So yesterday I was in full swing on procedurals and Why They Work, and I had ended on the conclusion that in order to fully appreciate their fictional value, you have to think about the most obvious aspects of the shows. The pleasure of the procedural can’t just be the thrilling, pseudo-scandalous content (more on pseudo-scandal in a moment) or the very small percentage of each show dedicated to plot development outside the self-contained episode – there has to be some consideration of the underlying, inescapable reliance on predictable, comfortable, familiar, even tedious repetition.
The word “work” is important here. It is the basis of every single procedural I think of – maybe it’s lawyers, or doctors, or cops, or forensic scientists, or mathematicians – but every procedural inevitably justifies its repetition through the rhythms of someone’s job. They’re always exciting jobs that are fast-paced and put the main characters (err, main employees) in constant contact with drama, violence, extraordinary human circumstances, and usually some good gory bits. It’s work nonetheless, and however thrilling each new case may be, our protagonists always remind us that it will soon come to an end. That drive toward resolution seems like it’s just the familiar pressure of an hour-long episode, but the fictional structure of the show embeds that awareness into its main characters just as much as its audience. Our hour will end, and it will be just another episode of Law and Order: SVU, just as for Olivia Benson or whoever, at the end of the day, it’ll be merely another in a long career of crazy days at work. The audience’s familiarity with the rules of the hour-long procedural guarantee that the drama will not bleed over into other episodes, but that assurance also comes from within the show’s fictional premise. Of course this isn’t going to be a life-altering murder investigation that will forever damage your relationship with your family or force you to reconsider your worldview. It’s just work.
Temperance Brennan, just doin' her job. Next to some dessicated human remains.
Let me make sure this is straight. Procedurals appear to be about drama and violence and sexual dysfunction, but they’re actually just about people at work, doing the same tedious examination of the crime scene they always do. At the same time, the procedural format re-inscribes the repetitive rhythms of performing a job. Bones may look like it’s about whether Booth and Bones are ever going to discuss their feelings for one another (and they do sometimes! Last night they totally did!), but even on Very Special Episodes like that one, the solid majority of the hour is just repetition of the familiar formula. We are introduced to a victim, we run through the possible cast of suspects, we investigate the evidence, we do a funny bit with the support staff, and, aha! A murderer is caught! These shows allow us to watch people work, and then build the repetitive, even mind-numbing reiteration of doing a job into the experience of watching.
Why are these entertaining, exactly?
As I mentioned yesterday, the procedural gets a lot of criticism for being aggressively un-lifelike. On the level of an individual episode, and often in terms of the fictional content of those episodes, I think that’s true. No one goes to the bathroom in television shows unless someone is hiding inside a stall to attack them, or they’re about to overhear some vicious gossip. But taken as a whole mass of regular, formulaic stories, the procedural actually does a pretty good job of representing what a middle class, working life might look like. It is repetitive, it is predictable, and for the most part, the major scandals of the day are ultimately pseudo-scandals. The chance that any particular day is going to contain a life-altering event is not very high, and the stuff that fills the day in the mean time tends to seem scandalous or highly dramatic, but is usually pretty trivial in the long term. Just as in life, procedurals allow characters’ personal lives to occasionally interject into the workplace, but it’s always placed inside the framework of their jobs, and always subsumed within the constant, fairly arbitrary delineations of the work’s closure – the end of a workday, a business week, a law suit.
Maybe I’m reaching, here, but I think procedurals are entertaining because we like watching ourselves, or at least, our own lives rewritten into a slightly different perspective. First, the job itself, which contains all sorts of taboo subject matter that rarely shows up in a cubicle. But that’s really just a side benefit of the bigger project: procedurals valorize work. It helps when that work is exciting and has obvious real-world impact, but the form of the procedural affirms any sort of work. It transforms the negative aspects of any job – repetition, tedium, conventionality – into positives. The procedural (your life) is not conventional; it’s familiar. It’s not tedious; it’s comforting. Repetition may be boring, but it’s also knowable and controllable.
Bones and Booth, walking back to work
This is the beating heart of every procedural, even the ones that make the exception appear more important than the rule. Last night’s episode of Bones was all about understanding the foundation of Bones’ and Booth’s relationship, which is ostensibly the story of how they met and were attracted to each other, how their personalities conflicted, how they negotiated their opposite worldviews. They kissed! They kissed not just in the flashback I teased yesterday, but they kissed again, in the current timeline of the show! This show is a romance!
But it’s not. Booth and Bones met because Booth needed help with his job. They liked each other because they were good at doing the job together, they fought when one person’s approach to the job opposed the other person’s, and at the end, after daringly suggesting that they try to have a relationship, Bones shoots Booth down. “I’m a scientist,” she says. “I can’t change, I don’t know how.”