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The marriage of serial and procedural: Is there a perfect balance?

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My favorite shows tend to be complex, character-driven dramas with excessive reliance on knowledge of past events to build sprawling world-views with fantastic payoffs in later seasons.

My favorite shows tend to get canceled.

Is it really that surprising? Serialized shows – those that rely on audience participation week in and week out – are a rare commodity on network television. Successful serials such as 24 or LOST are more a combination of timing and luck along with exquisite marketing and word-of-mouth than anything else. Not to mention strong creative teams that have a vision for the world and their stories beyond the first four episodes.

But 24 and LOST are not the norm on network television (the serial becomes much more lucrative on lower-rated cable networks). Instead, we are “treated” to a torrent of police, medical, and law procedurals. Even more serialized types of shows, such as Fringe or Supernatural, are police procedurals are heart. Of course there needs to be some procedural element from week to week or else the audience would ultimately be lost without any narrative consistency to latch on to.

Think about the most popular dramas currently on television: Glee, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, House, CBS. All are extremely procedural, yet carry on storylines by strong characterization (though, I’d be surprised if anyone would argue that Glee can keep a consistent story). These shows use the “strength” of their characters as lenses to view much more banal storylines. These narratives are often the B, even C storyline of every episode, even taking a backseat during the entire season. This is not a direction that focuses on creativity and originality; if nothing else, these storylines do little to reward the faithful and only please networks and production companies looking for more procedural content. A strong character, or relationship, at the center of recycled stories is not good television. It’s a guilty pleasure that you watch with cartons of ice cream every once in a while. For the most part, peripheral characters remain underutilized and are interchangeable, with little clever writing dialog or narrative execution (except, of course, for the star).

So what’s the balance? To be honest, I’m not sure. There are few successful shows on network television right now that have the perfect combination of procedural, serial, and enough creative ingenuity to combine the two. The Chicago Code is an obvious example, but also is by no definition successful. It’s the definition of “on the bubble,” along with its procedural/serial FOX cousin Fringe. The Good Wife, too, finds this balance, but again may be canceled. Chuck, No Ordinary Family, Human Target are all example of these hybrid shows that will more likely than not be canceled… even the highly serialized V looks to be on the chopping block (though I’m skeptical that it’s as close to cancellation as others believe, but that’s neither here nor there).

Maybe I should just stick to cable. You can have NCIS: LA.


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