Here’s another way in which formula television has changed in the past 20 years or so: back then, very few shows used the idea that the detective or doctor should have some kind of personal connection to, or parallel with, the cases of the week. Now most procedural shows use that idea. Moonlighting was probably the show that really popularized the concept that a mystery could parallel something that was going on in the characters’ lives, or cause the characters to re-examine their own lives and relationships. Other shows had used it it occasionally (and in keeping with the fact that sitcoms used to be more advanced and character-based than dramas, shows like M*A*S*H and Barney Miller did it frequently). I think Magnum P.I. would sometimes come across a case that reminded him of something he himself had gone through, and other detectives or doctors would do the same, as a one-off. But most of the time, the lead character didn’t have much of a life and was mostly concerned with solving the case, and there were no personal sub-plots that ran parallel to the main story. Columbo, for example, is a justifiably famous TV character, but he literally had no life outside of the cases he investigated; for many years we were deliberately left in the dark as to whether he even had a wife or was just making her up as part of his endless stories (which he used to annoy the bad guy and trick him into dropping his guard).
But today, even on shows that are mostly about mystery-solving and don’t have a lot of personal stories, the main characters tend to find some kind of personal or emotional connection to the cases they investigate. On CBS, from their best procedurals (like The Good Wife) to the worst (Ghost Whisperer isn’t actually the worst, but it’s close enough), we see this happen. On the pilot of The Good Wife, the main character’s very first case turns out to be someone who was wronged by her [the main character’s] husband, and the case itself involves husband/wife issues. And most episodes of Ghost Whisperer seem to have the formula that we’re all used to by now: the lead character is having some kind of problem, the case involves someone who dealt with a similar problem — usually in the wrong way. We’ve seen that on every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for starters; we’ve seen it on House; it’s just assumed that an episode will usually have two tracks, the personal and the professional, and the two will overlap, often in very coincidental ways — to the point that it seems like any case you get in your professional life will somehow teach you a lesson about your latest emotional crisis. Even the Law and Order shows, the closest things to pure Dragnet-style procedurals, have enough personal facts sprinkled in so that the characters can, and do, relate certain cases to issues they face in their regular lives.
So the next time you see a plot that goes something like this:
a) I don’t know whether I should get married. I have commitment issues. Oh, well, time to go to work.
b) At work, I am investigating the case of someone who wasn’t sure she should get married, because she had commitment issues, so she killed her fiance instead.
c) I have solved the case of the person who had commitment issues, and in the process, I have learned something about the issues I myself was facing at the beginning of the episode. Thanks, professional life, for helping me learn more about myself!
Repeat as necessary, replacing “commitment issues” and “married” with any other event and issues in whatever combination you like.
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