The Deadly Formulaic Procedural

Procedural shows are, by definition, formulaic. They require each episode to be pretty much self-contained, and rather than have long-format story arcs over the course of a season or longer, each week contains another cookie-cutter story.

I get super bored with procedurals. Really fast.

Following the same formula every week is extremely repetitive and – even worse – predictable. A lot of times procedurals start to fail when the viewers learn to predict the end of the episode shortly after it has even begun. Sure, if the particular case at hand that week is especially interesting, they’ll still keep watching, but they know what is going to happen anyway.

Most procedurals deal with law enforcement agents, doctors, or courts. One great example of (a good) procedural is The X-Files, which had a different paranormal phenomenon to be investigated and solved every week. The important thing, though, is that it had more than just stand-alone, self-contained episodes. Instead, it combined its case-of-the-week with an overarching plotline of mystery, corruption, and intrigue. Beyond that, it is the characters that carried this long-format narrative. Without Mulder and Scully, you have no X-Files (as evidenced by how absolutely dreadful the series became in the later seasons).

Despite the sense that procedurals are destined to die, it is entirely possible to write a great one. This PopMatters article uses the example of Bones to discuss the need for strong characters in procedurals in order for them to be successful. This is a key concept for television writers to take into consideration.

The Bones in Every Procedural TV Show, Including ‘Bones’, Are the Characters Themselves
Liz Medendorp @ PopMatters

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I hate procedurals, but I love Bones. The compelling characters keep the audience engaged despite the formulaic format, but some episodes fall flat… This is something that all procedurals should take note of: it isn’t the new medical mystery or supernatural event or bizarre murder every week that keeps bringing us back, it’s the characters.”

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2 comments

  1. Hi, MQ! Glad to see your up and posting again! Was interested to read this piece and have to agree with the general view of procedurals. Also enjoyed your musings on the current season of Bones as my husband and I used to watch it religiously when in was in syndication rotation on TNT. Now they are showing Castle and the hubster has a new favorite. I watch it most times too as I really like Nathan Fillion and am pleased to see him on TV regularly. He’s aging well and I like his interp of the character. But here again, there’s the rational one (Beckett) and the touchy-feely one (Castle) and, since last season ended with the two of them finally falling into bed together, it’s been intersting to watch how the relationship has developed and impacted the storylines. Hope you had  a wonderful holiday season and that 2013 is a spectacular year for you!  Cyndi

    ________________________________

    • Glad to see you’re still reading, Cyndi!

      I’m still catching up on Castle – I’m a little ashamed I did such a bad job of keeping up because, well, it’s Nathan Fillion and I love that man like nobody’s business. (Just came across a picture today that you might like if you’re a Fillion/Firefly fan.) I totally agree that they also have the Scully/Mulder slash Bones/Booth dynamic going on. Clearly it works well!

      Thanks for reading, and for commenting as well!


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