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Monday, October 1, 2012

Monday Media - The rules of TV procedurals

There's approximately seven hundred million TV shows right now that fall into the category of 'police procedural', and if you watch a lot of them (I watch several*), you'll start to see patterns about how they're constructed and how they function. Here's what I've noticed:

  • Plot
    • Each episode follows a case, and it's better if the flavor of the case has something to do with the characters' lives in some way
    • The case is not necessarily the purpose of the episode
    • There will usually be an overarching storyline for the whole season, and perhaps another for the whole series: Jane's search for Red John is both; Steve's search for Wo Fat is the second and his search for various connections to Wo Fat would be the first.
    • Episodes are pretty predictable: A murder, an investigation, the first three people are not the killer, the real killer is probably the first one or someone who was there as the first one was taken in, justice is restored. When they deviate from this, it's to make a point, and usually things go back to where they were before anyway.
  • Characters
    • Characters develop slowly; Castle and The Mentalist are a little faster than the norm with things changing and building up around five years; NCIS is on its tenth year and things are mostly the same. Law&Order sort of prides itself on never having anything happen to its characters outside of work.
    • There will be numerous potential love-matches, but they'll take anywhere from four to seven** years to make any progress, and they will continually shy away from their feelings toward each other--usually because there are rules about dating co-workers, sometimes because one or both are severely messed up, and mostly because writers want to keep the tention going and don't know how to write relationships as interestingly as the lead-up.
    • Characters will usually be the best there is at their job, even when we're told they're supremely messed up and have major personality problems. 
    • When characters aren't the best at their jobs, it's usually because the Big Bad is messing with them, there's someone in a higher level of authority who doesn't like them, or there's a Character Moment happening--grief, shell-shock, drug abuse, whatever--and they have to get past it to start being the best again.
    • Main characters rarely die, and when they do, it's a Big Deal. The real deaths of this sort are saved for sweeps week and season cliffhangers, usually.
    • Side-characters are there to be funny, to get the relationships the main ones can't, to ask pertinent questions, to mess up, to offer way more information that one person should know at any time, and to get captured. Sometimes to die so the main characters don't have to.
  • Angle
    • Since there are so many of these shows, there'll be tons of slants on the theme: Jane is an ex-psychic; Steve is an ex-special ops dude, Sherlock is a Consulting Detective, Grimm-dude is a boy version of Buffy, Castle is a writer. 
      • It's like Craig Ferguson says, they used to be something else and now they solve crimes. It's a great way to shake up the cop-ness of these shows and add a little wildness.
    • In the ones where everyone is a pro, they're in some innovative lab like in CSI, or they're a crack team of specialists, or they're spies, or they're all professional thieves, or they're the best cops in New York***.
    • A lot of times, there will be the best tech the world has ever seen, even if it doesn't belong to the cops directly.

What have you noticed about the structure of these sorts of shows? Or about any shows?

*Castle, Bones, The Mentalist, Grimm, Hawaii Five-0, Elementary, Sherlock, NCIS, NCIS:LA, and from the other side, Covert Affairs, Person of Interest.
**This rule actually applies to most shows--if they don't at least kiss by year four, there won't be anything until after year seven. I don't know why. It's just been the case with, like, 85% of all the shows I've ever paid attention to for that long.
***There's at least four of this sort around right now, maybe more in the shows I don't watch, and it'd be great if there were times when they all sort of saw each other doing their jobs. Not real cross-overs, just, like, look over there, those guys are looking way too close at that bullet-hole, or look, there's a well-dressed man with a gun over there.


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