Making fun of the formulaic and unrealistic nature of TV procedurals is almost as tradition-bound as the prodceurals themselves. But few have done it better than Ken Levine in his recent post “How to Create a Hit Network Drama.” Every beat of every show on almost every U.S. network (more on that in a second) is covered, from the female lead being “an established television star who’s had a lot of work done” to the elaborate techno-sets to the inevitable conclusion of most episodes:
But is [the hero] happy? Oh no. The last scene should be a beauty shot of the hero heading home alone at night. He comforts others but he himself is very lonely. A John Mayer song plays. Very moody. The camera pulls back (big crane shot), and you’re out. Not a dry seat in the house.
For some reason the only U.S. network that doesn’t quite have this formula down pat is NBC. CBS is the network where every drama follows the formula it more or less invented (since all these shows are based on CSI to some extent). Fox has two very successful takes on the formula in House and Bones. And ABC has Castle and the new Body of Proof. NBC hasn’t quite found its own hit drama where a hero (or beautiful couple) solves mysteries backed by a largely pointless elite team. Probably a lot of that is explained by the bump in their development process caused by their attempt to give up on 10 o’clock, but also, the network’s own procedural identity has been different, and older – bound up with Dick Wolf and his formula, which is grittier and less glamorous. (Compare SVU and Criminal Minds; the former is horrifying but somewhat low-key, while the latter manages to be uglier and prettier – any type of exploitation it can do, it does openly.) That network will probably come up with its own CSI-ish hit eventually, though.
And it goes without saying that though all of these shows follow some aspects of this formula, they don’t all follow every single rule. The way a show distinguishes itself from the competition is by doing something a little different, a variation on the formula. At its best, a show can do a good job by ringing little variations on what we expect, like a composer of a pop song plays around with a structure and form that is more or less inviolable. On the other hand, most pop songs do kind of sound alike, and most shows of a particular type are kind of similar.