The Problem with “Crossing Lines”
After weeks of anticipation, I finally had a chance to watch the premiere of Crossing Lines, the new NBC drama about a police unit that works for the International Criminal Court. As a police procedural, the show is not bad. William Fichtner is fantastic as always. Production values are extremely high. Bringing together detectives and investigators from a number of European states is a nice idea. And all the actors have nice accents.
But as a show about the ICC, Crossing Lines is an unmitigated disaster.
The problem, of course, is with the basic premise. I could almost accept a show that gave the ICC a police force; after all, who among us doesn’t wish it had one? But I cannot accept a show that invents an ICC police force that investigates, in the words of one of the executive producers, “topical crimes and illicit global trades such as plutonium poisonings, serial killings, kidnappings, human trafficking and drug smuggling.” Indeed, the two-hour pilot has the “ICC team,” as it’s called — complete with ICC badges — investigating a serial killer who has killed four women in European capitals.
I was very curious to see how, if at all, the writers would get around the inconvenient fact that the ICC team will investigate crimes over which the Court has no jurisdiction. At first they just avoided the issue: after the newly-recruited Fichtner character points out that the ICC usually investigates war crimes and genocide, the leader of the team simply replies, “for now we’re going to try something…” He then changes the subject and explains that the team is comprised of the best and brightest detectives from various Western European states. (Africa’s worst nightmare!)
But then things get ridiculous. Initially, the ICC — via Donald Sutherland, who plays some unidentified but clearly important role at the Court — refuses to sanction the team because the powers-that-be are worried its investigations will “usurp the power of sovereign states.” (I guess the whole notion of consenting to the Court via ratifying the Rome Statute is too difficult to explain — or too dramatically unsatisfying.) The pretty Italian investigator protests, pointing out to Donald Sutherland that he once wrote a report about Kosovo in which he said the ICC was the only place the “mothers and wives of missing Serbs” could turn for justice. (I’ll let my friend Marko Milanovic mock Donald Sutherland’s concern for the fate of Kosovo’s Serbs. I’ll simply note the disappearance of the Court’s temporal jurisdiction.) The leader of the team agrees — and adds in defense of the serial-killer investigation, “it’s a crime of aggression that is ongoing, systematic, and crosses borders – this is exactly what the ICC does.” (Um, no.) Donald Sutherland relents, and quickly returns with “an order” signed by a “magistrate” that permits the team to investigate the killings over the objection of national police forces. (Magistrates at the ICC?)
You don’t have to be an ICC expert to realize that the show’s treatment of the Court’s jurisdiction is a fiasco. And there are numerous minor errors in the show that also collectively annoy: it says the ICC is based in Holland (technically correct, but the Court itself says it’s in the Netherlands); the ICC logo is wrong, with the Court’s initials instead of the scales of justice; the Court’s parking sign is only in English; there is apparently a dusty, brick-lined basement in the Court that isn’t being used for anything; the team has a machine that makes a holographic reproduction of a crime scene (pretty sure that’s not in the ICC budget!); etc.
Having spent a couple of years writing television in Hollywood, I accept the need for dramatic license. But Crossing Lines is not just wrong — it’s wrong in a way that can only harm the ICC. Very few Americans outside of academia understand how the Court functions, and that lack of understanding no doubt helps explain why so many Americans oppose the Court and perceive it as a threat to US sovereignty. This show will only reinforce their ignorance and their skepticism. Even worse, for those Americans who do not reflexively oppose the ICC, it will saddle the Court with unrealistic expectations. Why shouldn’t the Court have a police force? Wouldn’t that make it work better? Why doesn’t it address serious crimes like drug trafficking? (The show should be very popular in Trinidad and Tobago.) Why should it be limited to investigating crimes committed after 1 July 2002? Why doesn’t it have nifty technology that would make investigating crimes so much easier?
What I find the most baffling is that, as best I can tell, there was absolutely no reason for the producers to set Crossing Lines in the ICC. Doing so is simply a counterproductive distraction. Why not set the show — which, as I said, is a relatively interesting police procedural — at Interpol? Interpol doesn’t have a police force either, but it’s certainly not impossible to imagine states giving it one. And Interpol is, in fact, involved in nearly all of the crimes the show wants to explore.
I have no idea whether Crossing Lines will survive. The premiere’s ratings were less than impressive. But rest assured, dear readers: your humble reporter will stay on the case until the bitter end.