As June Thomas points out, the recent crop of one hour dramas aren’t satisfied with simply solving crime:
Why are TV writers making their mysteries less mysterious? I think it’s because lots of new procedurals try to fit more than just a case of the week into the 44-minute running time. Most shows also have a serial element, a mystery — usually a quest for elusive information — that lasts throughout the whole series. In the case of Unforgettable, it’s Carrie’s attempt to remember the day her sister was murdered; on Person of Interest, it’s a driven cop’s attempt to capture Reese, who is wanted for a number of serious crimes around the world.
On “pure” procedurals like CSI or Law & Order, ongoing character arcs are squeezed in the margins, with an off-hand comment here, a long look there. You could watch three seasons before you meet a character’s wife — and when you do, watch out, because she’ll likely be dead soon.
With their Sudoku-like straightforwardness, traditional procedurals are easy to watch but hard to obsess over, with the same low barriers to entry making it easy to leave. To use the modern lingo, they’re not sticky.
I haven’t watched either Unforgettable or Person of Interest, but the procedural-plus genre can work: consider Sherlock, which features twisty mysteries, ongoing arcs and plenty of snogging.1
Procedural-plus shows are simply more difficult to pull off, both at the whiteboard stage and in the finished episode. Once you’ve established the stakes of the A-plot — a killer is on the loose! — any scene that doesn’t address that feels like filler. So writers need to find ways to weave character moments into plot scenes, which can be a bear.
Too often, what you end up with is neither plotty enough for crime fans or sophisticated enough for the drama crowd.
- And no, I don’t think Sherlock’s epic episode length is the main thing that makes it possible. Buffy and Angel were short and largely procedural (monster of the week), but very arc-y. ↩