Random Television Pontifications: #1 – Good Procedural vs. Bad Procedural

Cop Shows!

Alright, so let’s do it: Let’s talk about cop shows! You may have seen one or two in your day. Just turn on CBS any weeknight, you’ll find one. Five different Law & Orders, three different CSIs, two different NCISs, you get my point. It’s a television staple that can be traced back all the way to the days of Sherlock Holmes in the written word. People like to follow smart, savvy detectives as they solve heinous crimes. Some might call it lazy television or claim that it’s all cliche now; and in some respect, that’s very true. That brings me to this particular pontification. Television is littered with crime shows, from sillier things to overly serious. I try to watch most of them; this is my story.

I am starting to find myself extremely bored with many of the cop shows on TV now. I’m getting tired of shows like Psych and The Mentalist (oh my god, I’m comparing them!!!!) having boring, predictable, and played out cases. In the case of those shows and the shows like them, you are watching for the characters, not the crime. This is what I am starting to consider a “bad” procedural. A bad procedural is by no means a bad show. It just simply refers to a show that merely exploits the fact that it is a procedural. The crime is a vessel, a means to an end; no more, no less. The crime will take the characters and put them into situations that bring out particular character moments or situations, and that’s why we watch them. We just want the character stories. My issue with this, however, tends to be that they are STILL procedural shows. Which means we’re watching the show WAITING for our character moments. The procedural parts are still there to act as the vessel and we wind up twiddling our thumbs in between scenes waiting for our next great character moment.

A good procedural means you can take the detectives out of the story, replace them with any other random detective, and it would still be a story worth watching. The victims are actually characters. The killers are characters. There are elaborate motives. When the mother of a victim breaks down in tears, you feel her pain. This is why a show like Law & Order has been able to last twenty years while maintaining a revolving door of a cast. Every episode is about the case. Every now and then they can work in moments for their characters, but it’s never a priority. This allows the show to be completely accessible and ready to watch any time.

Now good procedurals aren’t for everybody. People want characters, and I agree; characters are important. People also want overarching stories. A problem with every show being about the case, is if the case sucks, your episode instantly sucks. If the case sucks in an episode of Psych, no one cares; Shaun and Gus are still going to bicker.

The X-Files, one of my favorite shows of all time, was able to juggle this balance perfectly, in my opinion. The cases were well thought out, and the victims/killers were characters. You didn’t need Mulder and Scully investigating the case, but you had them anyway. They were characters too. The show had overarching mythology that it would address occasionally throughout the season, and in between they had “monster of the week” episodes. If you asked someone who watches the X-Files if they remember the kid from the episode D.P.O. (a young Giovanni Ribisi, no less!), they will. He was a character. He only appeared in one episode, but he had a story arch. He had hobbies and he had an obsession (and he could control electricity…) Now if you asked someone about the killer from the season premiere of the Mentalist, they’ll just shrug. It was some dude. He had some contrived reason for wanting someone else dead.


My pointless rambling is trying to get to this point. If we’re not going to flesh out our procedurals, why are we even bothering with them? Why are we spending our time rolling our eyes at predictable crime stories, while waiting for our character moments? Isn’t there a better way? Would it be so wrong to put some priority on fleshing out the cases more? And no, casting a big name in your crime doesn’t make it better… that’s a whole new rant…

Dude killer from that episode of the Mentalist

Either way, that’s all I ready had to say. I’m still going to tune into every procedural I possibly can and watch them until my brain melts away. If it ever gets too rough, there’s still a good 10 years of law & order I’ve yet to see… Feel free to let me know if you agree/disagree with my descriptions. Better yet, what do you think qualifies as a good or bad procedural?


~ by axknel on March 21, 2010.

2 Responses to “Random Television Pontifications: #1 – Good Procedural vs. Bad Procedural”

  1. Agreed. And the field is so littered with procedurals that there is little room for shows that are a bit more thoughtful in plotting. A good example of the characters-vs.-cases problem is Castle, now in its second season. I started watching because of Nathan Fillion, and I stuck with it because of his character’s interactions with his mother and daughter on the show. I just saw the most recent episode, and it would have been boring if not for the banter and the small development in Castle’s family life. I guessed the murderer’s identity upon the first mention of the character. Procedurals that rely on — and push — unrequited romantic tension between the leads seem to try to milk it for all that it is worth. Bones is a prime example of a show where such tension entertained for a while, but is generally dull now. Shows may be worried about putting two people together too soon, and thus “jumping the shark,” but, at the same time, it is somewhat irksome to see characters regress in development. Both Booth and Bones have been doing this for a couple of seasons: Booth pretending professional ineptitude and Bones pretending interpersonal ineptitude.

    The one character type that has lost its luster the most, though, is the charming con artist who hides his dark past behind a confident and genius facade. He is the guy who messed up somewhere, which resulted in the deaths of his: a) lover, b) wife, c) child, or d) wife and child. Leverage and The Mentalist both use this character.

    I like procedurals that take character development seriously. Then it is easier to go along with cases that are less-than-surprising. Slightly different premises help, too. Life, which lasted two seasons, had the man out for revenge character, but his wrongful imprisonment, and subsequent finding of Zen, added complexity to the show. Another show that interestingly mixes drama with the procedural is Dexter. Dexter is a character who has been trying to find dimension — and define himself — pretty much since the show began. Both Life and Dexter are well-acted, which definitely helps.

    As far as procedurals that are decent on their own, how about Masterpiece Mystery & Contemporary? Those are usually plotted well.

    Anyway, thanks for the read.

    • I couldn’t agree more! If I started ranting about the downturn of Bones, the article would have gotten way too long. I also completely agree on Castle. The romantic tension feels completely forced and Fillion and his family are the only compelling reasons to keep watching. Life was an incredible procedural that was doomed from the start being tied to NBC, a station that consistently proves it doesn’t know how to treat its shows. As for Dexter, I have yet to get around to watching it, but it’s definately on my list. I’m glad you’re enjoying it.

      I’ll check out some of your other suggestions, I’m not familiar with them. Thanks for reading!

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