Saturday, February 26, 2011

Why We Love Procedurals

When I say "we" I mean average American TV viewers. Sure, there are plenty of us out there who are sick of cop shows, "They're all the same," they mumble as they switch the channel to something with "more substance," something more deserving of their attention. Then they go up in arms when that "quality" show goes off the air because it can't complete with that fluff cop show. We've all seen it happen before, TV is a numbers game, people. If your show is up against NCIS you better hope that show's network is okay with only being able to reach number two in that timeslot. That's just how it is, people love NCIS, and for perfectly valid reasons too. Whoa, hold on there, Mr. TV Snob, don't click away just yet. Your reasons for hating it is just as valid, though I doubt you really gave it a fair chance, or any procedural show for that matter. Maybe you think if you've seen one, you've seen them all. And maybe you're right. But I'm going to attempt to explain to you just why it is that we enjoy this stuff so much and why networks can't get enough of them.
1. They aren't heavy on continuous plotlines

Most people like to think they have some kind of a life (not me, of course). The serial nature of these shows make it easy to miss every once in a while. You can go weeks without seeing CSI and still feel like you don't need to be caught up before watching a brand new episode. Sure, this can mean stunting of character development here and there, and the writing can suffer as a result, but you don't need to know why a character solves crimes to watch him do it. Sometimes they do have a thread throughout a particular season (like an evasive serial killer) or even a series (usually this has to do with a loved one's suspicious death years earlier), which gives the audience a reason to come back and watch religiously every week. But what's important here is that they don't feel like they have to.

2. They make us feel like we're learning something.
Ok, I am perfectly aware that DNA samples can't be processed as quickly as they are on CSI, I also know that I would not be able to profile and find a serial killer like on Criminal Minds. But after years and years of watching these shows, I must be retaining more than just what music/movie stars had a guest spot on which show, right? You see, we viewers enjoy the entertainment, sure, but we like to think we're getting smarter while we watch. Even if it's not entirely true.

3. We love the characters. Even if they are pretty similar in every show.
I will always root for the seasoned investigator who solves cases without regard for bureaucracy or the authoritative fellow who's breathing down his neck. This guy in the real world would probably be fired for breaking protocol or assaulting a "perp," but in these shows we see someone getting away with how we'd like to act at work, even if our jobs are boring and not nearly as important. He gets away with it because he's the best. Plus, he's got his sarcastic partner to back him up. And the geeky yet completely gorgeous lab tech. Not to mention the sexy ass-kicking female who probably specializes in whatever seems to be the least feminine field (she's usually my favorite, though I do wish she'd wear a more supportive bra). There's also the rookie, which is my favorite ploy in procedural shows, namely the ones that focus on forensics (see all the CSIs). This kid is brought on pretty much just to find a way to explain things to the audience; someone has to ask questions, it would be just silly for our seasoned cop to ask how a flux-a-whats-it works. And let's not forget the wise older person, who is usually the coroner or a veteran in his/her own right. They keep our hero grounded. But jokes aside, they really are interesting if you let yourself be interested. Every once in a while, the writers and actor give you a glimpse at something deeper with these characters and that's when the shows separate from one another.

Unless the show is mainly about a tough female investigator. Then one of her parents was murdered when she was a child. I'm serious. There's no getting away from it.

4. It can get graphic.

I've gotten to a point where I can watch these shows while I eat. That's no small feat, I promise you. The most disgusting thing I've seen was in an episode of CSI (the original). Two bodies were locked in the trunk of a car for a while and the Nevada heat caused the trunk to act kind of like an oven. The fat in the bodies melted. And when they opened the trunk, it was the grossest stew you've ever seen. I swear I could smell it. Then later, the techs were trying to drain the trunk and poor Greg had to pull a plug. He pushed his gloved hand down in it and tugged. It gave way, but he got a little decomp juice in his mouth. It was pretty awesome. Bones has some great gross outs as well. And Criminal Minds probably uses more fake blood than any show out there. Is there something wrong with me because I enjoy that stuff? No, because it's not real. I can sip tomato soup and watch reruns of that CSI episode because I know those weren't really bodies. And yet people have no problem watching The First 48. Explain how I'm the one with issues? Please be warned, this clip is NASTY.

5. Explosions make everything better!

Don't believe me, check out an episode of the new Hawaii Five-0.

6. We all want to be detectives. Who get surprised.

Sherlock Holmes was popular back in the day where people read books because we could solve the case along with him. Maybe we could even figure it out before he did. That's all we want out of these types of shows, really. I want to see something Grissom missed. I want to pick up on something that was obviously put there for my benefit that the characters didn't see at first. What I don't want to be able to do however, is figure out who the bad guy is by reading the opening guest credits. That can be disappointing when you're watching a show then BAM a name you recognize comes on screen; the most famous person did it, I guarantee. Also if they were a bad guy on one of these shows the chances of them repeating that performance for another network (or even a spin off) is pretty good. Believe it or not I've seen one guy go to prison in all three CSIs. But when I can pick out the bad guy without that kind of thinking, I'm a happy camper. And if there's a twist, a really good one I don't see coming and the famous guy isn't the killer/kidnapper/rapist then I'm ecstatic and it's probably my favorite episode ever.

7. We like sexual tension.

I'll admit it. I have shipper tendencies. It's like a disease. It starts out small, enjoying Jordan and Woody flirt in season two of Crossing Jordan. Then it grows as I wonder just how long it's going to take for Brennan and Booth to make it happen (still wondering, Bones writers!). Now I'm cheering for Olivia and Peter in Fringe. Cut to me wondering moments into the first episode of The Chicago Code if the two main people will get together. I HAVE A PROBLEM. But it's not just me. The whole internet is full of sickos like me. We wouldn't have these feelings however, if they weren't planted by the evil geniuses that create these shows (ok, maybe genius is a little too much). They know this and they tease us like crazy. And it works. For the most part, I mean, for every one cheering for "Tiva," there's another who just wants to watch the crimes being solved. I can't pretend to understand those people.

8. Movie stars have to do something when they can't get movies anymore.

There. I said it. No offense Mark Harmon. And Chris O'Donnell. And Lawrence Fishburne. And Christian Slater (don't worry, man, keep trying one of those shows have got to stick eventually).

9. We like when we can know our favorite shows aren't going anywhere.

Even if Mark Harmon pulls a full on Charlie Sheen, NCIS will not go off the air. Even though CSI is not the same without William Peterson, it's still going strong. Pick one of these two horses as your favorite and you can expect to be fully satisfied every week. Then one of these shows gets a spinoff? Those aren't going anywhere either, my friend. Confession time: I hate having to join those campaigns to save the shows I love. Sure, it feels worth it every time Chuck gets picked up again. And yes, I do like feeling a tad superior to those that have never heard of Party Down (that's mostly because the campaigns didn't work for that one). And I will fight to the death (metaphorically) to keep Fringe on the air. But it is tiring. Procedurals that can get popular fast will stay around for years. Hawaii Five-0 isn't going anywhere unless they lose Scott Caan (who rumor has it hates living in Hawaii, poor guy). NCIS: Los Angeles will stick around, no doubt there. Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior -- well, maybe, it's too soon to tell and it certainly hasn't lived up to the original yet. But you get what I'm saying. I'm not stressed about these shows being on the bubble. I can enjoy them for what they are and then focus all my blogging energy on why Lie to Me should stay on the air.

And finally...

10. Sometimes a show comes along that does it right.

There is a way to have a case of the week formula without the viewer realizing it. Most of these shows are just about solving cases and getting the viewers' minds off our real life. But every once in a (NYPD) blue moon a show has the audacity to give us crime solvers with actual depth, cases that touch us, writing that baffles us. Most recently, Southland and Justified come to mind. There's no coincidence that both of these programs are on cable.
They don't have to compete with NCIS or anything else on CBS, they only have to be good. And that's how we cop show fans AND tv snobs can get lucky. We can have the best of both worlds without feeling guilty. I can continue to love NCIS: Los Angeles just as long as I can recognize what separates it from The Shield. You can watch Law & Order: SVU for the drama then flip to Psych for the originality (and laughs). Cop shows have something for everyone, as long as you can find the one perfect for you. You just have to be willing to watch a miss once in a while (like Chase or Rookie Blue).

What about you guys? What procedurals are you watching? Any you're thinking of giving a second chance?

1 comment:

  1. I kinda hate that everyone is always throwing up into a trashcan in CSI. Do you think people really watch because of the excessive gross-out factor?

    Also the best show is Homicide: Life on the Street.