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Why We Watch Procedurals

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | August 31, 2012 | Comments ()


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So much of prime time is saturated with procedurals, one would think that half our population was looking into medical degrees and forensic training. They're all the same damned show. We've got a cast of regulars, and a shifting cast of guest stars to whom bad things happen. Over the course of several seasons, the regulars run through a round robin rotation of sleeping with each other, while dealing with the usual hodge podge of career advancement, personal growth, and making impressive speeches.

But why not set these soap operas in the cubicle farms that are so much more familiar to us? I used to think that it was a simple matter of the exotic being interesting. When death is on the line, the stories must be more dramatic. But I don't think that's quite it anymore. I think that we watch these endless iterations because we need to see the characters of the week, we need to see people dying over and over again, on the streets in legal shows and in intensive care units on medical shows. Medical shows aren't about the doctors, legal shows aren't about the cops and lawyers. They're all about the patients, the accused, the victims. They're really about the things that terrify us.

Sure, there are the petty dramas, who is screwing who, promotions and bickering, but these don't just serve as soap opera titillation. Those little dramas serve to convince us that the arbiters of our fates, those figures who appear when bad things happen like angels of death or mercy, are people too. The main characters of these shows are almost beside the point, they are there in order to offer constancy in the face of the constant stream of dead and dying that pass through their doors.

Stories have never been just entertainment, and not just because of their power at tying us together with common understandings, common memes. They are also our first form of instruction. It's the iron law of storytelling to show not tell. Textbooks excel in the telling, in delineating exactly what is and is not with the precision of ten thousand years of language sculpted for exactly this purpose. Purely educational texts contain more information per unit of measure than anything else that is human readable. They can convey raw information in staggering quantities. But they are ill-suited to making us feel, to teaching us on an emotional level. That's what stories are, underneath the entertainment, they are vehicles for emotional instruction.

And that's why we are so forgiving in our stories, why with the exception of our own peculiarities of pedantry, we see past all of the informational problems with so many stories. It isn't because we are necessarily ignorant, or too lazy to bother, it's because getting the literal truth right matters less than getting the emotional truth right, so long as the errors aren't so jarring that they allow our brains to overrule our hearts.

We seek instruction on an instinctual level in the things that scare us. Generation after generation we watch the same procedurals, soaking up hundreds of dying patients and murder victims, who all hope they manage to get a last word in so they might get a SAG card.

It's not perfect, it's not real, almost everything we learn on a factual level is wrong, but it isn't entirely about that. It's about the emotional practice for the biggest moments of our lives. So that when the doctor comes in and says that it's time, we don't stare blankly, we don't have the freight train that's already hitting us loaded down with extra cars of incomprehension.

When the terrible things come, the things that have terrified us in the backs of our minds for all of our lives, we're not caught completely by surprise. When the monitor cries out with the flatline whine, when the cuffs we didn't see coming click tight, when there's the phone call at three AM, we're not ready, you can never be ready for the end of your world, but at least we have something like an emotional script. We've watched it like voyeurs enough times to have a hint of what's coming, so that even if we can't ride the wave of grief, maybe on numb autopilot we can manage at least not to drown.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.



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  • Ozpinhead

    I completely disagree with your opinion that the regular cast of the show and their stories are secondary to the popularity of the shows. Characterization and an appealing cast dynamic is paramount if I'll ever follow a tv show on a regular basis. This also applies to procedurals.
    I watched House because of House and the remaining cast, not because of the patients. I watched Bones and Castle because of the dynamic between the two main leads, not because of the mysteries of the week no matter how interesting they were.
    The patients, the victims, the criminals stories as you put it might entice enough to watch it for a few episodes of the show, but it's the cast that will make you come back for more.

    The only show that came close to an exception to this for me was Criminal Minds, and even that could be partially justified by the fact that the focus of the episodes were a very strong characterization of the criminal of the week, and not just the crime.

  • LibraryChick

    I think my father is a bit rare in his reasons for watching procedurals like the original Law & Order, CSI, or NCIS, but he doesn't like watching the spin-offs. He's retired, so he will catch one episode in syndication while flipping through the channels. Sure enough, the episode is usually part of a marathon, so then he insists on catching up until he can watch new episodes of the show. He genuinely enjoys the shows that have decent ensembles or story lines. (He enjoyed Law & Order for Jerry Orbach, NCIS for Mark Harmon, and CSI for the miniature killer season.) When the ensembles or story lines get too boring, he finally realizes he has burned out on a show and moves on to something else. He draws the line at medical dramas, though. As a doctor's son it reminds him too much of why his dad always came home super late from work. Also, being in somewhat poor health (20% kidney function, two angioplasties in 13 years, insulin-dependent type II diabetes), those don't comfort him one bit.

  • I myself am a huge procedurals fan (I've wasted many hours on every crappy CSI spinoff, and of course SVU, Lie to Me, Criminal Minds... the list goes on), so I've often wondered why they're so compelling. Other people, obviously, have as well: there have been literally hundreds of scholarly papers on the popularity of procedural drama, particularly among women, in literary criticism and especially in fan studies. For example:
    <ul>
    The Generational Diegetics of the Police Procedural on American TelevisionCanadian Review of American Studies (March 2011), 41 (1), pg. 75-95

    Policing Propp: Toward a Textualist Definition of the Procedural DramaHarriss, Chandler. Journal of Film and Video60. 1 (Spring 2008): 43-59

    Bullets, Buddies, and Bad Guys: The “Action-Cop” Genre Journal of Popular Film and Television (1993) 21 (2), pg. 79-87</ul>

    And of course, this.

  • Green Lantern

    I am now going to forward this article to my wife with a title of "I think I get it now".

    Honestly...NCIS, Criminal Minds, CSI...she watches ALL of those things. I'm trying to get her to understand that most of the science is slipshod, but as someone who removed most of her fear of spiders and thunderstorms by studying them it makes sense that she's pour over "by-the-numbers" after "by-the-numbers" gain some level of control over uncontrollable. Nice insight, SLW!

  • e jerry powell

    I'm just a contrarian bastard. I watch procedurals for Chris Meloni's ample ass.

    Oh, and Vincent d'Onofrio.

    Mostly because I have already absorbed every formulaic crime scenario that has ever entered Dick Wolf's mind, I can only watch for the eye candy anymore, because I solve the crimes in the first ten minutes.

    And I'm kind of getting over the reality procedurals on truTV and ID because apparently there are only about a couple hundred cases solved in ways that are interesting enough for the shows. and every one of them has been retold on ALL OF THEM. There are simply no more angles to exploit for evil white-trash strippers who murder their idiotically loyal husbands for the insurance money.

  • badkittyuno

    I think I like procedurals because of the mystery--I like trying to solve the whodunnit before the main characters do. I think that's why I avoid the ones that delve into the crimesolvers' lives--I just want to watch the crime

  • Vi

    My relationship with procedurals is that it's never bad enough for me to turn off and it's never compelling enough to keep my full attention either, so it's the perfect kind of show to just keep running as background noise.

  • jackdow

    Very interesting deconstruction. I feel this same logic applies to the gore-porn movies that became so powerful for a time. We need to see the destruction of the human body because it satisfies some desire for destruction. The same reason why we loved wrestling and weekends: it serves as a reflection of the truth

  • melissa

    I agree, although I don't think it's the whole story. I think part of it is--at least for me--we like to feel like we are insiders into some process that heretofore was mysterious and somewhat magical to us, like forensics or diagnostic medicine. And some people (as my husband pointed out when I showed him this) just like mysteries.

  • Natallica

    As an avid procedurals fan, I think I watch them partly for the morbid fascination of death itself (kind of the same reason a lot of people enjoys reading about serial killers), and partly for the reason you describe here: you can take a peek inside a foreign world, where people can be portrayed as equally badass, intelligent and even sexy.

  • ,

    There's an entire network devoted to procedurals, as anyone who's ever wandered down the ID rabbit hole for four hours of "Disappeared" knows.

    It's like horror movies, except it's largely real: Look at the terrible things that can happen to you. Then the prospect of dying in your own bed one night doesn't seem so bad at all.

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