The other night, I was watching “Law and Order:SVU” with my wife, because I am a solidly accommodating husband. At least in this instance. For those unfamiliar with the show, SVU is a spinoff of the main Law and Order franchise which deals exclusively with horrible sexual violence criminal cases.

Okay, if I were to recommend a show to you by saying “You should check it out this awesome show. It’s about horrible sexual violence,” you would think I was a loon and ignore everything I said forever. Right? No. It’s routinely among the most popular shows on TV, not to mention the most popular show of the franchise. Viewers describe it as “really good” and “well written”. I watched about 10 minutes and was so disturbed that I went to go empty the dishwasher, something I hate doing more anything (oddly, loading it with dishes is fun for me).

What is it about this show that is so appealing? My first guess was the rest of the world was more numb to this sort of crime and it didn’t bother them as much, although that theory doesn’t hold up – I watch a reasonable amount of cinematic violence and it doesn’t really bother me.

My second theory might be the one that holds up. I think people are just as disturbed by the storylines as I am, however the eventual catching and facing-of-justice for the criminals is satisfying enough to make the show work. It’s like people get to watch terrible crimes and then feel better once the case is solved and the perp gets what’s coming to him. To me, it seems like an acted-out revenge fantasy.

Which turned my attention to another show I’ve gotten deeply into recently: Dexter. The premise of show is based around a serial killer whose targets/victims are murderers who slip through the justice system on technicalities. So you first meet this guy and are pretty disturbed by his lust for blood, but oddly, over time, you can’t help but feel like he’s on the right side of the law and cheer for him. The show is otherwise phenomenally written and acted, with most of the action taking place in Dexter’s workplace (the Miami Metro police station) which provides for a lot of fun tension where you think he’ll get caught.

It’s a weird feeling to root for the serial killer and it awakens a lot of anti-bureaucracy sentiment in the viewer. You are slowly convinced that the machinations of justice constantly let creeps out onto the street to commit more crimes, while a benevolent street-sweeper like Dexter is the only way to keep the city in line.

This is a crazy line of thinking. The justice system is not perfect but it does a pretty reasonable job, based on what my lawyer friends tell me. It’s certainly overly complicated and people do skate through technicalities, but that tends to be the minority (apparently). So this is another example of a revenge fantasy come to life. People commit horrible murders and our visceral feeling is to exact revenge, so Dexter carries it out and it seems just.

If you haven’t seen “Inglorious Basterds”, you should, and without dropping spoil-bombs, let’s just say it fits this trend.

Fantasy in popular entertainment has a long history of us probing imagined worlds, laws of physics, and moral structures. It’s the great appeal of entertainment – that we get to mentally explore some “what-if” scenarios. And certainly, we’ve imagined justice exacted before, but maybe it just seems a lot more prevalent and satisfying than before. Or not. It’s just an idea.

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