Keep Calm, Trope On: Procedural TV

We all have our favorite and least favorite tropes. From love triangles to slow burns, tropes are often the best ways to showcase great characters and storylines. They can also be frustrating and make you question why it is even a trope at all. In this bi-weekly column, we’ll take a deep dive into some of the most classic television tropes.

Despite all the television out there, I barely watch TV on a regular basis. While I try to not get too far behind in The Resident and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, there is only one show that I will make sure not to miss each week. 

What show you may ask? Nothing other than the good ol’ procedural NCIS: Los Angeles

Despite the absurd amount of television out there, NCIS: Los Angeles remains one of the few shows that keeps me interested every week. So, I started to wonder why that is. It’s not like this spin-off of NCIS is a ground-breaking show. In fact, I really only care about two characters on the show (one guess on who they are).

But what NCIS: Los Angeles lacks in unique story-telling (I’m being very blunt, but I promise you I really do like NCIS: Los Angeles), they make up for in reliable and dependent episodes. 

See, NCIS: Los Angeles fits in the category of a television procedural. According to Trope TV, a criminal procedural’s basis, for example, is that it has a “lack of emphasis on the character’s personal lives and the increased focus on the nuts-and-bolts of law enforcement.” Oddly enough, the reason I love NCIS: Los Angeles is because of the personal lives of Deeks and Kensi that have blossomed over ten seasons. 

Regardless, rather than focusing on the personal lives of characters, procedural television uses their jobs as a means to explore stories and characters. It’s not like Parenthood, in which we don’t really keep up with the Bravermans’ work. In Parenthood, we instead learn more about the characters through their interactions outside of the 9 to 5. 

Source: NBC

In Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, we have gotten to know several characters throughout the years. We learned a tremendous amount about Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson without ever really seeing them without their badge. Being a cop made them who they were, and it helped us as the audience become more invested in them as well. 

Procedural TV is just another way to explore various characters. It just so happens to have a lot more structure than any other kind of television. 

You know that each week there is going to be a case that pulls our favorite detectives and agents in. Whatever the circumstances, you know that they’ll most likely power through and save the day. When you go into a procedural TV you know there is a lot more stability than any other kind of television programming and that’s pretty comforting. I can go into an NCIS: Los Angeles episode knowing that I most likely won’t hate it. If I decided to watch Supergirl instead (which happens to be during the same timeslot), then that’s more of a risk. 

However, the beauty of television is that we take risks. Every time we decide to watch a pilot episode, we are risking taking time away from another show that we may like even more. 

I’m not saying never take risks and always go with the procedural. In fact, nine times out of ten I’d say give the new show a try. Give the show that doesn’t have a set structure and is more versatile a chance. At the end of the day, there is more of a chance it will become your new favorite show than the fifth spin-off of an age-old television franchise. 

Television is a gamble. I know I find comfort in watching Kensi and Deeks every Sunday navigate their way through life. Why risk it? 

Source: FOX

But there is a reason procedural television hasn’t won or been nominated for any awards in recent years. It’s boring (for the most part). Like I said earlier, these kinds of shows aren’t truly groundbreaking. Sure, Law & Order was ten or so years ago, but things have changed in the age of peak TV. It’s all about what makes your television show different and stands out amongst the rest and, I’m sorry, but a cop TV show probably won’t cut it. 

Why do you think most TV procedurals that come to mind such as Criminal Minds, Hawaii 5-0, Blue Bloods, NCIS, etc. all happen to have multiple seasons? Because they would never get made now. Let’s be real, CBS is the main culprit behind this kind of television programming. And hey — if it’s not broke why fix it. These procedural TV shows – while may not have the biggest followings – make a lot of money for networks. It’s a lot easier for a network to carry on a show then start from scratch.

The 9-1-1 franchise is probably the most recent hit procedural TV show. The thing about that show is, while it was hugely popular when it first debuted three years ago, does anyone really watch it now? 9-1-1 built its legacy on each week having its characters face insane obstacles. A baby stuck in a pipe, a tsunami that hits Los Angeles and a guy getting a metal pole stuck through his head and living. All completely bonkers – yet storylines that caught America by storm.

But has the fizzling of 9-1-1 been at the hands of it being a weekly procedural or just because there is way too much television out there? The first few seasons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and The X-Files were amazing, both seemed to hit a slumber as seasons went on. Perhaps, the problem lies in what many television shows – not just procedurals – succumb to: not knowing when to end.

That being said, I never want NCIS: Los Angeles to end.

I, and so many others, love procedural TV. There’s absolutely no shame in it. But one of the great things in watching television is being able to critique it. Can’t really see myself getting obsessed with another new procedural TV show and I also don’t see any new ones coming out. This doesn’t mean it’s not possible, and I look forward to the day when I am proven wrong.

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