In defense of television procedurals
Matt McMahon | Sunday, September 6, 2015
I spent the majority of this summer at a hotel with limited cable and slower than molasses Wi-Fi service. Extended Stay America hotels boast free Internet connections, but limit their speeds so they can charge their out-of-options clientele $3.99 for a day’s worth of livable loading wait time. I’d argue the Internet has become as much of a necessary utility as water and electricity and this business conduct is cruel and unusual, but that’s beside the point.
As a result of the mind-numbingly slow Internet, I was faced with a personal moral dilemma of the modern age: Pay for two months of quicker Wi-Fi to keep up on pop culture and even catch up where I have fallen behind, or stick to my personal policy on “renting” Wi-Fi and suffer without it. Steadfast in my refusal to ever pay for Internet service — whether at a hotel or airport or restaurant — I chose the latter.
My original plan for my summer stay, in what I now know as an Internet dystopia, was to watch, listen to and write about all the stuff that came out in the time The Observer and I were apart. I’d come back with exciting news and plenty of stories to contribute, especially in a time which television critics are deeming “Peak TV,” and a year in which every artist or band that wants to stay relevant is releasing an album. Instead, I was forced to take a break from “Peak TV” and new music releases and resort to finding the nearest episode of “Law & Order” or “Chopped,” the two shows I could rely on, as far as quality and probability, of being on one of the cable channels I did have access to at any given time.
I staunchly believe there are two ways people watch television : The way you normally watch television, and then the way you watch television in a hotel. The second requires more patience — lacking a guide and home remote familiarity — and settling on watching a lot more movies only partially through than the first. Another trait of the second, at least in my experience, includes many more midday and late night reruns or marathons of the shows in the “Law & Order” franchise.
These shows, like other routine procedural dramas, maintain characteristics that allow for what I’ll call “in-and-out” viewing: catching one random episode at a time, being able to get quick chores done in between commercials and staying engaged when paying attention, but not losing out when multitasking. Both “Law & Order” and “Chopped” are particularly deft at the form, one that is increasingly losing ground to the critical and mass appeal of serialized, or on-going narrative, programming.
Sure, I concocted a routine while at the mercy of infuriating Wi-Fi in order to catch the Netflix releases of the critical darling and downright brilliant “BoJack Horseman,” as well as the fun reunion “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” but the routine required me to step away from my laptop for hours at a time to allow for uninterrupted loading. And once I started, I had to watch them all the way through in a weekend’s time or less, due to the continuing nature of these serialized shows. My limit ended up being two series before I returned to rolling the dice with cable and the procedural shows that came with that decision.
So, I come back from my summer, not with reviews and write-ups on the Chance the Rapper and Lil B mixtape — I never was able to stream or download it — nor the inaugural season of “Mr. Robot” — as entertaining and suspenseful as the episodes I managed to catch were, I caught them out of order and incompletely — but, rather, with a defense of the television procedural.
Every episode of “Law & Order” and “Chopped” follows a similar, predictable format. In the former, a crime is introduced, and then it’s a race against the show’s runtime to bring those responsible to justice. In the latter, four chefs are introduced, and it’s a race against the kitchen clock to prepare dishes and survive the judges. When watching either, it is important to catch these introductions, but the exposition and repetition throughout an episode reduces the exclusion of audiences tuning in late. The shows also refrain from introducing many overarching storylines running across episodes, which alienate sporadic viewing.
Both shows have three narrative stages to any given episode: the three courses of competition in “Chopped” and the set up, confrontation and resolution in “Law & Order.” Become familiar enough with either show’s structure, and you as the viewer will be able to anticipate what will come next, a helpful tool for “in-and-out” viewing. This routine could be taken as a limiting factor to lesser shows, but the premise behind each series lends a healthy dose of suspense and an occasional, exciting foray into the upending of the usual. “Chopped” may introduce a theme or an outdoor grill, and “Law & Order” may spend more or less time in the courtroom.
Another point of anticipation for familiar viewers is the mandatory commercial breaks. These can easily be avoided by a quick change of the channel, yet these two shows’ suspense and a desire for closure often stopped me from channel surfing during breaks. In an age when there are a number of products and services which people pay extra for to avoid commercials altogether, there’s something to be said for shows that can so capture their audiences that they will sit through ads for fear of missing any solitary, important detail. Whereas resetting is commonplace in procedural shows coming back from commercial, “Law & Order” and “Chopped” both usually fit key ingredients to their shows’ formulae in the opening seconds of their broadcasts’ returns. An “in-and-out” viewer, within two minutes of commercials, can check what’s on the stove, read their mail and return without missing anything.
This description of these procedurals may sound more scientific than appealing, with references to “structural compositions” and “formulae,” but there very much is an art to this kind of storytelling. Brevity is said to be the soul of wit; “Law & Order” and “Chopped” both introduce characters, build emotional investment and a measure of stakes and then generally tie things up, while fitting their stories into predominately conclusive 44-minute — hour-long including commercials — episodes. That both have reliably done so for more than 20 seasons each is a testament to the form and to the necessity of television that can be viewed “in-and-out.”