Watching TV: Procedural Dramas

In October 2000, CBS debuted the pilot of a show called “CSI,” and from there the modern procedural drama bracket was born. Any TV show that solves a case on a per-episode basis – be it a medical anomaly, a legal scuffle or a postmortem analysis – is considered a “procedural drama.” Cases are opened and shut in the span of an hour and the audience goes to sleep happy.

CBS bases 14 out of its 19 primetime hours on procedural dramas, or a whopping 74 percent of its original programming. While every procedural drama on CBS is magically successful, most of them are bland in their premises, dry in the fact that most are spin-offs of each other, and ultimately repetitive.

So why not mix it up a little? Here’s an analysis of which procedural dramas deserve the boot, which you should romance for at least a few episodes, and which deserve your unwavering devotion.

First of all, don’t even waste your time with

“Trauma” and “Mercy.” NBC is trying, it really is, but these are not the procedurals you should even sample. Boring dialogue, tired plot lines, and two-dimensional characters are a greater waste of your time than “CSI” (a show you’ll quickly find out I’m strongly opposed to).

Time to break up with… the quintessential procedural crime drama, “CSI”

Now in its tenth (!) season, “CSI” is showing its age. Grissom (William Petersen) left the show last season, and the crime show’s methodical formula grows more tedious with each episode. While Laurence Fishburne is trying his hardest to step into Peterson’s mighty shoes, and the show’s producers wrote old favorite Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox) back into new episodes, these are both signs the show is wobbling on its creative legs.

Bottom line: NYPD’s dark, gritty overtone gave it the balls to last 12 seasons; “Murder, She Wrote” stayed on air just as long by becoming a cornerstone of late ’80s-early ’90s pop culture; after nearly a decade on air, however, “CSI” lacks the foundations of these “greats” of procedural dramas, and the fact that its audience has declined by almost 6 million viewers this season means the rest of America is slowly keying in to this reality.

Also dump “CSI” offspring CSI: NY” and “CSI: Miami” while you’re at it. Sure, “Miami” star David Caruso’s attempts at serious acting makes for a comedic hour, but if Caruso is the sole reason you watch a show, you know it’s time to change the channel.

Flings: If you’re ready to come out of the long-term relationship with “CSI,” but not quite prepared to jump back into the pool of serious dating, I’d suggest you try:

  • “Numbers”
    “Numbers” has been a consistent procedural since its 2005 debut, thanks primarily to the strong rapport between David Krumholtz and Rob Morrow, who play brothers Charlie and Don Eppes. Charlie, using his mathematical genius, often helps to solve the cases handled by Don’s police team.

    Bottom line: Somewhat boring, but at least it’s reliably so. Would not require a weekly tune-in because of the lack of an in-depth season-long arch, but it’s a fundamental change from “CSI” and a perfect fit for fans of the low-key, open-and-shut cases.

  • “Criminal Minds” / “Lie to Me”
    Both of these procedural dramas focus on the mind of the offender: “Criminal Minds” tries to scrutinize the felon’s actions before he can strike again, while “Lie to Me” determines whether the offender is telling the truth.

    Bottom Line: I’d give the edge to “Lie to Me” and its star Tim Roth, whose Dr. Lightman is someone with a talent we’re actually interested in.

  • “The Forgotten”
    ABC simultaneously attempts Christian Slater’s comeback alongside a try at the procedural drama. It’s actually not a bad idea, but…

    Bottom line: Despite the semi-original premise of having “the forgotten” (the unseen voice of a body about to be buried) narrate each episode, this show fails to stand out – and in a world that already includes CBS’s 7,248 procedural dramas, this one will most likely be (excuse the pun) forgotten.

Casual Dating: The following shows could be keepers, if you decide you like them. If not, tune in from time to time and their feelings won’t be hurt.

  • “Law & Order”, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”
    L&O and its progeny, “Special Victims Unit,” lack the flair of the CBS crime dramas (don’t expect techno music underlying the scenes where crime technicians sleuth clues in their labs). However, for those who prefer a focus on the case rather than the team solving the case, L&O is the show.

    Bottom line: There’s a reason this show has survived since 1990. For anyone willing to trade in bad “CSI” one-liners for more humanized characters and an in-depth look at justice, this is the way to go.

  • “Medium” / “Ghost Whisperer” / “The Good Wife”
    All three of these shows are targeted heavily at women. Their respective stars (Patricia Arquette, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Julianna Margulies) fit the appeal and target demographic that CBS aims for.

    Bottom line: Because these shows skew toward older audiences, they lack the playful fancy of “Desperate Housewives” and the promiscuous residents of “Grey’s Anatomy,” but they work well as alternatives to the abundant number of male-led procedural dramas. Try watching a show led by a girl, for a change, and see if you like it.

  • “Castle”
    ABC’s “Castle” is quirky and enjoyable thanks to its lead, Nathan Fillion. Fillion’s got a devoted following, thanks to turns on “Buffy” and “Firefly,” and he makes use of his fan base, treating them to a likeably pretentious portrayal of murder-mystery writer Richard Castle. Castle works with Detective Kate Beckett to solve crimes.

    Bottom line: A pretty decent procedural. Watch from time to time and you may actually enjoy.

  • “House”
    The reason I consider “House” more of a casual boyfriend than an exclusive one is because the show ruined its own formula three years ago and has since lost my devotion. “House” is special in that it is the most character-driven procedural drama on air right now. Viewers don’t really tune in to watch the medical cases or debate whether Thirteen or Cutthroat Bitch should be on House’s team; viewers tune in to watch Hugh Laurie magnificently portray a self-centered bastard of a doctor. And you know what? For three years, it worked. Laurie was backed up by Doctors Foreman, Chase and Cameron; supported by best friend Wilson; and occasionally hassled by hospital head Cuddy.

    At the end of season three, however, executive producer David Shore decided to shake up the show’s formula by firing House’s team and replacing them with a dragged-out competition between actors. I appreciate a showrunner willing to toy with a winning recipe, because, as in the case of “CSI,” the same routine gets boring after a while. However, Shore’s solution to shunt Foreman, Chase, and Cameron into opposite ends of the hospital and feature them in minimal scenes per episode throughout season four was a poor choice.

    Bottom line: “House” was worthy of the buzz when it first debuted. Now in season six, the show is showing its age. Most of the plot developments (the did-they-didn’t-they sexual tension between House and Cuddy is just wrong, and I could care less whether House is in a psychiatric ward) feel too contrived. Most importantly, “House” seems to have forgotten why viewers fell in love with the show in the first place. Case in point: Cameron is being written out of the show in November.

  • “The Mentalist”
    I actually enjoy watching “The Mentalist.” This is primarily due to the fact that Simon Baker is absolutely compelling as Patrick Jane, a man who solves cases by pretending he’s a psychic. Baker makes the show fun and more whimsical than the average procedural drama – too bad the same can’t be said for the supporting cast: Robin Tunney’s single, default facial expression can hardly be considered acting, and the fact that I can’t remember who else is on the show should say enough.

    Bottom line: You should be watching USA Network’s “Psych, the golden charm that “The Mentalist” rips off.

The Keepers: I know by this point you’re thinking all procedural dramas are the devil and I’ll never recommend a single one you should watch. Wrong.

  • “NCIS”
    “NCIS” stars Mark Harmon, who heads up a team of agents in D.C.’s Naval Criminal Investigative Service. The premise certainly doesn’t sound enticing, at least no more than any other procedural drama on the air. Why, then, does “NCIS” stand out as one of the best procedural dramas? Its ensemble cast (including Michael Weatherly, formerly of Fox’s “Dark Angel,” and Cote de Pablo), the quick wit and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it playful rapport between Harmon’s character and his team make this the standout of CBS’s procedurals.

    Bottom line: Hey, there’s a reason it’s currently the highest-rated show on television. (Sidenote: cross your fingers that an upcoming storyline kills off Abby. She’s unbearable. EDIT 12/9: Can I take this back? After watching nonstop repeats on USA, the girl has grown on me.)

  • “Bones”
    If “NCIS” is the best of CBS’s procedural dramas, “Bones” is the best procedural, period. Like “NCIS,” “Bones” has found that success lies in capitalizing on the supporting cast. The audience can appreciate every character on “Bones” because they are well written and amusing, and somehow manage to make terms like “calcium hydroxylapatite” pertinent to us. By focusing on the characters and their relationships, the hour feels more personable than any that CBS brings us. Plus, there’s always the guarantee of gross-out shots of decaying bodies!

    The main draw of the show, however, is the sexual tension between Brennan (Emily Deschenal) and Booth (David Boreanaz), both of whom work the longing stare and hidden smiles well enough to create the best will-they-won’t-they dynamic this side of Ross and Rachel.

    Bottom line: If you watch one procedural this season, let it be “Bones. (Just don’t watch while eating dinner. You will lose your appetite.)

-Sonya Chudgar