TV: Besides Cops, Lawyers and Doctors, What Else Is There? -

TV: Besides Cops, Lawyers and Doctors, What Else Is There?


I don’t comment too much on pilot pickups because most of them will never see the light of day. (I want the networks to bring back those summer shows where they burned off the pilots they rejected for the upcoming season.) But on a comment thread on another site, I noticed some understandable frustration that most of the drama pilots fall into the usual categories: Doctor show, lawyer show, cop show. CBS in particular has almost completely given up pretending they care about anything else; no more Jerichos or Viva Laughlins, just more cops, more lawyers, and their highest priority is finding a successful medical show. But most networks are heavily oriented towards crime and doctor shows, with the occasional science fiction or period pilot to leaven the mix. NBC may have ordered a “complex, sprawling” epic ambitious pilot from the creator of Syriana, but it’s still a crime show with cops and criminals when you come right down to it.

So, yes, this can be very tiresome. You look for variety on TV, and what you get is mostly a limited range of shows about a limited range of jobs. But I’m a little more sympathetic to the broadcast networks once I try to think out the obvious follow-up question: what kind of jobs are appropriate for a network TV drama? As I’ve said in the past, most TV dramas are really melodramas — it’s very tough, no matter how ambitious you are, to make a continuing series about ordinary life, because the stakes are too low for 13 episodes a season. Bump it up to 22 episodes or more, as on broadcast TV, and it’s even more imperative to have really high stakes. Meaning that slice-of-life dramas are more or less ruled out. They usually can’t sustain a full season.

That being the case, network dramas need melodramatic situations that can spin off a lot of episodes. But here’s where the choices narrow even farther, because there are other things a network drama needs besides melodrama. There needs to be a setup that can bring in new “cases” every week, not only because the network needs something to promote, but because it provides a self-contained element that new viewers can grab onto — and regular viewers can follow as a diversion in case they’re getting bored with the relationships. (Not every successful show is a serial, but most of them offer something new or interesting in that particular week, which often comes from an outside character wandering in with a case.) And they need to be cases that have some kind of high-stakes, even life-or-death component to them.

Which is why doctors, lawyers and cops are such reliable subjects for a TV series. They have jobs that are about life-and-death issues — mostly death — and allow guest characters and new stories to walk in any time. They spin off stories with clear goals: save a life, win the case, catch the crook. And they are about people who deal with outsiders every day (patients, clients, victims), meaning that guest characters can come in and carry some of the emotional load. All of that makes it much easier to write 22 episodes a year and not run out of big, effective story ideas.

One format that used to be on a level with doctor/lawyer/cop, and was actually more popular than those types of shows when weekly TV drama started, is the Western. Same thing applies there — actually, since so many Westerns revolve around lawmen, it could actually be considered a cousin to the cop show. (Just like the most popular broadcast science fiction series, The X-Files, was literally a cop show.) The TV Western lost its popularity and went away, leaving crime and surgery as the dominant forces in non-soap-opera drama.

Now, just because cop/lawyer/doctor are the most reliable vehicles for a 22-episode season doesn’t mean they should dominate quite as completely as they do. But some types of drama are prevented from coming back by the way shows are produced nowadays. One very effective type of drama is the disguised anthology, like Route 66, where you have two characters driving around and getting mixed up in different types of stories in different places. But no network show today would dare to have only two regulars (whereas it used to be quite common as recently as The X-Files), and the need to have a big ensemble really cuts down on the types of shows you can do.

But there are others. Teacher shows, for example. When I brought this issue up, I had several people mention teacher shows: the teacher at the tough high school is a setup that fits all the criteria — high stakes, ensemble cast, lots of new stories that can walk in the door — but it hasn’t been done much lately. It seems that this is something that networks have forgotten about in their focus on crime, though it’s also true that high school dramas don’t usually hit it big unless they are full-fledged soap operas focusing on the kids. (And if a show starts out as a high school drama about teachers, like The White Shadow or Boston Public, it will be mostly about the kids by the end of its run.) One related idea, given the interest in period drama, is to do a show set at a university in the late ’60s — there are potentially lots of stories to be found in riots, political activism, conflicts among the teachers about said riots and activism. Update: This was in my original draft of the post but somehow got left out: Glee, obviously, is a throwback to the high school drama to some extent, right down to the fact that the adults are de-emphasized in favour of the kids. It’s successful for a lot of reasons, but I’m sure it does help that it stands out from the pack just by being an episodic, easy-to-jump-into show that is not about cops, lawyers or doctors. I think one thing the musical numbers do, though, is combat the feeling that the stories aren’t high-stakes enough. Musicals have a way of making every issue seem big because it’s big enough to sing and dance about.

Then there’s the episodic family drama, like 7th Heaven, the show that just kept going and going even though two different networks were embarrassed to admit it existed. Parenthood is one of the few shows around that tries to do something like that.

Still, these and other genres, while I’d like to see them come back, aren’t as reliable story engines as cop/lawyer/doctor, because there’s just not enough death involved. You know how Sam Spade said that torture doesn’t work unless the threat of death is hanging over it? The same isn’t true of TV drama, but it can be pretty close sometimes: the more the audience fears that someone might die, or at least go to jail, the easier it is to build up dramatic tension 22 times a year. Part of the advantage these shows have, like Westerns, is that someone can suffer big consequences every week. It’s not going to be a major character, unless it’s a special sweeps episode, but at least someone — a guest character, usually — is in danger of death or incarceration. Set the show at a school, or in someone’s home, and even the guest characters probably aren’t going to die most weeks.

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TV: Besides Cops, Lawyers and Doctors, What Else Is There?

  1. At least as of a few years ago, the WB/CW had a decent market of teen/twentysomething (melo)dramas. True, they never caught on to the same degree on other networks (though Fox tried a few for a little while, most notably the OC), but it was an alternative to the procedurals and reality shows that the big networks were spewing out.

    Which raises an interesting question in my mind… From the late 90s until its death, the WB put out some amazingly solid stuff. Yeah, a lot of it wasn't so great, but they had a few shows that people still talk about today – most notably Buffy, but also Gilmore Girls, Dawson's Creek, Felicity, etc. For a long time, I found myself drawn to the WB instead of the other networks, since they never seemed to be showing anything I wanted to see. Now I'm wondering how much of that had to do with the networks giving in whole-hog to the reality TV craze (which I never got into) and procedurals, so that there was nowhere for a good TV writer to go except for the WB (or maybe UPN, which did bring us Veronica Mars).

  2. They were more inventive in the past. Archie Bunker, Head of the Class, Perfect Strangers…

    But then we used to be too…Quentin Durgens, Seaway, Power Play…

    • I think Weinman means dramas. Comedies often have other ideas for their premisies.

      • Americans don't do drama very well. For example Dallas and A-Team are supposedly dramas.

        There was the American Embassy, but it didn't last very long.

        As Weinman says, if it isn't about death….

        • "Americans don't do drama very well."

          Do you watch TV? Have you seen The Sorpranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or Boardwalk Empire?

          Network dramas have a tough time because they can't be nearly as 'gritty' as cable shows, but American cable networks have been pumping out great dramas for years.

          It's been my contention for the last several years that the popularity of movies is being replaced by the popularity of TV shows. The production value, acting, writing and so on is just so good on TV shows, and I can get multiple seasons out of a TV show vs a couple hours from a movie.

          • No, I gave up on TV years ago, precisely because of shows like that.

          • You gave up on TV because of all well written shows, well-produced shows that get loads of critical acclaim?

            Well, whatever, enjoy yearning for 1962, Gunsmoke reruns, and yelling at kids to get off your lawn.

          • i'm not sure who ever called The A-Team a "drama". it's an action/adventure. maybe not brilliant tv, but fun nonetheless.

            of course, the question remains that if you "gave up on TV years ago", what exactly are you doing commenting on this blog?

            TV is just like pro sports: whatever wins one year, everyone tries to duplicate that formula the following year.

          • (sound of a thousand facepalms)

          • (directed at Emily's comment, not those directly above BTW)

          • Are you kidding???  You think that the writing on Network TV is SO good?  Cops, Lawyers, Doctors…Blah Blah Blah.  It’s the same old crap! Crappy writing, acting, and story lines.  You got one thing write, the shows you mentioned on cable, are amazing! 2 different levels of TV shows.

  3. "But I'm a little more sympathetic to the broadcast networks once I try to think out the obvious follow-up question: what kind of jobs are appropriate for a network TV drama …… aren't as reliable story engines as cop/lawyer/doctor, because there's just not enough death involved."

    Firemen, paramedics, priests/religion (friend's father died other day and he received Last Rites just in time and Confession would be good as well), hitman, bodyguards …… I don't think it would be that difficult to create tv show that did not involve cops/lawyers/doctors but lots of dead people involved.

    • Six Feet Under comes to mind.

      • Good suggestion. I enjoyed Six Feet Under but totally forgot about it while trying to think of examples of where people would be around dead people.

  4. I think doctor/lawyer/cop (and spy…let's forget spy shows!) shows prevail because they are easier to serialize. Teacher shows don't fire the imagination because (being honest) far too few teachers either enlighten or inspire. Teaching is drudgery, like being a garbageman or working at Burger King. It's a day to day grind where you basically spend all your time in one place, every single day. As a teacher, I can think of nothing more boring or less worth my time than a show about other teachers.

    The Unit broke this mold. I liked that show and was sad to see it go.

    Canadian TV seems to be starting a bit of a politics trend… Dan for Mayor on CTV, and some new show about a Mayor of another town coming up soon on CBC.

    I think networks are stuck with such a narrow range of show types because they need concepts that are simple enough to execute within forty odd minutes, that do not require much explaining.

    One show type I miss is the wanderer who came into town to help others, like Quantum Leap, or The Pretender. The closest thing to it right now is Human Target, which falls somewhat into that category, but with shades of The Equalizer.

    One area I think is unexplored is the world of business. It's great fodder for reality TV, but could easily be used for scripted drama.

  5. Brothers and Sisters
    West Wing
    Mad Men
    Desperate Housewives
    Six Feet Under

    Then there are crime dramas which are not cop dramas:
    Breaking Bad
    Boardwalk Empire

  6. Media and/or journalism should be good for drama.

    Would "Las Vegas" qualify as successful as a business drama, or would private security count as crime drama? (Yeah, it's even worse when you consider that cop and lawyer shows aren't that different.)

    • I remain genuinely baffled that there hasn't been a big, hit show about journalism in the U.S.

      • Todd, what about "Lou Grant"?

  7. As a guy who tries to come up with TV show pitches, and has only gotten one over the fence while I journeyman may way through the biz, here's the part where I say the thing that's going to get some readers here in a dander:

    Look to the audience.

    Every year there are few of those "different" pilots that get made; few make the schedule. Why? Because nothing succeeds at a rate as high as Cop shows, Lawyer shows, and Medical shows. People complain about the fact that there's nothing else on, and then when given a choice, they gravitate toward……..cop shows, lawyer shows, and medical shows.

    I wouldn't have any idea where to even begin trying to come up with a new frame for a cop show these days. It's not only all be done, it's been re-done and microwaved and served up again and then boiled and made into soup. But I'll bet you that a year from now when the dust settles on these pilots — the ones lucky enough to get past a first season, and the contenders then will be — a cop show, a lawyer show, or a medical show.

    The fault dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves…

    (cue the : well not me, I don't know who these people are…to which I say, great. Please go change Aunt Gladys and Uncle Harry's minds, because writers would sure like to be able get traction pitching something else.)

  8. Try to see "Light's Out", a story about a former world champion boxer and his coping with "retired life", a family of girls, and fading finances. Throw in a dubious brother/partner and trainer/father and it all has the potential for a stellar drama. It's on F/X, home to another really good show called "Justified" ostensibly about a US Marshall in backwoods contemporary Arkansas, but law is tangential to the plots which seem to be more about the local culture (or lack thereof, and his woman problems).

    Being Human, in both the UK (original) and US version is a more "hip" drama about a werewolf, vampire and a ghost living together. Good contemporary culture drama(s).

    Police drama "Southland", Sci Fi "Primeval" are also very entertaining.

  9. One example of a show that isn't about cops, lawyers or doctors is the underrated Canadian series Crash & Burn. It's about an insurance investigator. Most of the episodes concern elaborate insurance scams.

    Come to think of it, con or scam artist might be one of those jobs you're talking about. We've seen them in a number of recent shows: Shameless, The Riches, Hustle, Lone Star. Those kind of shows appear to do better in Britain than they do in the US. I suspect it's because it's easier to follow a complicated plot when you aren't constantly interrupted by commercials.

  10. We certainly see a wide variety of jobs depicted in reality series. I wonder why a reality series about people who make cakes or drive trucks or repossess cars can attract an audience, but a fictional series about the same sort of people couldn't.

  11. I am so FREAKING sick of all the cop, lawyers, and doctor shows! almost as much as I am SICK of all the reality shows!  These days TV sucks! If you ever notice that HBO, Showtime, has original series that are just amazing! Great writing, acting, and original story lines.  Sopranos, True Blood, Weeds, Hung, the list goes on on…you rarely…if ever, see a stupid cop,lawyer, or doctor show on cable.  Why?  I have to tell you if I every watch regular network TV, its maybe Dateline, 20/20, etc.  Everything else SUCKS

  12. I’ve dropped the TV completely from my life. I don’t even watch news anymore (who cares anymore, right?). I wish you all well with your bludgeoning of Cop, Lawyer, Doctor. LOL.

    • Guess what? There is a new version of NCIS coming on next season! SHEESH!

  13. It’s really pathetic when people who are arrested for cannabis possession, DO risk a very long prison sentence, yet on television, there are no series that deal with the drug war, in a realistic way, on a regular (much less weekly) basis. We have a family of seniors who have been arrested and are being prosecuted, for simply doing what they are allowed to do, under the laws in force in Montana.Even the loud mouth idiots in Hollywood and elsewhere have no comment on this, except when they are interviewed, and then it is kind of a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink,” kind of thing. I’m sick of it. I know you folks up north are too.