Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Total Package Of The Police Procedural

As I'm sitting here, in my hotel room in Las Vegas, killing a little time, I started thinking about what the keys are to making a great TV show.  There are many different genres of television, so the same things often don't apply for every show out there.  Still, in my opinion, when you break it down to its most simple form, making great TV isn't as hard as it looks.  When you get the total package right, all you have to do is wait for it to find an audience.  If the show is promoted properly, this "total package" show will have a built in audience before it even hits the air.

So, is it possible to define what can make a TV show great?  Yes, I think it is possible to define this.  So, I will give it a shot.  If this goes well, this can end up being a great primer for the "formula" of making a show work.  If it doesn't, then I won't have added anything to the conversation.  For this particular blog post, I'm going to focus on the Police Procedural, and if it's received positively, I will write future blog posts about what I think makes the "total package" for sitcoms and dramas/dramedies.  In order for those other two blog posts to happen, I will need to see some likes at the end of this post.  So, please select like, at the bottom of this page, if you want me to do the others.

It goes without saying that there have been a lot of police procedurals in the history of television.  It's one of the most popular genres, because human beings evidently have an innate fascination with crime.  Maybe we watch because we want to see how the other half lives, or maybe we wish we could be on that other side.  Regardless of why we may watch these shows, there's no doubt we always will.  I am willing to bet all of your next paycheck that there will be at least one of these shows on network TV, for the rest of our lives.

The basic cop show is the main police procedural.  Shows that fit into this genre are the main Law & Order, NYPD Blue, and Hawaii Five-O.  These are the nuts and bolts type shows that deal with crime.  Law & Order and Hawaii Five-O are the least sophisticated types of this show.  Hawaii Five-O has much more going on behind the scenes than is advisable in this type of genre, and NYPD Blue has much more of the cops' stories than is standard in this type of genre.

Another type is the Medical Examiner show.  Shows that fit into this genre are Quincy, M.E. and Body of Proof.  They're much the same as the typical cop show, except that they focus on the forensic aspect of the crime, as opposed to the on the street investigation of the crime.

Another type is the sophisticated police procedural.  Shows that fit into this genre are Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Criminal Minds, and The Closer.  These are shows that will delve into the minds of criminals, and will deliver us significant amounts of story arc for the characters chasing the criminals. 

Another type of police procedural is one that features the work of just a person or a partnership duo.  Shows that fit into this genre are Hunter, Cagney & Lacey, and Columbo.  These shows often depict the hero/heroes as super cops, or people we should notice.

The last type of police procedural that I can think of, off the top of my head, is the Private Investigator type show.  Shows that fit into this genre are The Rockford Files, Barnaby Jones, Remington Steele, and Monk.  These shows feature a lead character doing his job, and all of the good and bad that comes along with that.

Now that I have defined what I perceive to be the five genres of police procedurals, what does each one need to do well, to succeed, and to hopefully become a "total package"?  Each one is a little different, and one problem will often not overwhelm the overall experience of a show.  However, if there are multiple problems with the show, inside the genre, this can create conditions that can make a show get canceled.

1. The basic cop show:

a. It should go without saying that if you don't have good cases on these shows, they will fail.  The good news for the viewer is that there are thousands upon thousands of crimes that can be drawn upon.  One of the problems in the later years of Law & Order is that there was a heavy reliance on "ripped from the headlines" type cases.  This is boring to me, and I can't imagine most other people don't find them boring, as well.  The problem with the show Hawaii Five-O is that there is only so much crime that happens in a city like Honolulu.  The crime rates just should not be as high as in New York City or Los Angeles.   Hawaii Five-O portrays the landscape of crime in Honolulu so horrifically that the tourism board must be unable to sleep at night.  So, in order to have a great basic cop show, it is only necessary to tell a good story based on the crime.  The show absolutely does not have to ever be based on any "ripped from the headlines" type case, nor should it be focused on making a relatively safe city appear to be terrifying.

b. Casting is extremely important in shows like this.  The goal should be to make the characters believable, and to keep the show watchable.  In other words, don't put the wrong type of person in each part, and don't cast a person that has the ability to turn the viewer off.  We have all seen cops on TV shows that annoy us, and just make us wish they would go away.  Believability and watchability are the two keys, here.  If you can gain that with a prominent character actor, it's even better.  NYPD Blue was filled will veteran character actors and leads, and it wasn't until the end of that show, that some of the gimmick casting got out of control.  As for Law & Order, the basic formula would be something along the lines of the Lennie Briscoe and Mike Logan characters.  For Hawaii Five-O, the casting is okay, and it doesn't make or break the show.  All of the characters are believable enough, but I have seen paint with more presence than the Steve McGarrett character, who happens to be the lead.  Hawaii Five-O also commits the cardinal sin of gimmick casting.  Gimmick casting is when you bring in a "name" person, to try to boost audience numbers, by bringing in that person's built in audience.  Examples of this were Dane Cook, P. Diddy, Nick Lachey, and Vanessa Minnillo.  Don't do this, ever.  Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is also guilty of this kind of casting, but it usually manifests itself by the actor going way against type to play their role.  This is sort of okay, but not particularly recommended.

c. The writing needs to be coherent and solid.  Trying to fool the audience with misdirection on this type of show is a mistake.  Show the crime, investigate the crime, try the crime, make the perp do time.  Nearly all of this type of show will eventually become political later in its run.  These shows use their popularity as an opportunity to get on a soap box.  This really is not recommended, but it happens all the time.

d. Using the location as a background character is also a very good thing, though it does tend to make a show more expensive.

So, to make the total package, all you need to do in this type of show is to have cases that don't annoy the viewer, believable casting, with watchable actors, coherent and solid writing, and a location that can be used to add texture to the show.  If you do those things, for this exact type of show, you have the total package.  By 1993, Law & Order had become a "total package" type show, but this stopped by 1997.  The show was still good, at that time, but it had lost many of the things that made it great.

2. The Medical Examiner Show

a. A case with a story is always a great way to do these shows.  The Medical Examiner is needed to help solve complicated cases, that often aren't cut and dry.  Quincy was known for taking what appeared to be standard cases, and turning them into elaborate murders.  He, in other words, was a bug up the butt of his boss, Astin.  If you have ever watched a Medical Examiner show, you will know that the lead is always excessively head strong.  The lead is stubborn, and is a disaster when it comes to handling things diplomatically.  Body of Proof is essentially, as of this writing, a poorly done knock off of Quincy, M.E.  However, Quincy, M.E. is the gold standard of shows like this, and if you follow the rough "formula" of that show, you can't go too terribly wrong.

b. Casting is of the utmost importance on a show like this.  If your lead is unbelievable, your show has no chance.  This lead also should have a huge presence on screen, but should absolutely not overwhelm the show.  Jack Klugman toed this line perfectly, throughout the run of Quincy, M.E.  Every single ancillary character on Quincy, M.E. was well cast and believable, in whatever role they were playing.  Body of Proof has numerous casting problems that I hope will be resolved in the coming seasons.

c. It's important to be technically solid in this type of show, but it's not essential to becoming a total package.  The more believable the science and writing behind the show is, the better it will do.  There are definite lines in police work, and it is crucial they are not overstepped.  This is a major problem in Body of Proof.

Quincy, M.E. was a "total package" throughout the vast majority of its run.  In the last two seasons the show became overly political and preachy.  My joke is that each episode was a "We're going to Sacramento!" type show.   If you are trying to do a Medical Examiner show, use Quincy, M.E. as a guide, and slick it up, however you want.

3. The Sophisticated Police Procedural:

a.  It goes without saying that the writing of each episode is the most important part of a show like this.  These shows often have a significant amount of texture, and a tremendous amount of research is necessary to do them properly.  They should be convoluted without being condeluded.  The audience should be able to figure it out, when trying hard, but the shows should not be so simplistic, that the cases are easy to solve.

b. Casting is crucial for shows like this.  One bad piece of casting can ruin a show like this.  It can be done with one person being a lead, and everyone else filling a role, or it can be an ensemble cast.  There are several pieces of "unconventional" casting in the show Criminal Minds, but the team (they love that word on the show) is outstanding together, and 100 percent believable in their parts.

If you nail those two things, a show like this will be fine, usually.  Criminal Minds has the problem of putting the team into too much danger, but other than that, it's a great police procedural.

4. The Person or Partner show:

a.  These shows aren't really that popular these days, and maybe it's a genre that time is beginning to forget.  I'm going to use the example of Hunter, since it's the show I watched the most.  It is crucial, number one, to cast the lead(s) properly.  If the lead isn't likable or you don't identify with what the lead is doing, the show will fail, guaranteed.

b. The cases aren't really that important in shows like this.  It's more about watching how the people go about solving them.  If the case is interesting, it helps the show, but it's not that important.

c. A nice location is something that helps shows like this out a lot.  Without the added texture of an interesting location, these shows can become quite boring.

It's hard to say if a show like this was ever a "total package", but they all were incredibly watchable.  Just hitting those three keys, would probably make that show a success.  We are apparently going to be treated to a show like this, next fall, on NBC.  It is called Prime Suspect.  It's not called by the lead character's name, but the trailer certainly makes it seem like the show is mostly going to focus on the lead character.  Law & Order: Criminal Intent toed the line of this type of show, as well, though I wouldn't put it in this category.  However, any time you see a show that features what you perceive to be a "super cop", it is an off shoot of this genre.

5. The Private Investigator Show:

a. The Private Investigator show is my favorite in the police procedural genre.  The list is a mile long of successful versions of these shows.  These days, you don't see very many shows that follow this exact "formula", but the fingerprints of the Private Investigator show are all over TV shows, today.  It goes without saying that the casting of the lead is the single most important aspect of making a great Private Investigator show.  The best Private Investigator shows do not feature a superhero type.  Usually the lead is tough, but often gets himself into bad situations.  There is no doubt, in my mind, that The Rockford Files is THE best Private Investigator show, ever.  It is the "total package".  The show on TV, today, that reminds me the most of The Rockford Files, is Burn Notice.

b. The personality of the character must be on display at all times.  The lead in this type of show will always have major character flaws.  Amazingly, these flaws draw us into the character even more.

c. The writing needs to be sharp, witty, and often funny.  It also needs to be dark, when necessary.  Convolution is a plus for this type of show, and the lead being in danger is often an important component in the show.

d. While the character is almost never a superhero, it's important to have the character come across as someone who clearly knows what he or she is doing, even if he or she goes about it in wrong or potentially dangerous ways.  Driving skills, disguising skills, or other skills are very important.

e. The ancillary casting needs to be good.  The Rocky character on The Rockford Files was the weakest character on the show.  However, he was believable as Jim Rockford's dad.  The infuriating Angel was one of the best characters in the history of television, and each Private Investigator always needs someone who is on the wrong side of the law, to be able to function properly.

f. A Private Investigator is always out in the field, so having this person in a city with texture is ideal.  Maybe the reason why we don't see these types of shows anymore is because it is getting really expensive to shoot in cities like Los Angeles (where nearly all of the best Private Investigator shows are based) and New York.

If you put all of these things together, there's no doubt you can make a winner out of a Private Investigator show.  These days, TV shows don't do the actual Private Investigator thing, as often (maybe due to technological advances?), but you can see aspects of this formula across many different television shows.  I could argue that nearly every show on USA has been influenced heavily by this genre (possibly unconsciously).

One of the things I tend to say about TV shows is this.  If you have a great show with bad casting, you can't save it.  If you have a great cast on a decent or bad show, it may survive.  However, if you have a great, or even good, show, with a good, or even great, cast, the show can survive and thrive.  It all reduces to the same thing.  Cast it right (first), and write it well (second), and there will be a good chance your show can find an audience.  These days, it just all comes down to how long the networks will allow you to find one.  Thanks for reading.

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