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Why does it seem like in every cop based TV drama (CSI, Law and Order, etc.) that whenever something bad has happened that the front door is always left open or slightly ajar? Do criminals not realize that this is a tip for cops to know something is wrong?

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They also always run away when they see cops. Or they shoot at them or fight them. You know, like normal people do. (Wha...?) –  BrettFromLA May 12 at 21:51
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Why do TV computers emit beeps when printing a message to the screen? Why do TV combination locks make a clicking sound? Answer: because TV-watchers are really stupid! –  Carl Witthoft May 13 at 13:52

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up vote 18 down vote accepted

TvTropes calls this the OminouslyOpenDoor and files it as a death trope, meaning that usually the investigator will find a dead suspect or witness in the room:

The good guys are having a hard time finding a lead for the current investigation. They find a possible culprit or a vital link in the investigation. The team gets an address and find the door slightly open. Too bad whoever they find behind that door, be it a suspect, relative or complete stranger, can't help them close the case.

There are two sides to this:

In-universe explanation aka: Why would they leave the door open?

Of course this does not always make sense and quite often this is simply illogical behaviour from the bad guys.

However there are some valid reasons why the door would not be shut:

  1. It won't stay shut anymore. The bad guy broke in, but not by lockpicking. Instead, he used brute force and damaged either the lock or the whole door. Now it won't close anymore, making anyone looking at the door aware that something fishy is going on.
  2. They just don't care. The bad guy is long gone, leaving behind a major mess or even a dead body. (see above) He does not really care if anybody notices the scene of the crime because he thinks that no incriminating evidence was left behind or because he is already on the run.
  3. They had to leave in a hurry. The bad guy simply had no time to clean up and close the door properly. Either he was disturbed and had to get away, or he is still on the scene and had to hide when he saw the investigator arrive.

Analytical point of view aka: What is the purpose of the scene?

Even if there is a valid plot explanation for the scene, this is still mainly used as a device by the director to build up tension. The investigator usually arrives at the door with the motive to speak to someone. Sometimes this happens at his own door when he comes home.

Before the ajar door is noticed, normally there is little to no suspense. Often two characters will be talking casually until they see the door.

Then suddenly: Excitement!

Something is wrong - this door should not be open! The viewer gets drawn into the action and knows that a surprise must be lurking behind this door. So basically the door acts as a gateway between different atmospheres and is used to quickly change the pace of the episode.

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+1 - I almost saw my worst fears with this question fulfilled when seeing the TVTropes link, but apart from that this really goes to great lengths to provide an actual answer. –  Sonny Burnett May 12 at 22:11
    
Yeah, I was really surprised how short the tvtropes entry is, considering how common this trope is. I also don't quite agree with the article in that it's not always death-related. Sometimes the trope is even subverted for comic effect (e.g. instead of a dead body a surprise party waits behind the door) –  atticae May 12 at 22:18
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+1 but also if the door wasn't ajar, then upon getting to the door, knocking, not getting an answer... All they could then do is leave (after all, most of the time they were just going to talk to someone). By having the door open, there is reasonableness (in TV sense) to assume something is wrong and to enter. In the real world, it could just mean the person left it open while taking the shopping in! –  Madivad May 13 at 3:17
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@Madivad: A cop who encountered an open door would be reasonably entitled to investigate why it is open (they'd be even more entitled if they would respect what IIRC Miss Manners referred to as the "invisibility principle"). A full search would not be justified in the absence of real evidence of wrongdoing, but having the door open can set in place a chain of progressive discoveries that each justify further inquiry. –  supercat May 13 at 13:22
    
One more possible in-universe explanation is that leaving the door ajar might be quieter than closing it, thus making a distinctive noise if there are others in the house. Not always relevant, though. –  Avner Shahar-Kashtan Jul 6 at 5:09

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