The most pervasive thought when taking in a crime procedural - whether it's Criminal Minds or Bones, or anything in between - is that sense that you've seen it all before, that you know what is going to happen next, that you anticipate roughly how any given episode will play out.
As Glen Creeber says in The Television Genre Book, "in recent years, as the television companies compete for a diminishing share of the audience, there has been a proliferation of police, detective and crime drama, with endless variations and reworkings of a basic formula in which society is protected and the status quo maintained by the forces of law and order."* In short, all procedurals are fundamentally the same.
Yet the very thing that makes crime procedurals so predictable, so easy to watch, is exactly what makes a show like Person of Interest (which finished a decent first season on Monday) or Hawaii Five-O (which recently returned to Tuesdays on TV3) stand out from the rest of the bunch: they subvert what we're expecting, surprising us and abandoning the established formula.
I've written about Person of Interest before, sharing how I enjoyed its reversal of the procedural formula by surprising us, not with twists in the story, but bychanges in the core details of each episode - the character we thought was a victim turns out to be the perpetrator or a character's reasoning turned out to be something we didn't expect. Monday's finale was a perfect example of this: the character Finch and Reese were trying to help turned out to have set them up by exploiting her knowledge of the mysterious machine they use to identify targets.
Hawaii Five-O, on the other hand, is more straightforward with its weekly story - a crime takes place in the first act, the Five-O team investigates, a couple of high-speed chases (maybe involving a helicopter) take place, and the case is solved.
One thing it does well, and which it has in common with Person of Interest, is that it uses an extensive and complicated story that weaves its way through each episode: the writers on Five-O do a good job of presenting a different case each week, while also servicing that over-arching narrative in only a few scenes in each episode.
Person of Interest did a good job with weaving in a longer storyline, too, by using flashbacks to relevant back story and dialogue between its main characters. And while it is easy to gloss over, we're actually talking about a complicated form of genre-splicing: the formulaic style of a procedural, only with characters that are as fleshed out as any you might find on your average cable drama.
If you ask me, it's that clever combination of formula and long-form narrative that makes procedurals like Hawaii Five-O and Person of Interest stand out from the pack. They're the first in a kind of "new school" of procedural writing. Long may it continue.
Did you enjoy Person of Interest? Are you enjoying Hawaii Five-O? What do you think makes a procedural stand out? What are your favourite crime procedurals right now?
(*) If you think that sounds overly academic, consider this: for a university assignment a couple of years ago, I spent more than 400 words discussing the ideological assumptions inherent in the crime procedural genre - for example, the notion of good triumphing over evil, or shows addressing public fear by portraying police management of security threats. Aside from a 2000-word essay on the depiction of grief in Inception, it was probably my favourite essay to write.
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