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.

The Allure of Star Trek

So for the past month or so, I’ve been recording a podcast with a friend of mine where we review each episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in order from start to finish.  You can find the podcast here (shameless self-promotion is best promotion).  The two of us going through the show again got me thinking about something.  Why is Star Trek so loved, and what exactly do people love about it?

It’s interesting, because there hasn’t been a Star Trek show for a decade now (the date this is posted will be exactly ten years from the premiere of Star Trek: Enterprise‘s last episode…I was already writing this post when I found that out…funny how things work out).  The only thing Trek fans have gotten in the last ten years is a couple of movies that are basically more action movies than anything.  So then, what got people interested in this franchise in the first place?

I’ve never actually watched much of the original Trek series (I know, it’s heresy), but I have seen all or at least most of The Next Generation (TNG for short).  I used to watch it all the time back when my family first got satellite television.  SpikeTV used to broadcast episodes of the show back to back, so I would watch them when I got home from school that day.  The show itself was on the air before I was born and ended its run when I was about three or four, so I was never really able to watch it back then.  The thing that struck me about the show, and something I really look for in the shows I watch today, was how character driven it is.  TNG is not a show that’s driven by action or explosions.  It’s driven by characters who are genuinely trying to find their place or deal with personal issues.  Sometimes this works beautifully.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Such is the nature of television.

TNG is especially a case of ups and downs, mainly because it was born in that time where television was in a state of transition.  TNG itself was even the driving force behind a lot of changes in television.  But that being the case, it is also true that the first season of the show is very much all over the place in quality.  One episode could be an enjoyable romp with good pacing, and the next episode could be stupefying in how bad it is.  And yet, despite this rocky first season or so (me and my friend have only done the first ten or so episodes so far), the show went on for seven seasons, and garnered multiple Emmy awards.  So the question still remains, what made this show so popular?

Re-watching the first episode for our podcast, I realized part of that reason.  The first episode of TNG deals with the crew of the Enterprise encountering a godlike being named “Q”, who places humanity on trial for being savages.  The Enterprise crew of course argues that humans may have been savages in the past, but that they’ve changed.  The rest of the episode deals with them proving that point, showing that humanity can indeed better itself.  It’s certainly a more hopeful vision of the future.

It’s this philosophical nature of the show that I think a lot of people like, myself included.  The show proves its intellectual chops right away in the first episode, despite the fact that the episode itself is very uneven.  Star Trek as a whole loves to muse on the nature of the human race and its place in the grand scheme of the universe, and I think that science-fiction as a genre deals with that a lot.  That’s part of the reason I like science-fiction so much.  It’s part philosophical, part spectacle, and part character driven.  Or at least it can be.  You can also get sci-fi tinged Michael Bay movies that do little more than make jokes about giant robot balls (yeah I’m looking at you Transformers 2).

But when sci-fi is done right, what you get tends to be an incredible experience…if you’re into that sort of thing.  There are a lot of people out there who just don’t get science-fiction, don’t understand why people are so enthralled by it.  And that’s perfectly okay.  Sci-fi was never meant to be an all-inclusive genre.  It straddles the line a lot of the time, drifting into most other genres with ease, but there’s always a distinct sci-fi flair to it (or lens flare if you’re J.J. Abrams).

It’s something that TNG as a show understands very well.  It’s deep, thought-provoking, and touching at times, but it also sometimes just has fun with its premise.  One of the early episodes deals with a region of space that allows people’s thoughts to become reality, and it’s that sense of wonder and mind-bending concepts that made me love Star Trek.  It’s not afraid to try something new or be outlandish.

So will we ever see another Star Trek television show?  I honestly don’t know.  There have been rumors over the years about different projects, but none of them ever came to light.  I would love to see another show, but I wonder if it would succeed in modern times.  When you look at the popular shows, they tend to be things like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, shows that aren’t very favorable to humanity, instead showing us as bitter and conniving.  Is there room in this landscape for a show that presents us as flawed yet well-meaning?  I like to think so, but only time can tell.

 

Well that’s all I have for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.