The true-crime favorite Forensic Files, which premiered on TLC on April 21, 1996 under the name Medical Detectives, turns 20 today, but it hasn’t lost its status as a secret guilty pleasure for night owls and couch potatoes everywhere. Poke around a little bit online and you’ll read tales of people who love to fall asleep to the show. Ask around your own social circle and we’d be surprised if you didn’t unearth at least one closeted hardcore Forensic Files fan.
I can’t fall asleep without Forensic Files playing in the background anymore, these are my confessions— Kate Horton (@ladymisskate) January 25, 2015
What is it about the show that captures so many fans a full five-years after the last episode was aired?
1. That silky smooth narration
The bulk of the show’s 400 episodes were narrated by now-91-year-old Peter Thomas. The smooth and confident voice talent is a decorated war veteran and has also voiced several episodes of NOVA, Cool Whip commercials, and ESPN Monday Night Football commercials. In a great piece of pop history, Thomas was the newscaster voice in the 1985 song “19” by Paul Hardcastle. And if you’re having a heart attack, his relaxing but authoritative recorded voice guides the use of many portable defibrillators used nationwide. It’s a voice you can trust is what I’m saying.
2. It’s the longest-running forensic show on television
Most people think C.S.I. is the king of forensic television, but Forensic Files had a 15-season, 400-episode run versus the 337 episodes of C.S.I. Of course if you count the many C.S.I. spin-offs, C.S.I. wins hands-down – but will you have more fun in 22 minutes than Forensic Files? (Answer: No you will not.)
3. The show’s compassionate side
From its title, it would be easy to guess that this show is darkly procedural and strictly by the books. Watch enough episodes, however, and you will start to notice the show’s subtle point-of-view: crime sucks and evildoers deserve everything that is coming to them. The interviews for the show reveal a die-hard law enforcement commitment to catching baddies. Oh, and the best part? The victim’s family or friends always (always, always) get the last word.
4. It’s almost always on HLN
Don’t believe us? Tune it in right now. See?
5. The bizarre lab reenactments
There is something very cool and low-key about the way the lab experiments and reenactments are shot. They have a very Michael Mann Manhunter vibe to them featuring lots of long shadows and creepy pastel colors, and there’s nothing else like it on television.
6. Dr. William Bass
There are interviews with many forensic scientists but we can never get enough of Dr. William Bass. Creator of the University of Tennessee’s “Body Farm,” made famous in several Patricia Cornwell novels as an open-air body decomposition study area, Bass is an electrifying presence on the show whenever he appears.
7. Real people, real cases
There is something about real people in real communities (typically small towns) struggling with crime and its aftermath that is very gripping. In many episodes actual family members and friends speak about what their deceased family member, friend, or spouse meant to them, and some of the stories are so over the top it’s hard to believe they’re not scripted.
8. It’s not always the husband/wife/significant other
Even though the show will try and trick you by painting the husband or wife or significant other as the baddie, more often than not they are wrongly accused. Then again, sometimes they ARE guilty so it’s an endlessly fascinating whodunit just begging for someone to invent a drinking game.
9. It is so formulaic that it’s downright comforting
Watch enough Forensic Files and you’ll immediately get sucked into the rhythm: Before the first commercial break, the crime is laid out and the teaser suspect is dangled. Then, a deeper look at the suspect’s and victim’s respective lives through interviews and re-enactments. Finally, a laundry list of forensic evidence presented with airtight certainty, followed by a clever summation and “what does it all mean” comment. Roll credits. Done.
10. The mustaches
This show is an absolutely luxurious time capsule to the facial hair trends of the late 80s and early 90s – they could have called it Murders and Mustaches. We’re pretty sure having a fantastic mustache is written as a requirement in some police, fire, and medical personnel manuals. They are glorious.
11. Even smart criminals get caught
Every once in a while the show will feature a crime so dastardly as to be unsolvable. Some cases go cold for 10-15 years until, inevitably, new evidence-analysis techniques or methodologies appear. We’ve seen crimes solved by insect evidence, a footprint in a hamburger bun, carpet fiber forensics, even a single tooth.
12. You might actually learn something
No, we’re not talking about how to be a better criminal; the show takes great care to not reveal techniques that could be used to create “the perfect crime.” Instead, the show takes a very straightforward approach and never talks down to the viewer. That’s a rarity on any media format these days, let alone television.