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Sunday, 7 of March of 2021

Finding the Formula in the Characters

With Lost’s upcoming return, I wanted to take a brief moment to discuss the shows that aren’t exactly innovative in terms of narrative or character or having a big honking mythology. Yes, I’m talking about the other hour-long dramas that are on TV and that, let’s be honest, may not necessarily get the critical love and attention that they may deserve. More importantly though, I want to, hopefully, parse out some of the differences in between these shows and see how they ultimately survive compared to other shows like Lost that burns us up inside, but fizzle on screen.

I’ll admit that Lost’s return isn’t the only motivating factor here. Burn Notice is on tonight, one of my favorite formula shows, and ABC’s Castle was just given two more episodes (presumably based on either the strength of last week’s series high ratings or to cover some post-Ugly Betty spots in the schedule, but in either case it’s a sign of confidence in the series), so it seems appropriate to discuss the issue of formula on TV right now.

I feel compelled to start off with one of the longest running formula shows, Law & Order, and I feel compelled because the other shows I’ll discuss make a departure from this show’s intent while emphasizing what I think makes L&O so watchable. I can’t remember any particular case at any given moment, or the ins and outs of them either, they all blur together. But the show’s format (and the city itself) is supposed to be the star, and what people (should) tune in for is watching these detectives and DAs solving and prosecuting crimes. Each episode follows the same timing: 30 minutes for the law part, another 30 for the order part. There’ll be some twist in the order part, and the show will resolve itself with a brief scene with the DAs discussing the situation, often with a subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) observation about the state of affairs.

And that formula is what Dick Wolf thought people would tune in for. That formula is why the show seems to be on at all hours of the day. That formula is why characters move in and out of the show with nary a concern for how and why and where they went (except Jack McCoy, who will be there until the show ends or Waterson dies). And Wolf is probably still right: people watch it for the comfort of knowing exactly what will happen because they’ve seen enough episodes to know it won’t vary. It also, Wolf knew, would save cost on actors. An actor wants too much money to re-up their contract? Replaced without a thought. Actor wants off the show? Easily arranged.

But, ironically, the characters have become something for people to debate about. I don’t see many discussions about which season was better, but I have seen, heard, and participated in conversations about which character tenures are the best. Which pairings brought the most to the formula, made it pop? It’s this thing that fans take away from the show, not the ripped from the headlines crime and court drama. What determines whether I keep watching a rerun is, in fact, whether or not Dennis Farina is on the screen. If he is, I’m on to the next channel. If Jerry Orbach or Jesse L. Martin are there, I’m sticking around. And I think we can all agree that if Elizabeth Röhm shows up, we’d probably move along, no matter how amazing Sam Waterson consistently is.

Despite these debates, that the characters change so often has become part of the show’s formula, something that we understand will happen at some point, just like we anticipate the show’s adherence to its internal timing. But we hit a transitional point right here, with this particular aspect. The two spin-offs, SVU and Criminal Intent, function differently than its parent show. Both shows follow formulas as well (after working out some kinks in their individual formulas), but characters dominate the stakes in both shows, not the cases.

Both SVU and CI rely on an emotional connection with their characters to keep the show going. That Dick Wolf hasn’t replaced Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay even after repeated and heated contract negotiations speaks to how much SVU has come to rely on the audience’s emotional connection to both Stabler and Benson, and the show only enforces this by exploring those characters’ personal lives and issues. The tough and emotional content of the series also requires an anchor for audiences to latch onto, and maintaining roughly the same cast across its run I think explains much of the show’s success.

CI is no different. Instead of letting Vincent D’Onofrio out of his contract when he was suffering from exhaustion, Wolf brings Chris Noth back and starts alternating episodes between the two leads. Audiences responded to D’Onofrio’s quirky and off kilter Goren in surprising ways (he was the new Sherlock Holmes before Gregory House came around). The show struggled to find itself in initial seasons, balancing scenes with the criminals with scenes of the police and then courtroom scenes. Wisely the show scuttled the last part, replacing it with Goren (and now Jeff Goldblum’s sly and evocative Nichols) psychologically deconstructing the criminal in an interrogation (Jack Bauer could learn from these guys).

So despite an initial reliance on plot, the franchise came to rely on characters to move the formula along and keep audiences engaged (though the original remains the same, and this season has been actually quite excellent in terms of cast and cases). And this isn’t anything new. Any number of shows have used a formula and then put in captivating and interesting characters to move it along. And there’s a crop of shows like this on right now, but each doing things a little differently in terms of how they position themselves as a show and their narratives.

The insanely popular NCIS is a prime example. I can watch the show, but I don’t really like it. I like the characters (except Kate, she was pretty boring), but I just wish the show was different, something sharper, edgier. But that’s me. That the show had been a bit of a sleeper hit for so long, and then burst out with a massive syndication run on USA, and is now the only the show capable of demolishing anything not named American Idol speaks to its importance. Part of the show’s appeal is its adherence to a pretty normal order of events: a member of the Marines or the Navy is found dead, and the normal order of collecting clues and performing an autopsy are completed until the perpetrator is discovered, normally by some piece of evidence lazily left behind.

But the other part is the predictability of the character movements within the formula (the same applies to L&O). Tony’s movie references. McGee’s nerdy interests. Ziva’s (still) poor use of English idioms. Gibbs scowling. Ducky being folksy and wise. Abby being perky and Gothy (but also almost always solving the case). These character beats are just as predictable, and comforting, as the narrative beats the show moves through, which is probably why the show is a success. Even when situations about the characters’ personal lives enter the mix, they’re often done in ways that serve a larger, more team-oriented purpose. Tony’s relationship with a doctor as a means to get to an arms dealer is a prime example, or Gibss’ “retirement” to Mexico (he looked weird with that beard…) allows character beats to occur within a new narrative while still following a set formula.

The ensemble beats are a big part of the formula show. Shows like Castle and Bones both have sizable ensembles, and individual character beats remain important. Bones is especially good at this as each member of the ensemble will offer a particular expertise to help solve whatever bizarre case is currently under investigation, allowing them to have a moment to shine in the main narrative and having a B- and/or C-plot in the mix as well, depending on the episode and the season (or engage in painful product promotion).

However, unlike the formula shows above, both Bones and Castle ultimately center around a mismatched pair with clear, but unresolved, attraction to one another (though NCIS has been building to this with Tony and Ziva in recent seasons). Like Moonlighting before them, both shows run on the unresolved sexual tension (UST) between the main pair (Bones &  Booth and Castle & Beckett) while engaging in formulaic plots of solving weird crimes,  popping off witty banter, and all the while ignoring the delicious sexual tension that every other character is aware of (Bones has been driving this particular point home hard this season).

Like the crimes themselves, UST is another formulaic element to the show, but I don’t think either element was there to start with. Bones was just CSI clone until the UST kicked in, and Castle was a vehicle for Nathan Fillion (I completed an ABC survey about the show, and Fillion’s name was an option for the following three questions: “What drew you to the show?” “What do you enjoy most about the show?” “Why do you continue to watch the show?” I picked Fillion for all three questions.) that took a season to properly find its legs (and for Stana Katic and the writers to find a good tone for Beckett).

In the case of these shows, there are two aspects to the formula for audiences to engage in: the criminal case solving procedural (a staple of every show I’ve discussed) and/or the UST between the attractive leads (despite my slash fiction, Jack McCoy never hooked up with Adam Schiff on-screen). Again, both of these elements fit into the shows’ respective formulas. Castle seems to like extended cold opens at the end of which a small twist is provided to motivate the rest of the episode, while Bones will have Bones discover something odd about the remains before cutting the OP. The rest of the episode will follow the investigation of the murder, with Bones providing a B-plot, and Castle staying fairly case oriented, with very light B-plots.  Bones‘ B-plots are a bit of an abnormality within the formula shows I’ve mapped out here. It’s unique in its emphasis on the characters’ personal lives (much to the dismay of one particularly serious intern), while Castle’s B-plots tend to involve Castle’s family (and allows him to be a good dad to his daughter or son to his mother) but only in passing (though I do enjoy Fillion’s interactions with Molly Quinn and Susan Sullivan).

One last thing that each of these last three shows, NCISBones, and Castle, have done, and will help transition us to the final show is that they engage in some sort of story arc for a season. Castle has, due to its low episode count compared to the other shows, only engaged in the mystery of who murdered (and ordered the murder of) Beckett’s mom. NCIS seems to do extended ones (I never watch this show in order, or at least I can’t tell if I am) occasionally, and is about to engage in one with a lawyer out to get Gibbs (perhaps both professionally and sexually). Bones had the Gormagon killer plot and this season’s arc of Bones and Booth coming to grips with their feelings for each other.

But all three shows skip around with their arc episodes, planting them throughout the season, never wholly concerned with them. Castle, very organically, returned to the mother killer plot a few weeks ago, and solved one portion of it while leaving the other portion unresolved. The Gormagon killer plot, despite my desire to see it be the source of every episode’s case, was only addressed in passing, or as a backdrop to other cases. (I can’t speak to how NCIS handles its arcs since I don’t watch the show often enough.) With this, I turn to Burn Notice.

Burn Notice is a show that loves its formula, perhaps only L&O loves its own formula more. Each episode will find burnt spy Michael Westen helping some poor Miami resident out of a tight spot, normally involving taking on some sort of invented cover identity to con the criminals into leaving the client (as the show calls them) alone. This is done like clockwork. Michael will avoid violence, Fiona will recommend more violence, Sam will want another drink, and Madeline will disapprove in some way about something (though she’s pretty badass when she wants to be). Michael will also make some really cool gadget out of a cell phone, duct tape, and a used container of yogurt.

But each episode will also find Michael trying to get back into the CIA (originally to find out who burned him and why), often near the end of the episode or throughout the episode while trying to help the Client of the Week. The seasonal arc is integrated more thoroughly with the overall show, rather than sporadically addressed. In this regard, Burn Notice puts us closer to those narratively complex shows like LostVeronica MarsHeroes, and The Wire (and, in my own opinion, The Venture Brothers) while still keeping its formula in tact (sometimes at the expense of arc, as I felt the show suffered during season 2 by dragging out Carla).

I’ve traced the development of formula shows to emphasize not only how they developed, but to make one concluding point: People like these shows. These shows garner audiences. And where these shows provide us with not only predictability and fun, but they also give us viewing stability. The high-concept, supposedly narratively complex shows that have attempted to follow Lost have all pretty much failed to catch on. And I believe that through this discussion I’ve pinpointed why: characters.

Lost, despite its crazy mythology, returns to its characters to locate much of the action. Other, less successful shows, care too much about its mythology, letting it subsume the characters and alienating (V for the pun!) its audiences (though it’s fair to say, that Lost hampered itself in terms of getting new viewers and keeping old ones due to its increasingly elaborate mythology). But these formula shows, despite their Swiss watch approach to narrative, keep their focus on character, which keeps audiences coming back.

I’m not suggesting we need less shows like Lost. Indeed, I love shows like Lost (when done well…), but I don’t think we can afford to ignore these formula shows either. There’s something here, perhaps more than character and the comfort of predictability. But this is, hopefully, just a step in that direction.

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