Saturday, February 12, 2011
Television: The Episodic Procedural.
Hey all! Last time, I briefly outlined my thoughts on different kinds of television storytelling. Today, I’m going to describe one of the three methods in detail. This method is clearly the one that television networks love and depend on the most. I hope you like what you read :).
The Episodic Procedural:
Whether you want to watch a show about lawyers, cops, doctors, or people somehow related to any of the above, television will always have something for you. The beauty of these shows is that they’re grounded in the resolution of a weekly problem. Will the case be won? Will the criminal be caught? Will the patient die? No one has to stick around for several seasons to figure out what the Smoke Monster is or what the Cylons are planning. That’s probably why networks love them. New viewers can be easy to come by since no one is confused by years of previous convoluted plot developments. At the very least, you can miss an episode or two without having to stream them.
All of that aside, the case of the week is hardly the point. What really matters is character evolution. To make the cases matter to the viewer, they often mirror the direction of said character evolution. When done well, it can lead to some of the most emotionally satisfying and/or draining episodes of any kind of show out there (I’m looking at you almost every single House Season Finale). Grey’s Anatomy also does this really well.
So as to make sure that a procedural doesn’t simply camouflage itself as every single other procedural, each has its own particular hook.
Bones combines the fun of forensic anthropology and being rational with the thrill of catching killers and having gut feelings, all the while leaving us to wonder whether Booth and Brennan are ever going to hook it up (SPOILER ALERT: they probably will and not just in dream sequences).
House combines exotic hard-to-solve medical cases with hilariously offensive doctoring and racial stereotyping, all the while leaving us to wonder if House and Cuddy are ever going to hook it up (SPOILER ALERT: they already have and not just in dream sequences).
Grey’s Anatomy combines surgery with monologue-giving doctors who occasionally make impressive statements well beyond the ability with which we see them handling their personal problems, all the while wondering if any of them are going to hold down their current quasi-faltering relationships (SPOILER ALERT: they probably won’t and not just in cancer-induced ghost-dream sequences; however, they likely will in the case of a series finale).
The one thing that these shows have in common is that they try to make you feel. It might mean feeling for the patients/clients/victims, or else the main characters themselves. When done well, both can be quite moving at the same time.
What procedurals often don’t do is make you think. Before you decide you disagree and rush to the commets, hear me out. First of all, I acknowledge that there are exceptions to this statement. Feel free to riddle the comments section with examples. Second of all, when I say think, I don’t mean trying to figure out who done it before the episode is over. I mean think in the sense of rich thematic content. In procedurals, the metaphors are all pretty easy to parse and once you get over the initial shock, joy, sadness, or confusion, you aren’t left with much to ponder. As much as I love lots of these shows, I don’t sit around all day thinking about the deeper meaning of last week’s episode of Bones.
That certainly doesn’t mean that they don’t bring up important current issues and give you food for thought, nor does it mean that the writing is any less sharp or creative when compared to serial dramas. It just means that the artistry put into the thematic content isn’t usually on par with fine literature.
Interestingly enough, most of the exceptions to this are often found in fantasy and science fiction universes. Star Trek Voyager, Torchwood (especially COE), some Doctor Who (2005), and other episodic shows like them have often left me deep in thought for hours (I’m looking at you the episode of ST:V in which The Doctor has a moral dilemma that causes him to malfunction because his subroutines and views on ethics don’t mesh with his decision), while moving me intensely (I’m looking at you the episode of ST:V in which the doctor creates himself a holodeck family, which ends tragically). Seriously, I think that that last episode I mentioned is probably the first time that television moved me to tears. That’s the kind of thought provoking/tear-inducing art I mentioned in my first article.
Television: The Greatest Art Form Of All Time?
That’s a wrap for this post. Thanks again for reading and I hope you enjoyed what I had to say! Next time, I’m going to take a break from this series of articles and discuss how television music moves me.
If you missed my last article, which was essentially a preamble to this one, then here it is.
Television: Three Ways To Tell A Great Story