Procedural Gains? The Value of “Case of the Week” Television Shows

A long time ago, television was different.  Shows mainly focused on the weekly adventures of its characters, very rarely (if at all) connecting them in any meaningful way beyond the initial premise (i.e. “Gilligan’s Island”).  But nowadays we have shows like “Breaking Bad” or “The Walking Dead” which have a single, continuous story going on throughout their episodes.  Television has changed quite a bit.  I wrote a bit about serialized storytelling in television shows a while back, where I basically said that it’s becoming more and more the standard for television shows.  But what about those “case of the week” shows?  You know, all those shows like the “Law and Order”s and the “NCIS”s and even that “CSI” show where it’s imperative that David Caruso put his sunglasses on at the end of each episode.

 

We have sunglasses! Repeat. we have sunglasses! ROLL CREDITS!

 

Well, these type of shows are still around.  “But,” you might be asking, “how are these shows surviving if serialized storytelling is becoming the norm?”  Well, some of them aren’t.  “CSI: Miami” has been off the air for about five years now.  But even so, “CSI: Maimi” went on for ten seasons and the original “NCIS” is still going (they’re on season fourteen as of this writing).  So how did they make it?  How are they still drawing an audience in the age of serialized storytelling?

Part of it has to do with the nature of broadcast television itself.  Since each episode airs at a specific time on a specific night, it’s sometimes difficult for viewers to keep up with an overarching story.  You can watch recent episodes of shows on digital streaming services like Hulu, but a lot of those require a monthly fee.  It’s just simpler to watch a show where each episode is its own story that doesn’t connect the other episodes.  And they’re sort of relaxing in a way.  I’ll admit that I watch some of them back to back when I go back to my parent’s house for a weekend, partially because I don’t have television at my apartment (I do have a handful of broadcast channels, but nothing on them interests me).

But even with this simpler nature, the streaming age is still marching on.  As more and more people gain access to these services and as the internet infrastructure in the United States and other countries gets stronger and stronger, these shows will lose that edge.  If you can watch a show anytime you want, that pressure to sit down and watch at a specific time disappears entirely.  And it seems that broadcast television is aware of that in some way.  More procedural shows have started injecting serialized elements into their DNA.  Lots of crime shows will have arcs that take place over multiple episodes.  A good example of this would be a main character suffering an injury in an episode and then the following episodes dealing with the fallout and limitations of that, all while they go about solving the crime of the week.

And this is something that procedural shows are very good at.  In serialized shows, we see characters always under pressure, always struggling against great odds.  But rarely do we get to see how they’d react to what they’d consider a normal situation.  Procedural shows are actually good at giving us glimpses into the normal lives of their characters, rather than using broad strokes like most serialized shows do.  It actually tells you a lot about a person when you see how they respond to a normal, everyday problem rather than an extreme one.

On the flip side, when serialized shows try something like this it often ends up feeling forced or it messes with the pacing.  A good example of this would be in season three of “Breaking Bad”.  There’s a segment that deals almost exclusively with domestic drama between Walter and Skyler.  And it’s just…boring.  There’s a lot of tension, but very little release.  It doesn’t really go anywhere and it just feels as though the writers were looking for a way to eat up time.  I mean the best moment from that section of the show is Walter bringing his family a pizza.

 

Incidentally, this scene was so popular that the show creator had to make a statement asking fans to stop throwing pizza on the roof of the Walter White house.

 

The strength of procedural shows lies in the myriad ways they can examine their characters.  “Star Trek: The Next Generation” did a wonderful job with the episodes focusing on Data, the resident android.  In a way, we got to know Data far better than any of the other characters on the Enterprise. which made him a fan-favorite from the series.  It would be a shame if we lost that power because television is growing more and more serialized.  That being said, it appears broadcast television has a ways to go before they can compete with the likes of “Breaking Bad”.  In particular, ABC seems to go through new shows like a hot knife through better.  Remember “Time After Time”, the show about H.G. Wells chasing Jack the Ripper?  If you don’t, that’s okay.  It was cancelled after five episodes.  And this happens a lot with broadcast.  I mentioned once that I thought broadcast television was too focused on the plot twists instead of the characters.  And the advertising seems indicate that, with commercials focusing on “that twist you’ll never see coming”.

But progress inevitably continues.  And eventually, they’ll have to catch up…sooner or later.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for my next short story!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

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The Woes of Broadcast Shows

To get started, let’s take a look at this promo for an episode of the show Designated Survivor:

 

 

Nothing unusual here right?  Just an average promo for a television show right?  Well that’s sort of my problem with it.

I stopped watching shows on broadcast television a long time ago (the last show I followed was Fringe, and that ended its run four years ago).  My issue is the kind of thing you see in the trailer.  Instead of actually giving us a clue as to what might happen next, it dwells on the “shocking” twist at the end of the mid-season finale.  “The shot that shocked the nation,” it proudly proclaims before going on to tease “who took the bullet?”  Because that’s the kind of hype these shows are built up on.  How many television show promos have you seen tease a plot twist you “won’t see coming”?

For another example, let’s take a look at the ABC series Scandal.  Scandal‘s main premise is about Olivia Pope, who is a “fixer”…that is, someone who gets rid of problems for people who can afford it (namely the rich and powerful).  Let’s take a look at Wikipedia’s summary of season one:

“Season 1 introduced Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and the various members of her firm, as well as President of the United States Fitzgerald Grant III (Tony Goldwyn) and his chief of staff Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry). Season 1 focused on the lives of the team members, the relationship between Olivia and the President (her former employer), and the mystery surrounding Amanda Tanner’s (Liza Weil) involvement with the White House, among other cases the team solved.”

It doesn’t tell us much about what happens in season one, but it doesn’t need to.  Scandal clearly started out as a procedural type of show with some recurring elements.  I’ve never watched it myself, but that’s the impression I get from the summary.  For contrast, let’s take a look at season four’s summary:

“The first half of the season focuses on Jake’s arrest for the death of Jerry Grant after Rowan forces Tom to name Jake as the operator. Rowan continues to try to make everyone believe Jake is guilty, which inspires Olivia to find out the truth for herself. After forcing Tom to reveal Rowan as his operator, Fitz, Jake, and Olivia make a plan to arrest Rowan. Unfortunately, the plan fails, causing Rowan to shut down B613 and start eliminating B613 agents. Olivia tries to kill Rowan when she confronts him, but he manages to flee. Abby is now the White House Press Secretary, and is struggling with gaining the respect of Cyrus and Fitz, because they choose to demean her by calling her “Red” instead of Abby. Later in the season, Abby finds herself stressed even more by the presence of her abusive ex-husband, who has been nominated for Virginia State Senator, and she enlists Leo Bergen to help ruin his campaign. Quinn has stayed in contact with both Abby and Huck, in addition to trying to find Olivia.”

Did you get that?  No?  Me neither.  It just sounds like a mess of different plot points.  And that’s not even the entire summary.

Now, to be fair, any show with an overarching plot can sound confusing if you just jump in four seasons deep.  But even so, Scandal‘s season four just sounds like it’s over-stuffed with plot elements.  Rowan forces Tom to name Jake as the operator, but Rowan is the real operator!  They try to get Rowan arrested but the plan fails!  Meanwhile Abby has to deal with office sexism!

Even just watching the preview for the next episode of Designated Survivor gives you an idea of how quickly things can get out of hand.  Pro tip: if you’re only halfway through the first season of your political espionage thriller show, maybe don’t make the Vice President of the goddamn United States your bad guy.  Because honestly, where do you go from there?

And that’s my big problem.  It seems that network television spends most of its time trying to out-“OMG” the competition rather than producing good, solid content.

From 2004 to 2010, Lost demonstrated the potential of serialized television shows.  It wasn’t really until Lost that network television really started to shift in that direction.  The groundwork was laid by shows like X-Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it was Lost that really brought it all together.  Sure, the show was (and still is) mocked for not giving any real answers to its mysteries, but its strength lay in how fleshed out its characters were.  Over the course of six seasons, you got to know a lot about their lives…almost too much.  But Lost was also known for all the crazy plot twists that happened.  They were all the crazy “water-cooler moments” that people talked about the day after an episode premiered.  And it seems that’s what network television took note of, so now broadcast shows are just a race to get the biggest “OMG” water-cooler moment of the year.

I mean, it might actually be working.  For all the guff I gave Scandal‘s fourth season, it apparently has the highest Nielson ratings of all of them.  But the story is different for Designated Survivor.  On average, the ratings have been dropping ever since the premiere episode.  This plot twist obsessed mindset is not going to be sustainable forever.

One of the most talked about shows last year was Stranger Things, a show that was exclusively on Netflix.  Broadcast television has always had an edge because it’s free, at least in the sense that you don’t have to pay a bill every month to watch.  But as streaming becomes more prevalent and more affordable, broadcast TV might be on the way out.  Instead of having to wait and see what happens next episode, you can just click “next episode” (although you’ll still likely have to wait for new seasons to come out).

I talked about this a little bit when I spotlighted Person of Interest, but one of my major issues with broadcast television is that there’s so much filler content, even in shows that claim to be serialized.  And this is because broadcast networks are obsessed with ratings, which means that they give shows these twenty-odd episode seasons that they are required to fill up.  Now, obviously, it’s nearly impossible to make all those episodes about an over-arching plot without it quickly growing convoluted and incomprehensible, so most shows opt to have filler episodes surrounding the main story.  This is what Fringe did, and while I still very much enjoyed the show, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if the show had been on a non-broadcast network or had been a streaming show.

This format isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s very stifling in a creative sense.  And unless broadcast television changes its ways, I don’t see much of a future for it in the age of on-demand streaming.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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