The Prestige-ification of Procedurals

With Goliath and Chance, networks are trying to update legal and cop shows for the age of peak TV. But did the form really need fixing?

Still of Hugh Laurie in Chance, Billy Bob Thornton in Goliath.
Billy Bob Thornton in Goliath and Hugh Laurie in Chance.*

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Hulu and Amazon Studios.

Procedurals, the term of art for TV series in which nearly the same thing happens every episode, have been a staple of television since its start. Until relatively recently, the history of TV drama was a litany of series like this, of doctors healing patients, lawyers winning cases, the crew of a ship finding love for its passengers. Cop shows, crime shows, legal shows, medical shows: They are like bread. You could live on them, if not for everyone insisting they are bad for you.

Procedurals have lately become synonymous with uncreative TV, the kind one watches to rest one’s brain or while folding the laundry. It doesn’t help that the endlessly uncool networks are the only places reliably making them anymore and that they tend to do so with the creativity of McDonald’s line cooks. Procedurals don’t have to be lazy or hacky, as shows such as The Rockford Files, Hill Street Blues, Moonlighting, NYPD Blue, ER, and The Good Wife demonstrate, but the energy is elsewhere. Creative people with ambitions besides making a fortune from CBS are not making procedurals; platforms besides the networks aren’t really buying them.

Two cases in point are Amazon’s Goliath, which arrived on the streaming service on Friday, and Chance, which starts on Wednesday on Hulu. Goliath is a legal drama starring Billy Bob Thornton and created by David E. Kelley, who got his start on the procedural L.A. Law and went on to create legal procedurals Ally McBeal, The Practice, Boston Legal, and Harry’s Law, plus the medical procedural Chicago Hope. Goliath, however, is not a procedural. Chance, which has already been picked up for 20 episodes by Hulu, stars Hugh Laurie, who famously played a doctor in the long-running and often very good medical procedural House, as a doctor. Chance is also not a procedural.

Goliath, despite focusing on one case for its eight-episode season, has the swing of a procedural, which I mean as a compliment. It takes pleasure in assembling its predictable parts: the washed-up but charismatic lawyer, the vast conspiracy, the supporting characters who are all heavy on the “character.” Moreover, it is not trying to reinvent the pleasures of a lawyer show, in which you want to see clever lawyers being clever in a courtroom setting. The show has the kind of jaunty professionalism of a John Grisham novel, in which an outmatched lawyer takes on a, yes, goliath, and usually wins at great personal expense.

Thornton’s Billy McBride was a world-class trial lawyer who lost his reputation and his job at an impressive law firm due to drink. He now lives and works out of a motel and nearby bar, when an intriguing case involving a giant weapons manufacturer, an ocean accident, and a cover-up lands in his lap. McBride’s old firm, where McBride’s ex-wife (Maria Bello) still works, is representing the other side. The name partner, Donald Cooperman (William Hurt) has a vendetta against McBride, which he pursues using any means necessary while hiding out in a dark office, like a nocturnal lizard. The cast also includes Olivia Thirlby as a stuttering junior lawyer; Molly Parker as a senior one; and Nina Arianda as a gloriously tough, trashy, and exasperated lawyer and real estate agent named Patty Solis-Papagian.

Goliath is basically a procedural polished and adapted to survive in the age of peak TV, when discerning audience members don’t think they have time for procedurals anymore. But Chance is something more disappointing, another wannabe prestige series starring a man who once appeared in a much better show. Based on Kem Nunn’s book of the same name, Chance wants to be a kind of seedy California noir, complete with femme fatale but is personality-less instead. Laurie stars as Dr. Alden Chance—ugh—a recent divorcee and referring neuropsychiatrist who briefly sees all sorts of deeply troubled patients before referring them to other therapists. Into his office walks Jaclyn Blackstone (Gretchen Mol), a beautiful woman who claims to be suffering from multiple personalities. She is in an abusive relationship with her husband, a menacing cop (Paul Adelstein). Chance can’t resist her. The two become involved while Chance also starts participating in clandestine nighttime activities with a mysterious tough guy (Ethan Suplee) he meets at an antique store. Unlike House, Alden Chance seems pretty stupid, but it’s hard to tell if the show knows it or not.

Goliath and Chance suggest an opportunity for streaming companies such as Amazon and Hulu, to say nothing of Netflix, that right now pay lots of money to reair procedurals created by other networks. Instead of trying to gussy up and expand the lawyer or doctor show into something that looks more soigné, they could keep these shows short and sweet. Procedurals are out of fashion because it’s hard to get attention for them, attention being a limited resource in the age of peak TV. And, allegedly, they don’t lend themselves to binging. But procedurals also seem like a solution to peak TV’s endless backlog of shows to watch. In such an environment, there’s more appeal than ever to a story you can get through, from start to finish, in an hour. Instead of throwing enough money and talent to make a splash at another middling serial drama, the streaming services might consider throwing splashy money and talent at a real procedural, a format that’s only worked for 60 years.

Correction, Oct. 20, 2016: Due to a production error, the art for this article originally included an image from Second Chance rather than Chance. It has been replaced.