TV Club

Best TV of 2015: Procedurals are the one corner of the TV landscape that’s not flourishing.

I love procedurals, and let me tell you: This is the one corner of the television landscape that’s not flourishing. 

Murder in the First
Taye Diggs in Murder in the First.

© 2015 Turner Broadcasting, Inc. 

My TV Club pals,

Willa, I agree that Netflix has brainwashed us into believing that creating a show we are willing to watch in one or two butt-numbing sessions is a greater achievement than producing something we’ll commit to coming back to on a regular basis more than 20 times a year. That’s nonsense. Still, watching television did feel different to me this year—in part because of Netflix and its would-be rivals.

For years I’ve been repeating conventional wisdom that didn’t really apply to me or my TV-watching habits: that viewers weren’t sampling new network series because they weren’t convinced these shows would last more than a few weeks before an untimely cancellation; because they’re busy binge-watching Officially Designated Golden Age Shows on Netflix instead, or because none of the newly announced shows looks interesting. And then this year, those criteria applied to me.

Sure, streaming services have been around for ages; bingeing is so old hat we’ve stopped calling it that; and the streaming upstarts have been in the series-resuscitation business for so long that wondering if Netflix/Hulu/Yahoo will pick up a canceled show is now a standard stage in the life cycle of any property with a following. Still, even though this wasn’t the first year I’ve devoted weekends to hoovering up entire series, it sure felt that in the last 12 months when there were a lot more shows that justified canceling one’s brunch plans. Orange Is the New Black, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Grace and Frankie, Longmire, Sense8, Catastrophe, Jessica Jones, Master of None, Transparent, House of Cards (a hate-watch, admittedly), and surely some others I’ve since forgotten about all kept me tightly affixed to the couch. (And, yes, a few streaming series left my calendar unmolested: Sorry, Daredevil, Narcos, Hemlock Grove, Man in the High Castle, and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, you just didn’t grab me.)

Every Tuesday I went to Hulu for The Mindy Project, which was even more reliably sharp, funny, and random when untethered from a broadcast network, and I dedicated lots of weekday evenings to the British and Aussie shows that are so easy to find on Netflix and Hulu. All that meant that I had a lot less time for broadcast output—Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the only new fall show that I’ve added to my regular TV diet. Long ago, people used to worry that those who couldn’t afford cable were being locked out of the good shows—when the big sporting events migrate to cable, I worry about the viability of the broadcast networks. Even a TV addict like me can contemplate living without one these days. Joe, you’re my go-to ratings guru, I need you to tell me if my concern is misplaced.

But of course there are still things worth watching on broadcast television. I had two network shows in my top 10—The Good Wife and Empire—and several others were nipping at their heels. In my previous post I praised The Good Wife’s timeliness and tech savvy-ness, but those aren’t its only assets. It manages to be unpredictable without being bonkers (not that bonkers is always bad—Empire does bonkers brilliantly) and to reveal new and credible character traits for the now-familiar players. This season we’ve seen Alicia become a gifted home mixologist, Grace reveal her entrepreneurial tendencies, and Eli have his heart broken. (Who knew Eli even had a heart?) It still uses investigators as dei ex machina—albeit with the inscrutable Jason Crouse’s deep Chumhumming skills replacing Kalinda Sharma’s. It’s still threaded through with story lines that irritate me—chief among them the idea that any of these nogoodniks have realistic election prospects (the 2016 GOP field notwithstanding)—but I happily play games with my DVR to make sure the endless sports-related scheduling delays don’t get in the way of my learning more about the Illinois bond court system.

Margaret, you asked what shows we watch that don’t get a lot of love from the critical establishment. I am a procedural aficionado, and let me tell you, it is not #PeakTV when it comes to cop and lawyer shows. There are a few high points. In its 17th season, SVU is in fine form. I could do with about 15 percent less Noah-Liv drama—her kid doesn’t have to be part of every case the 16th Precinct investigates—but it’s a show that is committed to covering worthy and mostly neglected aspects of the criminal justice system (as in the October episode about institutional failings in child services) along with the gross sex murders viewers apparently dig most. Elementary at least has great (over)acting from Jonny Lee Miller, though the plots are often depressingly grim; iZombie—in which physician-turned-zombie Liv Moore (a fantastic Rose McIver) eats murder victims’ brains to gain clues to the identity of their killers—is funny and creative and immensely likable, but it’s a relationship comedy that happens to feature a weekly murder, not a procedural. Otherwise, it’s a wasteland—all the Dick Wolf shows with Chicago in their titles do nothing for me; Bones has gotten boring, NCIS went off the boil when Gibbs stopped wearing a white T under his polo shirt (though I don’t think the two phenomena are related), and the rest are basically fear-mongering bilge.

On cable there’s at least Major Crimes, which manages to disguise the identity of the murderer better than any other show on television, and Rizzoli & Isles, which is profoundly silly but reliably entertaining. There’s also Murder in the First, TNT’s stealthy little procedural-that-could, which in a year of great sophomore seasons had a fantastic one. In its freshman incarnation, San Francisco homicide detectives Terry English (Taye Diggs) and Hildy Mulligan (Kathleen Robertson) tried to figure out if a douchey tech billionaire—played by Draco Malfoy—was also a sex murderer. In Season 1, there was too much going on—Terry’s wife died, Hildy almost had sex with about four murder suspects and six fellow cops, and James Cromwell was so over the top as a super famous defense attorney he was virtually floating, Supergirl style, over the proceedings. In Season 2, though, things calmed down. They still had every prestige TV bingo square covered—a detective with gambling debts, corrupt cops doing horrible things to good people, a soft-hearted drug kingpin with the welfare of his neighborhood at heart, a cop who fell for a prostitute, a package that contained a severed head, a grizzled retired cop contemptuous of the pansy methods his cop kids use today, etc., etc.—but somehow it worked. It was True Detective without the nonsensical plot, The Shield with a strong female lead, Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s diversity without the yucks.

Alan, it surprises me to hear that you occasionally fire up a random episode of beloved shows. That’s something I never do anymore. We live in a world where there’s always something great that I haven’t yet seen, and with a push of the remote I can easily catch up on most of them, so reruns are history. I can’t remember the last time I casually rewatched even something I absolutely adore. I might systematically work my way through the entire run of something I missed, but random reruns are a thing of the past. And Netflix bears a good deal of responsibility for that new way of watching.

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