them. It may only need to include two or three, depending on which two or three, to qualify.
This trope is used almost exclusively in straight dramas, where characters tend to have dark and troubled pasts, as opposed to dramadies or comedies, though certain elements of the backstory, such as a dead parent, are not uncommon in dramadies. It is also seems to occur more often in lead characters, though it is not unheard of for a supporting character to follow the pattern. Additionally, the trope doesn't apply exclusively to law enforcement agents and is equally as common when a main character is a consultant for a law enforcement agency.
This seems to be a newer trope, as it was not apparent in crime dramas as recently as the 1990s.
- Commander Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch in Discworld grew up in poverty, with a dead alcoholic father ("His mum told him that the man had been run over by a cart, but Vimes suspected that if this were true at all, then it was probably a brewer's cart, which had 'run him over' a bit at a time for years"). He has no personal life before meeting Lady Sybil, and even afterwards needs to remind himself to make time for his wife and son.
- In Death series: Eve and Roarke. Both of them suffered child abuse at the hands of their parents, had at least one alcoholic parent, their parents are missing, had little in terms of family income when they were young, and had little in terms of personal lives. In Eve's case, her father raped her more than once, she killed him in self-defence when she was 8 years old, had a stint in foster care, and had just one-night-stand before Roarke. Roarke had a younger angelic sister named Marlena who was raped and torture-murdered by a gang of Complete Monsters who had a grudge against Roarke. Roarke responded by going on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge and killed all six men. Honestly, it's like Nora Roberts was trying to hit as many items on the list as possible!
- On Bones, Brennan, Booth, and Sweets show this trope. All three of them have a history of abuse, Brennan and Sweets both spent time in foster care, and Brennan and Booth both have a dead parent and a string of failed romances.
- On Fringe, Olivia shows this trope, having lost both parents, been abused by her stepfather as a child, feeling responsible for her younger sister, and having no personal relationships with people that aren't related to her and don't work with her.
- On The Mentalist, Lisbon's backstory is an example of this trope. She was abused by her alcoholic father after her mother's death, and spent the rest of her childhood taking care of her three younger brothers.
- Multiple characters on Criminal Minds have backstories that include elements of this trope, such as Reid's father's absence and his family's history ofschizophrenia and JJ's sister's suicide, but the only character with enough of them to fit the trope is Morgan, who grew up in a low-income, inner-city neighborhood, lost his father at a young age, and suffered abuse at the hand of a leader in his community.
- Garcia's parents died when she was a teenager and she had to take care of herself. Rossi epitomizes failed relationships, having never been able to maintain a marriage. Hotch eventually falls prey to this and later to a dead ex-wife - they still loved each other, though. His technically isn't a back story though. Like most of the characters, his father did die when he was pretty young.
- Lilly Rush on Cold Case is a textbook example of this. Her father abandoned the family at a young age. She grew up on welfare with an alcoholic mother and an irresponsible younger sister. She has a history of failed romances and, outside of these failed romances, no personal life.
- It is hinted at in Veronica Mars that Sheriff Lamb suffered some child abuse. Very little else about his background is given, but he does seem to spend a lot of time in the office.
- Veronica herself fits a few of those points too.
- Until he hooked up with Sara Sidle, Gil Grissom was a workaholic with no personal life and hinted at an unhappy childhood. Asked what he was at high school, he replied "A ghost." Sara was basically his Distaff Counterpart.
- Jim Brass had a dead wife and a daughter, Ellie, who went completely off the rails and turned to prostitution and drugs.[spoiler: It eventually turns out his daughter isn't actually his daughter.] Oh, yeah, and he accidentally shot another policeman once.
- Nick Stokes was the victim of child abuse from a babysitter.
- Calleigh Duquesne from CSI: Miami has an alcoholic father.
- Anna Belknap's character in CSI New York witnessed several friends being murdered as a teenager.
- NCIS: Gibbs has the dead spouse/child back story in spades. After that, it's failed marriage after failed marriage. Tony's father was a useless alcoholic who neglected him to the point of abuse. McGee is a real rarity not only in police back stories but in television in general: he grew up in a happy nuclear home! But oh wait, he's a nerd with no social life. Ziva's sort of difficult to place. Her upbringing was rough. And she has less of a social life than McGee.
- Dexter was present at his mother's murder and sat in her blood for three days. His brother turned out to be a serial killer and now, his wife is dead.
- Doakes was abused as a kid and has no social life. Deb really doesn't either (talk about failed relationship after failed relationship. She just cannot catch a break).
- From Reno 911, Lieutenant Dangle's father abandoned his family when he was a child, and his mother committed suicide.
- While he is more of a vigilante than a cop, Michael from Burn Notice has most of these in his back story. His father was an abusive, alcoholic gambler, which caused his family to live in poverty (not to mention an irresponsible younger brother). Like the troubled cop character, Michael chose his career as a spy because it got him away from his old life.
- Detective Benson from Law and Order Special Victims Unit is a child of rape.