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Why We Watch Procedurals

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | August 31, 2012 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | August 31, 2012 |

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 You can email him here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.