Whatever Happened to…TV Procedurals?

As David Simon Cowell noted, last month’s sweeps marked the end of Law & Order, perhaps the ultimate procedural drama. All the good and the bad elements of the procedural form can be found in Law & Order (and its multiple spinoffs).

Cops and lawyers solved crimes and argued cases (doctors and/or nurses helping patients is the only other form of procedural commonly spotted in the wild). We never delved too deeply into the characters’ personal lives – the focus remained on their professional skills and the details of that week’s case. And after 60 minutes, everyone ended up exactly where they started. Those have been the hallmarks of procedurals since time immemorial, but Law & Order put the “procedure” back in procedural. The show seemed to take pride in getting in, getting out, and pretending that character development was only for book nerds.

I don’t want to spit on its grave, because Law & Order was not a bad show, but it deserves a fair amount of blame in the death of good procedurals. Before Dick Wolf, we enjoyed a brief but fertile era (we’ll call this era the 1980s) when procedurals managed to be more than the sum of their parts, and more than merely the Case of the Week.

The problem with Case of the Week shows, originated by early shows like Dragnet and carried through to the ‘70s by the likes of Marcus Welby, M.D., is that if the Case of the Week isn’t compelling, there’s nothing else to watch for. The characters by themselves aren’t intricate enough to care about, and there’s not enough subplot to hold viewers’ interest. Each episode has to succeed strictly on its own terms.

In some ways, that pressure makes the degree of difficulty for procedurals higher than that for serialized dramas, because there’s nothing to fall back on if the central conceit of an episode falls flat. Of course, serialized shows need to keep character and plot consistent and interesting from week to week, and over the long haul, which brings about an entirely different set of challenges.

For years, procedurals operated the same way without interruption or hint of revolution. They typically centered around a charismatic lead/actor character (e.g. Peter Falk), to distract audiences from their repetitive nature. They substituted charm for substance.

Then along came Steven Bochco.

Along with contemporaries like Michael Mann, Bochco injected life into a dead format and revolutionized the procedural.

First came Hill Street Blues, which brought a realism and a weight theretofore unseen in cop shows. L.A. Law and NYPD Blue followed. From Mann came Miami Vice. Tom Fontana brought us St. Elsewhere. Glenn Gordon Caron created Moonlighting.

These shows, particularly Bochco’s, expanded the procedural universe and shattered the rules of what this type of show could and couldn’t do.

The doctors, lawyers and detectives on these new shows were richer, fuller, more developed than the Kojaks and Matlocks of the world. The episodes had themes beyond the case of the week. Plotlines extended past the episodes in which they originated, although all these shows stopped short of turning into full-blown serials (like Dallas or Dynasty).

This new breed brought elements to procedurals that were more common to film than to TV, film’s bastard little brother. Miami Vice specialized in atmosphere, Moonlighting in dialogue, Bocho’s shows in character depth.

In the ‘90s, the universe of procedurals further expanded, as ER, NYPD Blue and Homicide: Life on the Street served as precursors for the great cable dramas yet to come. Procedurals veered ever closer to the realms of art and literature, as they were created more often by a single vision and voice rather than by committee.

But while procedurals enjoyed their heyday, dark clouds loomed ahead. And the dark clouds looked like Jerry Orbach.

Like I said, Law & Order wasn’t a bad show, at least not initially. DSC swears by it as a late-night drunken viewing pleasure, and who am I are to argue? But L&O infected the world of procedurals with its insanely narrow focus on the details of the professional world. Dick Wolf’s show was good at what it did: it executed its premise cleanly and consistently. I personally find that premise almost skull-numbingly, boring, but that’s fine.

What’s not fine is that L&O spawned spinoffs and copycats on its own network and among the competition. Without Law & Order, there would be no CSI (or CSI: Miami, etc.). Without Law & Order, there would be no Criminal Minds, or NCIS, or Numb3rs. Essentially, CBS would have to show Drew Carey-hosted Price is Right specials every night to fill out its primetime lineup.

And the new generation of Dick Wolf-inspired procedurals is relentlessly dreary, and aggressively same-y. And while terrible forensics and cop shows multiplied, and while Law & Order dragged on about 12 seasons too long, all the other good procedurals quietly disappeared from the network airwaves.

Good drama could be found, but only on cable, and not in the procedural format. The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, The Shield, Mad Men – all of these shows veered closer to serials than procedurals, even when they were ostensibly about cops. The advantages granted to dramas that air on cable have been covered ad nauseum, but instead of rising to the challenge and coming up with worthy dramas of their own, networks threw up their hands and gave up.

Honchos at ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX seemed to make a collective decision to put the least effort possible into writing, directing and producing dramas. They all copied each other, like a family that keeps in-breeding until you can’t even keep track of who were the parents and who were the kids.

And sadly, every time network executives insulted the American public, Americans confirmed the lowest opinions of their viewing habits and intellectual capacity. They chose to tune in to shows that were easy to follow, that weren’t challenging in any possible way.

I guess that I care more about watching people’s lives than watching their jobs. America disagrees.

In a revealing segment last month on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Kimmel showed the producers of Lost a memo from J.J. Abrams to ABC ensuring the network that Lost would not be serialized in nature, that viewers needed no previous knowledge of the show to enjoy any given episode. In other words, to get a show like Lost on the air, Abrams needed to pull a long con on the network that aired it.

Well, now Lost is gone, Friday Night Lights is on the way out, and the Time of the Network Drama may be drawing to a close. Network procedurals died some time ago, and now it seems like all drams are following suit.

But hope remains, as ever, on cable. As I mentioned, the great cable shows have not been procedurals, but now one may be emerging from the fray of poor knockoffs like Burn Notice.

FX’s Justified is based on material from Elmore Leonard, and does an impressive job of capturing Leonard’s trademark tone (it may be the best of any show/film at doing so, excepting Get Shorty). The show’s backwoods Kentucky setting is inspired, and Timothy Olyphant is perfectly Olyphantish as U.S. Marshal Raylon Givens, sent back to his hometown after a shooting gone bad in Miami.

In its just-concluded first season, Justified managed to walk that tricky line that its ‘80s and ‘90s forebears: it’s a procedural with just enough quality, and just enough longer story arcs to elevate it above its form. Givens, in his capacity as a marshal, must wrangle the bad guy of the week, but while keeping an eye on the series’ grander arch-criminals.

I wouldn’t call Justified a “great” show, but its premiere season offered a lot to like, and a lot of hope for the future. Perhaps cable can usher in a new era of interesting procedurals. Perhaps Law & Order needed to die for Justified to be born. Lightning crashes, an old mother dies. Cycle of life, you guys.

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Filed under Television Has AIDS, The Dilemma

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