It’s Time For A Procedural Party!

The procedural is back! ([confetti cannons go off] [network television executives begin to cry] [Law & Order banners descend from the skies]) Mind you, did it ever really go away? The procedural has been the backbone of television since the creation of the glowing moving picture box entered our homes. Cop shows, medical dramas, westerns, and courtroom case-of-the-weeks: the procedural is a tried-and-true format.

For over a decade, the industry as a whole (whether network, cable, or streaming) has tried to run away from what works in order to achieve prestige. As the concept of “Peak TV” came and went, the procedural took a back seat. The abundance of CBS’s procedurals were seen as old hat. NBC and their slate of Chicago-set series were deemed as fluff, though they continue to remain on the air. While the goal turned to acclaim and Emmys almost exclusively, the format that keeps the lights on was pushed further and further back in television’s drawers of tricks.

Last summer, the tides shifted. Suits became the biggest show on Netflix. The nine-season legal drama that aired on USA from 2011 to 2019 was the most watched show, four years after it left the air. The bingeability, the comfort value, and the ability to drop in whenever reminded studios and stations just how reliable the procedural really is for viewers.

This re-realization continues across networks, too. CBS’s biggest shows for this past television season have been new interpretations of the format (Tracker and the delightful Elsbeth). NBC has a pilot for Suits: LA still in contention. Procedurals succeed. Especially when viewing habits continue to confuse those in power, why stray from what works?

ABC has continued down the pro-procedural path as well. Will Trent, going into its third season, has become a hit for the network. The move of 9-1-1 to ABC has been gang-busters. (Will 9-1-1: Lone Star follow suit down the line? Seems likely!) On Disney+, Grey’s Anatomy has yet to be outside the top ten trending series since the inclusion of Hulu. Procedurals can run for years with hundreds of episodes and thousands of cases. Grey’s Anatomy shows the staying power of weekly cases and the power in episode counts.

This fall, ABC’s two new series to the schedule are both procedurals. Dr. Odyssey, hailing from Ryan Murphy, follows a medical team on a cruise ship. Kaitlin Olson stars as a single mom with an incredible knack for solving murder cases on High Potential. These, if positioned correctly, could continue the hot streak of successful procedurals for ABC. While live viewing might be down, these could remain hits through Hulu and DVR viewing (i.e. Abbott Elementary).

It also begs the question: what other procedural formats could work in the streaming sphere? While Hulu has free reign, could Disney+ utilize the format for their audience? The Mandalorian and She Hulk have tried to hide that they are, in fact, procedural at their core. Could Star Wars and Marvel work on proper uses of the format? Could an animated Zootopia procedural work? As the tried-and-true continues to show its successes, it’s only right to try to turn the known into something original.

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Marshal Knight
Marshal Knight is a pop culture writer based in Orlando, FL. For some inexplicable reason, his most recent birthday party was themed to daytime television. He’d like to thank Sandra Oh.