As US television moves towards May sweeps, the inevitable discussion over bubble shows is beginning to percolate through gossip sites and trade magazines. Everyone wants to know which shows are in, which ones are out, and which are poised to go either way—and some networks seem to enjoy dangling it over our heads for as long as possible while they wait for ratings, advertisers, and focus groups to weigh in.
Among the shows this year that might be in danger are some stalwarts, including two that would have seemed indestructible not so long ago: Bones on Fox and CSI on CBS. ABC’s Castle looks like it may also be on the bubble, with only Nathan Fillion formally signed to a contract for next season, while other cast members are still in negotiations. All three programmes represent the epitome of US crime and procedural television, with CSI in particular being an anchor for the genre.
We’ve been watching crime shows for decades—some of the earliest programmes were actually procedurals, and the trend has become an art form in the US and abroad. However, US shows tend to follow a very rigid format. Thanks to the extended seasons used in the US, producers have to fill as many as 24 episodes over the course of a single season, which gets mind-numbingly dull. Each episode needs to have a mystery of the week to keep viewers engaged, with long-term plots simmering in the background, and viewers can tire of the format very quickly.
This is the flip side of many overseas programmes, where the seasons are much shorter (some, like Sherlock, have just three long episodes), and the way the programmes are structured is also markedly different. Instead of watching a cast solve mysteries, viewers watch a character study with mysteries as its grounding. These programmes focus foremost on character development, and that’s what makes them so compelling.
As viewers, we’re interested in the characters as people and how they evolve over the course of seasons and a programme as a whole. Sherlock, for example, features a tangled and complicated web of interactions between Sherlock and Watson as well as other characters, plunging into modern male relationships and how the two men engage with society. Sherlock himself, of course, is an arrogant, cold, isolated man but also a very complex one, with much to explore from a creative perspective.
The point of the programme isn’t the mysteries, but the people solving them. The mysteries themselves, though, are carefully and thoughtfully crafted, with considerable intellectual engagement and challenges to readers. It’s a time-honoured tradition of UK crime procedurals in particular, where mysteries unwrap in complex layers and weave through the lives of the characters. For Scandinavian shows, a single mystery can occupy an entire season, creating a more accurate reflection of real policing and also showing how the mystery affects the intimate lives of the characters. Victims, families, and suspects don’t come and go from episode to episode, but instead become an integral part of the narrative.
In the US, though, procedurals look very different. Each episode is driven by a single mystery (sometimes two) that needs to be resolved by the end of the hour so everyone can start again the following week. These narratives leave little room for character development—everyone is too focused on suspiciously quick DNA results—and they also don’t provide room for the programme to grow as a whole.
The long-term result is that the programme becomes boring. Once the flash of TV forensics fades and once viewers get soured on an idealistic version of policing in which the bad guys are always caught and the innocent always come out right in the end, they’re left with characters they don’t really know what to do with. The lack of development and engagement with the characters means viewers have a poor understanding of their lives, and often only a few points of dramatic tension dominate the characteristics of the protagonists. Once resolved, these issues leave viewers deflated.
On Castle, for example, a few trailing threads of long-term questions about the past lives of the characters were intended to keep viewers moderately engaged between weekly mysteries, but the central debate of the show was whether the leads would become romantically involved. Now that they have, there’s little dramatic tension or interest in the show—the story has been resolved, the characters can move forward, and there’s little more to say. Bones suffers from the same problem. It too put all its narrative eggs in one basket, and with Bones and Booth married, the story has nowhere to go, no matter how many subplots it attempts to resurrect and prop up on the forensics platform.
CSI, meanwhile, has lost most of its cast and devolved into an incredibly dull procedural, losing many loyal fans over the intervening years as they tire of stories of the week and run up against the end of the characters’ stories. While CBS has used the show as a major anchor over the years, and while it’s created scores of spinoffs, its time has clearly come; it has nowhere to go, and it appears more tragic than anything else at this juncture.
US networks need to be considering why so many procedurals end up on the bubble, and should be engaging with the problems of the medium to explore new ways of storytelling and character development. The procedural doesn’t have to be inherently dull, and the characters who inhabit it don’t need to be listless and one-dimensional, but producers and writers do need to put effort into it. If network executives are smart, they’ll be giving Castle, CSI, and Bones the final good night this season, but they’ll also be thinking about ways to revitalise the procedural genre in the United States, because the network that does will be at a distinct advantage.