The Problem with Procedurals / by Chris Weigl

When it comes to dramas there are two types on TV: procedural dramas and serialized dramas.  Procedurals are shows like Law & Order, Criminal Minds, and Arrow, actually any superhero drama fits this mold.  They are based on formula and routine.  They draw an audience because the audience knows what to expect.  Serials are shows like Breaking Bad, Penny Dreadful, Mad Men, Homeland and The Bridge.  There is no set order in which things are going to happen, there is no routine, there may be consistencies, but in general the only consistencies tend to be the characters.  Although procedurals still maintain some popularity, serials are growing in their market share.  Some would be procedurals are adopting a hybrid mentality like The Good Wife, which features a fixed A-story where there will be a beginning, middle and end, but features a B-story and subplot that runs linearly through the season of the show.

The problem with a show like Arrow, that enjoys a wide fan base and strong critical success, is that it is simply an unoriginal reboot of every other superhero film or TV series that’s been put out there.  The only difference in that show is the weapon of choice of the main character, the method in which he was “changed” and his friends and family.  Most superheroes don’t have friends or family, but this one tweak isn’t enough to overcome the incredibly clichéd and cringe-worthy dialogue, the stock plot that is identical to your Superman, your Spiderman, your Iron Man, or what have you and the unbelievable feats that characters are somehow able to pull off. 

Now, I get it; it’s a superhero thing, but at some point you have to question whether someone can shoot an arrow well over a mile across a windy island and then have the arrow tip explode on impact with a perfectly placed pile of wood, which a couple fishermen who are concentrating on their work just happen to see.  The pilot’s most questionable scene is one where the main character is shot yet able to remove the bullet from himself and then leap out of the window only to grab a hold of a zip line that he managed to get perfectly balanced on while in mid-air after jumping out of a skyscraper.  One just has to wonder about the plausibility of this scenario.

Still, superhero movies are all the rage right now.  The new Avengers movie broke box office records, Captain America is poised to do even better, there’s a Batman vs. Superman movie that is getting a massive amount of buzz and all of this is being hailed as new and original when anyone who hasn’t drank the Kool Aid on this knows that they are really anything but.  In case superhero movies weren’t enough for you though there are now superhero TV series like Arrow and the new Daredevil series on Netflix.  The TV industry is such right now that if Marvel or DC Comics had an idea over the last fifty years there will be a studio out there who will wind up optioning it.  None of this is to say that networks are wrong for cashing in on America’s superhero craze right now, but to claim that it is the creative revolution we’ve all been waiting for does a serious disservice to creative-types everywhere.

It also isn’t accurate to say that all superhero shows or movies are created equal.  There are some that aren’t as bad as others.  Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for instance isn’t nearly as bad as a show like Arrow, but it isn’t good either.  It doesn’t do anything new outside of its genre and even within its genre a lot of the dialogue, plot and subplot are lost on those without a thorough understanding of superhero films and TV series.  So, what does this have to do with the procedural vs. serial fight?  Well, superhero and crime dramas are what’s popular right now in the same way that procedural sitcoms were all the rage in the 1990’s.  Twenty years later it’s fair to ask whether the sitcom is dead with even the most popular shows like How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory rarely measuring above the level of mediocrity that has defined the genre since it’s boom.

The larger question that creative types have to ask themselves is: which way is media going?  Is it headed towards a doubling down of procedurals?  It sure seems that way.  With your Law & Order spinoffs, your CSI, NCIS and the like spinoffs everywhere you turn to some it might seem like procedurals are the way to go.  But, where is this programming most effective?  Standalone television is the answer.  Law & Order SVU does alright on Netflix and Hulu, CSI has recently been added to Hulu, but the majority of success for these procedural dramas has come from your standard commercial-based television.  Simply put: that is not the future.  When you look at even the superhero series that we’ve mentioned there success has come mainly through streaming platforms.  That model would suggest that the success of procedural television is genre specific and given what we know about how procedural television is big one day and gone the next wouldn’t it make sense to look at serialized TV as an avenue to the future?

TV executives don’t seem convinced.  Why?  In their minds it’s expensive to keep a staff of writers in place to write an entire season of a serialized show it’s also much harder for a network to control the creative content of a serialized show.  Networks, like most corporations, are risk-averse.  They are going to take the path of least resistance every time it’s offered regardless of whether it’s the best creative decision and regardless of whether it’s the best thing for their audience.  Networks and studios are focused on the sure things.  They like sequels and spinoffs because there is a virtually guaranteed audience that is going to tune in or show up to watch these things.  Serial television is far riskier.  There is no “guaranteed” audience in fact there’s no guaranteed anything, which is why the hits when it comes to serialized television seem to be so few and far between.  It’s not that serials are less liked by audiences, it’s that networks put out far more procedurals than serials which makes it all the more pronounced when a serial fails.  The executives, who don’t like the idea of running a serial to begin with can say: “well, we tried this once and it didn’t work” and then go back to making really bad procedurals that may make them money in the short term, but no doubt contribute mightily to the creative downfall of television is a medium.  What we need is more variety and more selection among all varieties of shows not simply those that prove to be financially profitable in the short term for corporations with no vested interest in the creative fate of media in general.