Anthony Zuiker (CSI creator) on 'Procedurals' vs. 'Serials'

Discussion in 'TV Shows' started by Nicholas Martin, Jun 4, 2006.

  1. Nicholas Martin

    Nicholas Martin Cinematographer

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  2. Rex Bachmann

    Rex Bachmann Screenwriter

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    Sacramento Bee TV critic Rick Kushman writes:



    I've got news for Mr. Kushman: despite critical "raves" and high ratings for a series like Lost---talk about conspiracy shows---and some hint of interesting subject matter, I will probably never see it. Once the "train has left the station", so to speak, it's too late to catch it (or catch up).

    And, there's a big difference between a show having a background or---dare I call it so?---a "mythology" that sometimes intrudes on the characters' lives, as in a CSI or the early X-Files, and the "mythology" taking over every aspect of the story (or, better put (?), be(com)ing the story itself), as in 24 or the later X-Files.

    The big problem with the latter, as I see it, is the danger that, if the audience doesn't "take" to your arc story, you're sunk. That's probably what happened to Star Trek: Enterprise, with its "Xendi" arc, which didn't do a thing for me, and may have been at work in the ratings decline of ST: Deep Space 9---I've never been able to decide---with its Dominion War arc, which I personally took to a lot.

    I know that, if I don't like a show that I consider one-note, chances are I'll be gone after not too long a time for good. I think the (original) CSI way of doing things is, in general, the right way: concentrate on stories [plural] and develop characters over time, making that character development part of the stories, not (in general) the center of the stories.

    Most "novels for television" (unlike the rare creative successes like Babylon 5) are best left as 3- or 4-part miniseries. They don't stretch well over multiple seasons, in my opinion.
     
  3. DaveF

    DaveF Moderator
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    I don't understand this "debate", if that's what it is. It seems like an argument over what genre TV shows should be: Reality or Scripted? There's no right answer; it's all about what the creators can succeed at and what audiences are interested in, and what the studios can profit with.

    Fifteen years ago, I watched procedurals and had no interest in serials. More recently, it's all about the serials. I record and watch at my convenience Lost, Alias, Battlestar Galactica, etc.

    But clearly, as with Rex, there are those who don't care to be captured by a TV show in such a way. And we see on TV both procedurals and serials, catering to both audience types.

    "The big problem with the latter, as I see it, is the danger that, if the audience doesn't "take" to your arc story, you're sunk. " That seems no more a danger, than any other aspect of audience taste. CSI, as a procedural, is in danger if the audience doesn't "take" to criminal forensics as a TV show.
     
  4. MatthewLouwrens

    MatthewLouwrens Producer

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    Personally, I am much more interested in serials than procedurals.

    In fact, sitting here, thinking through the hour-long shows that I watch, the only procedural I watch regularly is House - and that's just because of the strength of Hugh Laurie's performance and the

    Everything else - 24, Lost, Desperate Housewives, Prison Break, Sopranos - they are all serials.

    And that excites me.

    Look, when I watch TV, I tend to be really dedicated. I will watch a show religiously. But procedurals are very much the same week-in-week-out. It becomes very formulaic. Once you've seen a couple of episodes, you know where each show will probably go. But with serials, I really feel like my dedication as a viewer is rewarded. When I notice a detail, I really get excited. it's fun and fascinating and it keeps me watching, long after I got bored with CSI and L&O. Do I feel handcuffed to my set, as Zuiker described? No. I'm excited to be there.

    As an international viewer, spoilers are the only real problem with serials. When I was watching Lost last year on TV, I found out by accident about a big character death long before it aired here. So the shock of that was ruined. And there are lots of little surprise revelations (Locke's former condition, etc) that I had just come to learn about before I got to see the show. That's not as much an issue with a procedural show like CSI - learning that X is actually the killer isn't really much of a spoiler, so the only time that we get any real spoilers is when they do a big sweeps-stunt death-of-a-main-character event. But I am happy to put up with the risk of spoilers if it means I get to watch something that is actually challenging and engaging, and I find the serials are more likely to have that effect.
     
  5. Kevin Grey

    Kevin Grey Cinematographer

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    I understand both sides of the argument but put me firmly in the serials camp. I feel almost no investment in procedurals and, consequently, sixty minutes (or 40 timeshifted) with a procedural feels like a waste of my time when there are still so many other shows, books, and movies that compete for my attention. And as both of the essays point out, technology in the form of DVRs, DVDs, and downloadable content has made following serialized stories dramatically easier than ever before.

    I don't begrudge people like Rex with their preferences but I'm very happy to see serialized content expanding and it's a big reason that I spend more time viewing TV content these days than movies, which isn't something I could say five years ago.
     
  6. Jason Seaver

    Jason Seaver Lead Actor

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    The best serials are fantastic things to see, and I wouldn't trade the likes of 24 of Deep Space Nine for anything. But it's worth noting that those are the very best - all too often, it seems to me, serialization is a technique by which lazy writers tell one story using the resources with which their more industrious brethren tell ten. Look at the last couple seasons of Buffy, for instance, and I know I bailed on Lost because nothing seemed to be happening.

    Part of the issue with making the comparison right now is that most of the done-in-one shows on the air are crime shows, and I think disinterest in procedurals may partially be not having an affinity for crime. Would someone who doesn't like Law & Order like it more if it followed the investigation and prosecution of one crime for twenty-two episodes, and spent time on Ed Green's gambling?

    The shows I like best tend to work both sides of the street: Veronica Mars is quite frankly brilliant in how each episode works on three scales: A done-in-one mystery, a character-oriented subplot that lasts for a few episodes, and the yearly big mystery (although it's scaling back to three smaller, uninterrupted stories next year). And though 24 is the most obvious serial on TV, each episode is pretty self-contained, with a distinct beginning, middle, and end.

    There's also something I find very enjoyable about a show that has a flexible premise. The Star Trek and Stargate series, traveling to a different planet every episode, can do a murder mystery one week, a comedy the next, and a romance the next. Las Vegas is like that, and only gets in a rut when it tries to tie itself down to one thing long-term.

    Don't get me wrong, the great serials are fantastic - though I note that the best of them (24, mid-series Buffy, Veronica Mars) make sure to have regular endpoints. But short stories are a form that doesn't get nearly enough respect.
     
  7. Kevin Grey

    Kevin Grey Cinematographer

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    As someone not interested in most of the current detective offerings, yes, I would be more interested if they took more time to develop the cases. With most of the procedurals I've sampled, trying to lay down the crime, conduct the investigation, and catch the criminals in 40 minutes (with confession usually intact), just feels more like hocus pocus than any type of real investigating. Especially with the shows that use forensics (CSI) or even something like profiling (Criminal Minds) where I feel like I'm watching Nostradamus solve the crimes rather than real people. You don't have to take a whole season to solve a crime but several episodes would be a nice change, particularly if they are introduced in a manner that overlaps.

    And there is certainly room for balance- as noted in the original articles and a few shows that you mentioned, many current serials do tend toward having some form of "case of the week" while still stringing along larger overarching plots and character arcs, which strikes me as a good balance. I'll throw in The Shield as a "detective show" I love because while it will typically have a case or two that is introduced and wrapped up in the hour, it's well balanced with ongoing cases and other plotlines that serve to give the whole thing connective tissue.
     
  8. Kevin Grey

    Kevin Grey Cinematographer

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    Just wanted to add on to this comment:


    I don't think that's the case for TV since it's still pretty much the standard. Serials are still the minority and have been for a long, long time so, to a degree, they are the ones that have something to prove. But as the second article points out, they don't generate as much discussion or buzz since they don't lend themselves to the sort of speculation that ongoing plotlines do. That's why you see the CSI discussion thread here that is smaller than the Veronica Mars discussion thread despite the fact that there is an order of magnitude difference in the viewership.
     
  9. DaveF

    DaveF Moderator
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    This is something very lacking, for me, in many shows today. And it really seems to be something only Sci-Fi shows, in particular Star Trek and Stargate:SG1 have pulled off. The ability to have a dramatically strong string of episodes, then lighten it up with a comedy, and then perhaps an action episode. All while being true to the characters and the story's "universe". The CSI shows are such slaves to their form, they are unable to achieve this -- heck, even X-Files was able to lighten up once in a while.
     
  10. Patrick Sun

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    I tend to like shows with snappy dialogue, good acting, and/ has sustained character arcs (either positive or negative) that pushes the narrative to a natural conclusion. It's true, some shows overstay their welcome, while others get to subject their viewers year after year with mediocrity for being one-note and predictable, almost to the point of being "comfort food" for the TV viewer that needs to get away from everyday life for a while.

    Sometimes there's a finite number of episode for a given show concept, and when it exhausts that number, the show gets stale, and doesn't have anywhere else to go, giving off that "been there, done that" vibe, of which it never overcomes. Serials have a harder time with that BTDT problem to keep it fresh over a longer run, while procedurals, by definition, are BTDT shows, but they have to rely in single-episode length shows to concoct a fresh spin to yet another crime and the hunt for justice for the crime.

    I also think serials rely more on the demographic has that more free time to watch the weekly and consistent installments, and depending on where the viewer is in their life, a show either catches on with them, or has to be let go due to time constraints (or watched years later via TV on DVD). While I watch Lost on a consistent basis, I made a conscious effort not to get involved in all the extracurricular homework that seems to be required to get the "big picture" for the show, but other viewer eat those nuggets up and embrace the multimedia aspect of shows like Lost. I just don't have the time or energy anymore for that type of commitment to a show.
     
  11. Rex Bachmann

    Rex Bachmann Screenwriter

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    DaveF wrote (post #3):




    While comedy elements are one of the last things I'd be looking for in a dramatic program---and one of The X-Files' big problems was that it lightened up way too much---, the variety is exactly what I enjoy about the best outer-space science-fiction shows. Nowhere else is it to be effectively achieved, in my opinion (although what I'm actually seeking is variety in the science aspects of the shows). Any Earthbound show is going to have a significant "been-there/done-that" facet to it, by definition. I don't care what it's about.
     
  12. DaveF

    DaveF Moderator
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    A matter of taste, then. I find levity necessary to making characters empathetic. Star Trek has some of my favorite characters, thanks in part to the use of inter-character humor. But with Battlestar Galactica, a humorless show, as engaged as I am in the story, I don't having any emotional attachment to the characters.
     
  13. Patrick Sun

    Patrick Sun Moderator
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    House is one of the best written comedies on TV today, but the comedy is from the insight of the dramatic situations by the characters.
     
  14. Kevin Grey

    Kevin Grey Cinematographer

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    I think this is an area that has really seen a shift. I'm generalizing, but it's my feeling that older viewers with families are more likely to be able to make "appointment viewing" since they are less likely to be leading the type of lifestyle that has them out on a dynamic basis in the evenings. But much of the more serialized content seems aimed at younger demographics who aren't as likely to be in the same place at the same time week in and week out. But since these shows are now available at any time via DVR, over the internet officially (or uofficially via torrent), on DVD, etc and younger demographics are more likely to be into and able to use that technology they can actually keep up with these shows. I can't tell you the number of people I know of who avidly follow Battlestar Galactica, for example, but almost never watch it on Friday night at 10 pm.
     
  15. Jason Seaver

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    I don't think that's the case at all; I just think that the flexible premise has not been a priority in the design of TV shows in recent years. In part because serials and procedurals have been so successful in recent years, most new shows that aren't crime show have concentrated more on either long-term storytelling than in years past. Both of these tend to homogenize a show over the long term.

    But there have been plenty of shows not set in outer space or otherwise having a SFnal premise that have a flexible premise. The Fugitive, for instance, is a great example of a premise built to give its writers the freedom to tell any kind of story they want. I mentioned Las Vegas earlier, and I really do think that's an exceptionally well-designed show, even if it's puddle-deep: It can tell any type of story it wants any week.

    Of course, I think "serial" versus "procedural" is a false dichotomy. There is no reason why there can't be a serial procedural - the detectives of Law & Order could hunt a serial killer over the course of a month, if the writers so desired. The extreme opposite of a serial like Lost would be an anthology, or to a lesser extreme something like Star Trek where the chronology is relatively unimportant.
     
  16. Rex Bachmann

    Rex Bachmann Screenwriter

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    DaveF wrote (post #12):



    As I've said from the beginning, Battlestar Galactica (2001) = "America at War (in space)". Not much room for laughter there.

    Finally, although this discussion is based on an initial exchange about "criminal/detective procedural" shows, the opposition we're talking about is, to my mind, more broadly and more precisely labelled SERIAL :: EPISODIC.
     

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