Procedural Shows

Category: , , , , By Rev/Views

Procedurals are something which I have a rather torn opinion on, there is no doubt in my mind that the style of show in general is frankly lazy television which appeals to the laziest and lowest common denominator of television viewer. Many of the shows in the genre seem to follow the old maxim which was best stated in Futurama by Fry (ironically) - "At the end of the episode, everything's always right back to normal."

Looking back at earlier shows in the history of television we can see this maxim being applied over and over, especially in the genres of drama and situation comedy. The two genres I prefer over any other. Now I couldn't say with certainty when the procedural was spawned, but the 1950s seem to be a likely spot - at least in the medium of television.

Now fine, it is important for an episode to hold self contained moments in it - or at least it seems important - as this makes it easy for the casual viewer to dip into an episode at almost any point in the series and enjoy it. That makes it easy to captivate channel flickers and hold them until the end of the show. Sprinkle in a few occasional two or three parters and you have something which fills up time and entertains without ever breaking outside of it's own boundaries.

There is a place for the procedural, in truth there are some exceptional shows which have used the format - many sitcoms hold up well with this structure (Seinfeld for example), because their relatively short episode length leaves little room for anything else. But is it really an acceptable standard to be used for dramas? I'm not convinced at all, especially not the the area of police procedurals - a sub-genre which has spiraled out of control so far that it's managed to spawn a sub-genre of it's own, the medical procedural (House - which is a great show, but that's in spite of it's procedural nature).

Looking at our screens and schedules these days reveals an absolute glut of these shows; we have the CSI and
Law & Order franchises, Bones, House, Psych, Lie to Me, Cold Case, Criminal Minds, NCIS and The Closer to mention just a few. And the past is even more damning, with a huge swathe of these shows running all the way back to Dragnet (and perhaps even before). Is there really a need for this many shows in the genre? What on earth distinguishes one from the next? The characters I suppose, that's certainly the appeal in Bones and House. Or perhaps it's the identical structure of the episodes, watching a procedural is like putting on a comfy pair of slippers, you know exactly what to expect from them and exactly what they'll do (keep your feet warm, rubbish to wear in the rain, fall off when climbing up stairs).

Maybe that's it, that's the big secret. Perhaps I'm barking up the wrong tree when I go watching clever shows that employ an ongoing storyline like The Wire. Perhaps even the hybrid shows I adore - shows with self contained episodes AND ongoing story lines (like The Shield, The Sopranos and Arrested Development). Perhaps I should just forget about these kind of shows, because it's clear that the viewing public has become conditioned towards receiving their stories in neat self contained packages, all wrapped up in a bow and fuzzy edges. Maybe it's to much to expect that viewers want to be challenged by what they're watching - it's clearly too much effort and discomfort to try and remember what happened from one week to the next isn't it?

I think that my main gripe with the Procedural is not exactly it's existence, but the sheer quantity of them. It just feels so lazy, here we have this incredible method of performing one of the oldest ways of human socialisation - storytelling - and instead of using it to explore new directions and challenge humanity the networks are taking the same framework and slapping different paint on it before feeding it to us. And the worst part is we just lap this shit up like it's gravy. We just can't get enough of it, and the networks can't get enough of our adoration.

I often picture how pitches must go for new shows, the creator of the show turns up for the meeting and after sitting down and engaging in a little small talk he begins his pitch. Painting a picture of a show with a sweeping story arc that runs across the entire season and builds up into a climax which leaves the viewers amazed and asking questions. The network exes nod sagely and ask "but is it going to get them off their tractors?" The creator defends his work for a while and then realises that it's a lost cause. The exes ask him if he has anything else and he replies "how about a police show with a detective who solves a different crime each exes are more interested in this and "ask what's the hook?" The creator mugs for a moment before responding he's blind and his partner is deaf. I call it 'See No Evil, Hear No Evil'.

Instant hit.


On the flip side though I do have to admit that there are some exceptional procedural shows out there, shows which manage to transcend the rather pathetic design of the procedural and give us something which is genuinely special. The strongest example for myself is the 1990s show Homicide: Life on the Street - a show which was definitely a procedural show in structure but managed to play around with it's format and result in something which was a little less predictable. This wasn't a show which always delivered easy answers at the end of each episode, at times there would be hanging cases left unsolved or the criminals would get away with their crime. This uncertainty makes the show more enjoyable for myself because it's the outcome isn't a forgone conclusion, there was always a little doubt when watching each episode that everything would turn out OK in the end. This, added to the generally dark and pessimistic tone of the show resulted in a rather unique experience - many procedurals like to shock with visual "darkness" (autopsies, violent deaths and so forth), but Homicide went with a bleak tone that just made everything feel more real and more hopeless.

But the greatest triumph of Homicide lays in the two shows it spawned; both of which are the two shows I hold dearest to my heart. Shows which are the kind of innovation in the procedural I wish was more prevalent. The first is Homicide's direct descendant, the other Baltimore Cop Show - The Wire. Spinning the procedural show out by basing an entire case over a season rather than an episode. Allowing for a (more) realistic portrayal of the work involved in building a case against high level criminals. If you look at the ebb and flow of the episodes in each of The Wire's seasons they are structured like a procedural (and a novel), but the time line of events is played out in a more natural, less condensed (and less condescending) fashion.

It results in an experience which can be difficult to 'get into' and is impossible to pick up partway through a season, but it's a rewarding show which challenges the viewer and rarely offers the easy way out.

And if you're willing to buy into that theory it's also part of the Dreams of Tommy Westphall. But that's a discussion for a different time and place - so just enjoy this visual depiction of all the shows caught in Tommy's dream and note how incestuous the world of police procedurals actually is.

The second show Homicide spawned was The Shield; but in this case the show was partially inspired by Homicide rather than being directly descended from it. (As long as Clark Johnson's character "Handsome Marshall" wasn't actually Meldrick Lewis - which is a vague possibility). The Shield also perverts the nature of the procedural, this time by blending multiple story lines into the show - some of which take place over the entire season and many of which span just the one episode. While Vic and the Strike Team provided the main ongoing continuity it was Dutch and Claudette who gave us the 'crime of the week' story lines. This makes The Shield an easier show to dip into for the casual viewer (if you can stomach the material, which it seems many weak willed people can't), while still maintaining the 88 episodes combined into movie style of the show.

I raise The Shield here for two reasons, first - I unashamedly adore the show, enough said there. Second, and more significantly, The Shield offers a medium between the serial procedural and The Wire. You can have a show with contained story lines within the episodes and still provide an over arcing storyline. But you need to build it in from the start (Bones has attempted to do this - but falls a little short) and even if you don't know exactly where the story is going to end up you should at least be content that some plot threads will dangle for a while and get picked up later on in the shows run.

So I've meandered my way along in this and I've not really hit any genuine conclusion about procedurals, I do know that I feel they are a lazy way out for both television and the people who watch it. But there is also no doubt that the style of show has spawned some fantastic television as well.

I think I'd settle for less standard format procedural shows and more shows which attempted to push the boat out and take it in unusual directions. True these attempts might fail but there is uncharted territory out there and that could result in the unique shows I want to see on our screens.

Failing that I'll settle for less David Caruso, a lot less.


5 comments so far.

  1. MediumRob 7 December 2009 at 18:31
    I don't think there's anything wrong with a procedural. As you say, the sheer number in specific genres is bad, but each has to work to define its own niche: The Mentalist, CSI, NCIS, etc, all have different set-ups and different hooks. At heart, Psych is a procedural yet is obviously very different from The Mentalist (even though it has the same set-up, essentially).

    I think the biggest crime is sameness though. If the episodes are standalone but are the same from week to week, don't do anything with the characters and don't have any depth, then they're a bad show. That's only by modern standards of course. Outside of soap operas, you'd be hard pushed to find a show that did any different until Hill Street Blues.

    CSI develops characters, and has some real depth. Ditto CSI: NY, although I find the stories duller. CSI: Miami tries but fails to do the same. They're all procedurals, but CSI is vastly smarter than Miami and to a lesser extent NY.

    There's also better work going on in House from week to week than you'll find it most serial shows even my beloved Heroes, but at least as much as in Dollhouse, Fringe (which is a procedural, just a sci-fi procedural, now I think about it), and other serial dramas. It's certainly deeper, has more to say about the human condition and relationships than those shows.

    So it depends, basically ;-)
  2. Rev/Views 7 December 2009 at 18:56
    I think that's sort of what I was meandering my way towards in this rambling rant. There's some exceptionally good work in some procedurals and that makes it hard for me to damn them all outright.

    But the lazy ones, and there are a LOT of lazy ones at the moment, just rankle at me with their ability to sit on the screens of the docile television grazer and please them.

    House certainly manages it a lot, which is why I tried to mention it as a good procedural (even though I haven't watched the show myself since halfway through season 5 - but that's not the fault of the show, it's the fault of my financial circumstances.)
  3. wolfhound 8 December 2009 at 01:53
    I have been a lurker to your blog for sometime and finally taken the plung to posting a comment.

    I find it very odd that most of what I read on your blog is exactly what I am thinking when it comes to the various TV shows that I enjoy watching.

    The more shows that are spawed off the original then the more the orginal will suffer. This has happened far too often. Most recently I see it in CSI. Pretty soon every majot city will have it's own CSI series on some network.
  4. Lisa Rullsenberg 8 December 2009 at 14:15
    Failing that I'll settle for less David Caruso, a lot less.

    Ha ha - amen I'd say even though MediumRob's Carusometer has provided me with mucho hilarity over the years!

    Great post btw - putting into words a lot of thoughts rocking in my head. though you may need to hit me when I confess I've not really gotten into The Shield (I probably need a boxset present she says looking hopefully at Santa...)
  5. Rev/Views 8 December 2009 at 18:56
    I can't recommend The Shield enough. Though I will always provide the warning that it's not a show for everyone. It's action packed, bleak and at times unpleasant. But it's still my favourite show by miles and miles. A real underrated gem imo.

    The second warning is don't go about reading in to many places about what happens in the show - it's one of those shows which is best watched with an clean slate.

    A lurker posting? You have no idea how happy that makes me, because I've been wondering for quite a while if there was anyone reading or not. I know most blog readers tend to 'read' and not post, but still - sometimes I feel like I'm writing into a void. It's part of why I've been somewhat... drained lately and posting less on here.

    Completely agree with CSI. Soon we'll have things like CSI: Birmingham and CSI: Village!

    Mind you, I'd probably watch those two, just for the comedy factor.

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