We Live in a Procedural World

Procedural dramas are hot in TV, and have been for quite a while. They deliver on a number of levels which make them attractive to viewers and to networks.

They tend to be deeply episodic, making drop-in viewing much easier for a casual or sporadic viewer. This increases their appeal to networks, as it increases the saleability of a show in terms of syndication and makes it less likely that a shows’ ratings will continually decay as viewers who miss an episode or two give up due to falling behind on the story (as is prone to happen on deeply serial, high-mythology shows like LOST, Battlestar Galactica, etc.

Procedurals also allow for characters to display a high level of mastery, such as Dr. House’s Holmes-like diagnostic prowess, or Monk’s OCD-derived attention to detail. There’s a satisfaction in narratives where a mystery (especially a violent or threatening one) is solved. It’s a reassurance that the people in these jobs, (doctors, lawyers, detectives, police, etc.) are competent in their jobs and that we can continue to trust them to protect and serve us.

Since the procedural is a popular and successful mode for television (as well as film and fiction), the ever-increasing number of procedurals produces a problem:

There’s only so many ways to investigate a crime within the normal bounds of the law in the USA. The CSI-style formula has propagated, and in recent years, we’ve seen a proliferation of Specilist procedurals.

Procedurals built around Specialists allow their shows to take a different approach to the procedural formula. House achieved this by being a medical procedural drama, where the criminals/culprits are diseases/injuries, and thus, the detectives are diagnosticians. Shows like The Mentalist, Fringe, Life, Lie to Me, Bones, Castle, and more each take a slightly different angle on criminal investigation, positioning one or more characters with specialist knowledge or methodology to keep the procedural formula fresh.

The Mentalist and Psych take a dramatic and comedic (respectively) approach by re-positioning a psychic as the specialist, relying on their advanced ability to read people and make intuitive leaps based on their training as ‘psychics’ (as neither characters are portrayed as possessing ‘real’ psychic powers). In Fringe, Walter Bishop’s Fringe science credentials allow him to solve mysterious deaths and circumstances propagated by ‘The Pattern’, a worldwide group of Fringe (aka Mad) Scientists. Bones features a forensic anthropologist who consults with federal agencies. Life‘s Charlie Crews is a police detective, but his stumbling efforts towards Zen Buddhism set him apart from a ‘standard’ TV detective. Lie to Me‘s specialist is an expert in the science/sociology/psychology of lying, allowing him to glean more information from suspects/informants than a standard detective. The upcoming show Castle features a mystery writer consulting and then accompanying a detective, using his experience writing mysteries to help solve them.

Of the recent specialist procedurals, a great many of them feature a male specialist and a female handler (Castle, Lie to Me, Life, Fringe, The Mentalist, etc.) This allows the shows to dodge the traditionally-expected arrangement of positioning a strong male character to ‘protect’ a female specialist (though shows like Bones keep to this model). Fringe‘s Olivia Dunham, Life‘s Dani Reese, The Mentalist‘s Teresa Lisbon, Castle‘s Stana Katic all serve one or both of two functions:

1) Protect the specialist (who is not necessarily trained to handle himself in-field). Some specialists are also-field trained, but even they require additional protection as a result of the times when their ‘weird-ness’ gets them into more trouble.
2) Provide a grounding/contextualizing force to the ‘weird’ specialist. The specialist-characters in these procedurals are often portrayed as being un-grounded or disassociated from the normal social world as a result of their special perspective on the world. Each show goes about this in a different way, and it’s not a universal. I’m merely drawing attention to a trend which has been identified in contemporary shows.

This Specialist–Handler arrangement provides a solid dramatic base for the shows, going back to shows like the X-Files (Mulder and Scully were both specialists in different areas, but Scully tended to play the ‘handler’ role more when Mulder went off on his conspiracy-chasing) and beyond.  The Handler character acts as a straight-man (or straight-woman in many cases) to the Specialist’s antics, acting as the audience’s stand-in, requiring an explanation or interpretation of the specialist’s arcane knowledge.  Dr. Cuddy is Dr. House’s handler, but so are the other fellows on his team.

Production companies will continue to use the specialist model to attempt to find space for their shows in an already-crowded procedural market.  Television viewers have seen decades worth of standard police procedurals, and this escalation into increasingly oddball specialists is an attempt to keep the lucrative procedural sub-genre fresh for viewers.  In the meantime, we as viewers have a wide variety of flavors of procedural to choose from to get our satisfaction in knowing that at the end of the hour, the criminal will be known even if they aren’t caught, and moreso than justice, mastery of knowledge will be achieved, allowing the specialist to sleep content in their ability and for us to retain our confidence in those specialists and the System which protects us.

At least, that seems to be the idea.

2 thoughts on “We Live in a Procedural World

  1. a nice analysis. You hit it spot on with House. All the false leads, the re-evaluation of new data, the constant checking with reality of conceived mental models. He’s the personification of a medical detective!

  2. I’d never thought of the “Handler-Specialist” partnering. It pops up in other shows as well, including, for what it’s worth, TV sports where there’s often a “color” analyst who is heavily opinionated, balanced by the play-by-play announcer who sticks to the facts and keeps the game going. In college basketball which I watch too much of you have the cranky (Billy Packer), annoying but funny and enthusiastic (Dick Vitale), opinionated by brilliant (Bob Knight), and a slew of former players who try to show how smart they are by inserting “brilliant” set pieces throughout the game to keep the casual fan interested if the game turns into a blow-out (Steve Lavin)

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