The old stalwart is back, and no one saw a thing
Procedurals have ruled the television landscape for decades. Pretty much since television became a thing, it’s been defined by the case-of-the-week format, with police, lawyers and doctors solving, saving, and then starting over again each episode.
At some point, however – probably around the mid-2000s – they became decidedly unsexy. There are still a huge number of standard procedurals, of course, including the highest-rated show on TV (NCIS, as well as CSI, Bones, Law & Order: SVU, all the Chicago shows), but they’re mostly ignored by critics, and they sure as hell aren’t in any awards conversation. They’re the meat-and-potatoes of network and basic cable: reliable, older-skewing, dull.
And so it is that ‘procedural’ became a kind of dirty word.
Serialised was the hot new thing. HBO played a major role here, and perhaps no single show did more for serialised programming than Lost. Now, everywhere you look there’s a new outlet trumpeting its own foray into serialised drama. Netflix and Amazon are the most conspicuous new entrants, but crusty old stalwart USA has suddenly gone from ‘blue sky’ to Golden Globes with Mr. Robot. Kevin Reilly is pushing the same at TNT, and channels you’ve never even heard of are throwing their hats in the ring (WGN with Manhattan; Pivot with Fortitude). In Game of Thrones we have one of the most heavily-serialised shows ever made. There’s no dipping in and out. Forget skipping a week; you’d have trouble keeping track if you took so much as an ill-timed bathroom break. This kind of required-devotion used to be anathema to most networks; now it’s the marching orders.
But in this massive drive towards high-quality, serialised drama, something else happened.
The procedural returned.
It snuck back in without anyone noticing. And people loved it.
There’s an episode in the first season of The Blacklist in which a terrorist group led by the week’s protagonist, General Ludd, is blowing planes out of the sky. Their ultimate aim is to counterfeit billions of dollars, and destabilise the US economy. We won’t get into the specifics, because the show doesn’t really get into them either. But consider, how exactly does one blow up multiple planes? How do you counterfeit money convincingly? How much would you need to make to impact the economy, and how would you distribute it covertly? Unfortunately, The Blacklist is so busy dashing from set-piece to set-piece that there’s no time to focus on what would surely be some quite interesting details.
What if we did though? Well, we’d get the basis for a pretty great season of Homeland. Condense the first run of True Detective down to 42 mins, and you’ve got an episode of CSI or Criminal Minds. Same with The Killing, and The Bridge, and Top of the Lake, and Broadchurch. It’s fundamentally the same thing, just on a different scale. Standard procedurals are giant machines that chew through story, but the new breed take a single story and dig deep – Carrie Mathison could spend an entire episode piecing together details that are tossed out in single Blacklist lines.
There’s some irony to be found here, in the fact that procedurals are named for their focus on the ‘how’. Yet, in blowing up the format, shows now dive far more deeply into the minutiae of a crime or a case than the writers of Hill Street Blues or Matlock ever conceived. Procedural weren’t inherently lame, it turns out. They weren’t stodgy, or any of the others adjectives that often get tossed CBS’s way. It’s not that we as the ‘sophisticated’ audience were inherently above them, floating on a cloud of character studies and familial drama. The problem was that they were shallow; they weren’t procedural-y enough. CSI took the first step in giving us a taste of the detail we craved, of the blood spatter analysis, and the DNA forensics, and in doing so spawned the biggest TV franchise of the decade. But we still weren’t done. A single episode was no longer enough. If we were going to watch two cops solve a murder, we’re talking eight HBO hours minimum, thank you. Or else, really… what’s the point?
The procedural will never die. It will never go away. It ruled the dark ages of television, and grips us still today, in its reinvigorated, premium-cable clothing. The procedural isn’t just the show your grandparents watch in reruns with the volume down. It’s much of the best TV around, whether we realise it or not.