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Great Procedural or Greatest Procedural

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | November 6, 2009 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | November 6, 2009 |

“I think that if we were to put that to the test you’d find that it was too close to call. But, since my parents raised a gentleman and yours raised a killer…” -McGee

I don’t like procedurals.

There are two types of procedurals: the jocks and the nerds. The jocks are your typical “Law and Order” show, the guys that strut around and get confessions out of people to solve crimes. Oh there are lab techs and such, but they exist for nothing in the narrative but telling the detectives which guy looking to pick up his SAG card they should talk to next. Interrogation, interrogation, forensics says to talk to this guy, interrogation, confession, done! There’s a lot of yelling at suspects to tell the truth, and eventually they usually do, generally because the third commercial break rolls around. Or they ask for a lawyer, which means that they’re either guilty or just a slimy asshole.

The nerds are “CSI” and its variants. The only jocks (cops) around are either properly gelded and yoked to serve the scientists or are given a Ph.D from MIT (isn’t it always MIT?) and a vague title like “forensic analyst” so everyone can pretend that they’re smart while taking their sunglasses off ever so slowly. Technobabble, technobabble, streetwise cop says something stupid that holds the key to the case, technobabble, DNA match, done! There’s a lot of intense staring into microscopes and clattering away at keyboards.

I really don’t like procedurals. They’re generally the narrative equivalent of a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces go together in a predetermined way that takes some nominal level of intelligence to master, but at the end of the exercise all you’ve got is the picture that was already printed on the damned box. I don’t like jigsaw puzzles either for that matter. The problem with most procedurals is that they suck all of the mystery out of mysteries, they’re about the procedure of solving a mystery without any of the thinking of solving a mystery.

I’m being so explicit about why I don’t like procedurals in order to explain a terrifically counter-intuitive contradiction: I like “NCIS.” At face value, a spin-off of “JAG” has about as much appeal to me as a rash spun off of herpes, but I happened to get stuck watching the reruns of it one night on USA while cooking dinner, if only because there wasn’t anything else on. It was love, the sort of forbidden pleasure that makes you embarrassed to allow friends to work the TiVo remote lest they find your secret television joy. You find yourself actually being able to watch television with your parents and grandparents, which makes holidays easier, but you feel guilty about it as if you stepped out on your good taste with a cheap hooker for the night.

“NCIS” bridges the two types of procedurals, giving us legitimate jocks and nerds on the same team. The characters are the show’s strongest suit, well developed and with evolving relationships. They all fit in broad classifications of course, but the actors do a superb job of bringing personable nuance to each character. Sure there’s the computer geek, but he’s also an author. You’ve got the shallow womanizer, but he’s also a goofball with an encyclopedic obsession with movies that might be able to rival Drew Morton’s.

The characterization feeds into humor, an element usually lacking in procedurals. So much of the episodes end up being the banter and interplay between the agents, the sort of interactions that grow more meaningful the more episodes that you see. It draws upon that humor most when it’s at its most serious, taking to heart that lesson of storytelling that humor makes drama more acute, that if you remove humor from drama you’re not left with something more dramatic, but rather something entirely somber.

And the humor is needed because this show makes a point of fucking with its characters more like a Joss Whedon franchise than a Law & Order clone. Over the six year run, two main characters died in cliff hangers along with a multitude of recurring guest stars, and that’s not even getting into the glorious emotional traumas.

But the most important thing about “NCIS,” the thing that leaves other procedurals in its wake, is the commitment to the scientific method. Other procedurals pay lip service to it, especially the various CSIs with their virtual fetishization of forensics, but they really aren’t particularly scientific. Science is not simply plugging a [technobabble] into the [technobabble] and seeing that person A must have committed the crime. Science is rational thought and deduction, the logical inference of the unknown from what might indirectly be measured. It has nothing at all to do with gadgets, and everything to do with a way of thinking. Oh, “NCIS” plays fast and loose at times with particular technical details, but overall it does a superb job tracing the thinking of the characters. There doesn’t tend to be the typical procedural shortcut of either having the random lab equipment just give the answer or having the interrogation lead to an inevitable confession. Have a recorded phone call, and you know where one caller’s location is but not the other and hear a train in the background on both ends of the line? The difference in time of hearing the train on one end versus the other, cross referenced with the average speed of a train, and matched against the train time tables for the area will give you a rough idea of the other end of the call. No technobabble or $100,000 specialized equipment, just thinking.

For a show that you can watch with your grandparents, it’s surprisingly open and liberal. The goth girl with tats, heavy metal and thigh-high boots. The various cases involving transgenders and gays who don’t raise the slightest eyebrow. And of course, the women who can kick ass and take names.

Is it a great show? No, but it excels at exactly what it sets out to do: populate a world with relatable characters. Make them diverse, intelligent and likable. Kill some of them off now and then unexpectedly. Use your brains, laugh while you do it, then shoot some bad guys.

And if you don’t like it, get off of my damn lawn.

“What if your job includes touching, ah, naked people… “ -Palmer
“That is inappropriate at any time.” -Sexual Harassment Trainer
“Even if they’re dead?” -Palmer
“Why are you touching dead naked people?!” -Sexual Harassment Trainer
“I work in autopsy.” -Palmer

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.

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

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