Sunday, October 18, 2015

How to create a hit procedural

Network development season is in full swing. Comedies are hot commodities this year but one staple that never seems to go out of style is procedural dramas. Fame and fortune and a spin-off with :MIAMI at the end of the title can be yours if you just follow my simple rules.

Your star must have some supernatural power. He or she can read minds, has an amazing photographic memory, can remember every lunch he/she ever had, is a math whiz, or the most common – can see Fairy Tale characters.

But with this gift must come a curse. They must be tortured emotionally. They must have a dark past. Their wife/sibling/child/imaginary friend has been killed and they’re still haunted by it.

They’re only helping the police solve crimes as a way to better get in touch with resolving the unsolved circumstances of their dark past. The killer is still out there!  But only week one and the season finale.  Otherwise, it's business as usual.  Solving crimes and tossing off zingers.

When we go home with the hero we see he’s lonely. He can’t really get close to anyone because he’s so damaged. He compensates for no social skills by possessing this wondrous ability to bend spoons with his mind.

The hero must have a code. Oh sure he may come off as a cynic or she a bitch but ultimately they’re the champion of the little people.

The hero must have a partner of the opposite sex who finds him/her infuriating but is totally dependent on him/her. The partner is always somewhat of an idiot. He enters the crime scene and every week comes to the wrong conclusion. Only our hero, with his snazzy power, is perceptive enough to surmise what is really going on. And if the partner wasn’t already dumb enough, he has to now argue with the hero. The hero ultimately turns out to be right.

The hero must be surrounded by an investigative team. They stand around, provide exposition, and chase bad guys. Having a superpower means you never have to run. This team should be young and attractive. And one member must somehow be “quirky”. Note: If it’s a CBS show at least one attractive team member must be a brunette.

Throw in some grizzly murders, a cool stylized squad room (who knew police stations looked like the penthouse restaurant in the Space Needle?), and toss in a former major TV star or two and you’ve got a five year run.

So get going. A cop who channels Columbo. A detective who can go forward in time five minutes. A forensic expert who can communicate with inanimate objects. A coroner who can break down the ingredients in food without having to refer to the packaging.  The possibilities are endless!

All I ask for in return is the following credit:

Based on a Tired Formula by Ken Levine  

Let’s all get rich!

This is a re-post from many years ago but nothing's changed it seems.

23 comments:

JW said...

I take it the "grizzly murders" are committed by bears. Maybe our hero can growl with them.

ScottyB said...

In his spare time, Bobby Goren changes water into wine, too. It's true.

Astroboy said...

And don't forget that one of the team must ALWAYS says things that need NEVER be said, but IS said so the (apparently) moronic viewers will understand. Examples: First CSI: "I'll spray with luminol." Second CSI: "That will show if there's any blood traces." First cop: "I'll run him through VICAP." Second cop: "That's the federal criminal database." I really want to see, at least once, the first person turn to the second after one these statements and smack them up the side of the head and go: "I know that, you f***in'idiot!"

BigTed said...

Now, with "Minority Report," we can be sure that this formula still works in the future, too.

Johnny Walker said...

Wow, how depressing: Nothing's really changed! (Although I guess the supernatural abilities have been toned down so that they're just tortured people now?) How about a detective who's really a vampire -- except nobody else in the force knows they're a vampire. (Apart from a sexy love interest, of course.)

cd1515 said...

somewhere in there must also be a cop who Plays By His Own Rules.
(just once, I'd love to see a cop who happily plays by the same rules as everyone else)

Tim W. said...

I actually don't watch procedurals, anymore, but watched a couple of episodes of the new show, Limitless, and you could have been describing that show exactly. Wow.

VP81955 said...

In essence, the procedural has devolved from "Dragnet" to "Tucker's Witch." Alas, Jack Webb's "just the facts" style is too vanilla and passe for today's audience.

gottacook said...

I prefer the original Law & Order or Homicide: Life on the Street. (NBC was on a roll then, wasn't it? And Hill Street Blues before that.) In short, given a choice, I'd rather watch a police-type show that doesn't devolve into serial-killer story lines.

SharoneRosen said...

I'm in!

My hero is a time traveling extraterrestrial who looks completely human... except his hair pattern at the back of his head swirls left instead of right. Or, should that be a woman who dressed punk for "under cover work," when someone notices she doesn't dye her hair blue, but it grows in that color? That work-bud is sworn to secrecy.. but not until mid-season.

Our hero can travel back in time to watch the grizzly deed be committed, thus solving it in 47 minutes, but cannot move to stop it, cuz, ya know, that would interfere with the timeline and, well, we just can't do that, can we?

Max Clarke said...

Very funny, and you're right.

And it could have been written yesterday.

My favorites are Columbo and Monk. Smart and funny. Once you know who did it and how they did it, all the other qualities in those shows make them worth watching again.

Loosehead said...

You forgot to mention the sexual tension between the non-cop lead and the invariably oppositely sexed cop partner. Of course, if they're all shaped like Stana Katic, bring it on.

Steven Grant said...

Ken, you missed one ABSOLUTELY VITAL element that each episode must have:

Though the hero is prescient beyond all human capability, some aspect of each case must be so incongruous as to have them completely stumped - until some member of The Team makes a passing, insignificant comment on a totally unrelated matter that conveniently becomes The Revelation that makes everything make sense. ("Of course! The dead man & the President ARE SECRETLY SISTERS!!")

PS to Johnny Walker: Ken confused things a smidge by saying the hero must have "supernatural" abilities. He meant preternatural, a subtle but important difference, though in many shows (Unforgettable, for instance) the abilities are so preternatural as to be supernatural in any practical terms.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Sounds like you should think about creating THE PROCEDRAMA ROOM to go with THE SITCOM ROOM and start a whole new teaching career. I haven't watched any versions of CSI or NCIS or LAW AND ORDER iterations, other than the original and only with Lenny Briscoe in them.

Buttermilk Sky said...

You forgot the quirky female character who gives hugs and reminds everyone that "we're a family!" (Yeah, sounds like every place I ever worked.) Is a science/computer whiz and may be borderline Asperger's.

cadavra said...

Astroboy: They'redoing the "I know that!" bit on THE MYSTERIES OF LAURA.

Johnny W: We've already had a sexy vampire cop show: MOONLIGHT.

And there are two new stereotypes these days: The fat, bearded computer whiz who downs junk food, and the female Asian computer whiz who'll bite your head off if you look at her funny. Both can be found on CSI: CYBER and SCORPION, and the former on HAWAII FIVE-O (yes, all CBS shows).

Lionheart said...

I always thought procedurals were crime shows like Law & Order. Then there are the "science" procedurals where the bad guy brushed against the one-of-a-kind plant found only within a 10 x 10 area in Central Park (CSI, Bones etc). What Ken describes here is what I have always thought to be "Superman" shows: Six Million $ Man, Superman, Limitless currently where the Superman becomes a brainiac with a special drug. Now, the one in a million cyber genius is coming to the fore.

After you design your Superman, you simply add on a few stereotypical sidekicks and a stern boss and off you go.

Jeff :) said...

I've got it!

A disgraced religious figure (we won't say which religion in order to appeal to as many different audiences as possible) who has the power to enter the memories of a killer as he/she committed their crimes. He can see through their eyes as they commit their murders, providing invaluable clues to the authorities.

He reluctantly agrees to help the FBI (hey he's got a dark past and all), where he works with a sexy partner who is completely skeptical of his abilities and hates the idea the FBI employed a civilian to help her. Of course there is plenty of sexual tension between them.

Their boss at the FBI is an elderly Asian woman (elderly black man is too overdone, this show is completely original).

Oh and curve ball! Their IT/computer specialist is deaf, so he can only communicate via sign language that is shown via subtitles on screen. Naturally our lead is an expert in sign language and understands him on a level that nobody else can.

NBC/ABC, I await your phone call.

Aaron Sheckley said...

And the ever popular trope where the boss of whatever high speed super duper law enforcement agency full of the "cream of the crop" investigators has to tell every goddamn one of his subordinates in every episode what they should be doing each and every minute of every case. I was a supervisor of an organized crime investigative unit back before I retired, and if the guys who worked for me had been so dumb that I had to tell them every day how to do their jobs, I'd have been looking to fill some vacancies.

Oh, and the ever popular "hack me into the bank's surveillance system and enhance that substandard grainy video so I can read the laundry mark on the suspect's shirt collar". If police could do even a tenth of what is depicted on shitty police procedurals, the only criminals left in the US would be on Wall Street.

The only cop show that has been on in the past 35 years bore even a passing resemblance to what cops actually do was Barney Miller, closely followed by the first (and maybe the second) season of Homicide: Life on the Street. Haven't seen "The Wire", though, so maybe my list should be longer.

MikeN said...

How does this fit NCIS or Hawaii Five-O?

You could have saved time by just rerunning your previous post on the subject which was more accurate, including the offhand revelation and the guilty looking third party.

J. Hauschild said...

You also need a supersmart Tech-Guy/Hacker/Lab-technician who nopt only can but data-mine any information available from the internet using only search engines and social networks. All that within secconds and without ever using a mouse. Oh and of course the techie can create animated 3D models of every possible scenario by pushings some buttons. THATS NOT HOW COMPUTERS WORK

Steven Grant said...

J. Hauschild: You forget they can also take the grainiest photo from a satellite 100 miles up in space of a perp glancing up for a second & zoom in for an ultra-sharp ultra-close-up retinal scan that would put a 4K television screen to shame. Even though that's neither how computers nor digital photographs work.

I also like how some of them have a stunning command of holographic technology that does not yet exist. Now THAT'S preternatural!

It's just too bad they ultimately alwasy get stymied by the one surveillance camera in the whole city that doesn't work...

chuckcd said...

I liked Unforgettable. But I do have a thing for hot redheads...