Formula Television And Its Non-Discontents

The blog Monsters of Television has a really good post on “formula” television shows and what makes the successful ones work. All shows have some kind of formula, of course; but some shows openly follow a very strict episode-by-episode formula, where certain things must happen in pretty much every episode, and we even know when those things will probably happen. The granddaddy of the modern formula show is Law and Order, which is constructed in such a way that certain things pretty much have to happen at certain times within the hour. And yet despite — or perhaps because of — the rigid format and the lack of big changes in the characters’ lives, these shows tend to depend on characters for their popularity. Since we know what will happen and when, we are tuning in to see our favourite people do their stuff:

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.

Some of the more ambitious, serialized shows have not taken off because they let character get swallowed up by plot — we wonder what’s going to happen next, not how character X will react. As “Monsters” points out, Lost (returning Tuesday!) has been more successful than the shows that have copied it because, no matter how many twists it has or how many characters are replaced, it (like the similarly replacement-happy Law and Order) “returns to its characters to locate much of the action.”

One difference between the modern formula drama and those of the past is that today’s mystery shows tend to have much larger casts than in the past, and are therefore — as the post points out — essentially ensemble shows. A show like Bones, if it had been done in the ’70s, would have had almost no characters other than Booth and Bones. (And maybe you’d have one other character to provide exposition, a Bosley if you will.) These shows had small regular casts because the real interest, in most cases, was in the guest characters: they were the ones who had real problems, could change or get married or get killed. Today these shows have large regular casts, they incorporate elements like arcs and ongoing romantic tension, and there are fewer showy parts for guest stars because more screen time has to be given over to the regular supporting characters.

If you look at some of these older shows with fewer regulars, and compare them to their modern counterparts, one thing that sometimes notable is that they had more elaborate storytelling and plot twists within a mystery story, and sometimes even a bit more variety in terms of where the main plot beats took place. But that’s because the plot was driven by the guest stars (or guest planet on a show like Star Trek), so the storytelling was a little different depending on who the guest characters were. It’s often noted that on some of these modern shows, the actual mystery seems a little perfunctory a lot of times. But that’s because plotting out the mystery, however important it might be, is secondary to the character beats. In other words, the modern episodic drama is quite a bit like certain types of sitcoms: we know certain things will happen at certain times, and that provides a framework for the characters.

We may see some of this when the next round of remakes comes along. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, people who wrote for Hawaii 5-0 were told that the show wasn’t really about McGarrett or his fellow cops most weeks; the show was about the criminals. And that meant every episode was heavily focused on the story of the week. But now that Hawaii 5-0 is being remade, one thing that’s certain is that it will have many more regular characters than the original, and a lot more time every week will be spent on those regulars. The story will be a device to get those characters doing their thing, and the characters’ personal reactions to the mystery will be very important. (Even the remake of Rockford Files, one of the more character-based shows of its era, will unquestionably have more regulars than the original. Angel and Beth didn’t appear in every episode on the original; it seems likely that they will be front-line regulars if the new version gets picked up.) The storytelling method of the self-contained episodic drama has, in a sense, been taken over by the serialized drama, particularly the emphasis on characters who aren’t safe from change or death. (On the older shows, these characters were guests. On the newer shows, they are regulars who have the potential to be written off the show a la Lost.) While the episodic drama has become the TV equivalent of a sonnet, where the the form and structure are a given and the only question is what the character (the poet in the sonnet; the cop on the TV show) will say this time within those limits.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.