The Life Cycle of a Police Procedural, or why these shows inevitably engage in Shark Jumping

I have come to see that thinking in terms of predictable life-cycles is a powerful tool for understanding many phenomena. Having seen many beloved police procedurals evolve into something not worth watching, I will advance my theory. Case in point, The Closer and its spin-off Major Crimes.

First off a definition: A Police Procedural is a show or book that chronicles police activity as they solve a single major crime, or go about their routine business of investigating many crimes with some remaining unsolved. I’ll confess I am addicted to this sort of show or book, so I see a lot. I also watch some that are shockingly badly done, though even I have my limits to what I will tolerate. What I enjoy about a procedural is the predator dynamic–the police seeking a criminal and ultimately finding them and meting out some form of justice. Such shows are also made interesting by the work and interpersonal patterns of people engaged in such work.

It strikes me there are myriad criminals and investigative paths such shows can follow year in and out, but ultimately the dynamic of the shows change from a predatory hunt for a criminal being the focus of the energy, to a focus on sex and conflict among the police and in their personal lives. One good indicator that your favorite cop show is on the fast track to the toilet is the milestone episode when the members of the police themselves become victims of the criminals they are pursuing. To appeal to the basest instincts among us, this crime often involves the rape of one or more large-busted female members of the cast.

Why this should be inevitable puzzles me, but its inevitability is axiomatic nonetheless. My working theory is that there is an extremely limited number of good writers in the TV business, and an unlimited supply of mediocre ones. The first few seasons of a really good show is staffed with what I call the “A” team, but over time, the good writers quit or are assigned to other new shows to get them off to a good start. The “B” team is not very good at writing police procedurals, and the only thing they really know how to do is write soap operas fueled by sex and interpersonal conflict.

Also, tv writers are inevitably marxists at heart, else they would not find work in the business. The A team is better at concealing it, but the B team just can’t help themselves from using the weekly episode as their political soapbox. Soon there is no mystery as to who-dun-it. Its the wealthy industrialist, the uptight christian who is a hypocrite in matters of marital fidelity, and all those evil freedom-loving Tea Party types who inhabit the marxian nightmare closet. And then there is the onanistic speechifying in shows like Law And Order which, if nothing else, relive the producers of paying for expensive exterior filming.

Now I do need to acknowledge that percentage-wise there are probably more TV viewers who prefer interpersonal drama to the predacious hunt for criminals, so for a real blockbuster show, producers try to give the whole family something to enjoy, mixing police work and sex/conflict.

Take The Closer, for example. Now the show started out with two striking elements: 1) the ability of ‘The Closer’ to solve crimes and get confessions, and 2) the amount of conflict she has with some of her team in the first season. For quite some time, I found it to be a pretty good bargain–good police work with boring team infighting.

I also must acknowledge the deft comic touch of those who wrote The Closer: the misadventures of Flynn and Provenza. One of my favorite scenes: Johnson to Pope: “I need to tell you something, don’t get angry. This is about Flynn and Provenza…” Pope: “I’m already angry.”

And for many seasons the show stayed unusually strong until in the final seasons, the show became more and more about the feelings and personal life of the lead character. Presumably toward the end, Kyra Sedgwick probably got tired of the role and wanted some personal time to spend the millions she had earned, and just when the focus on her character’s personal life threatened to swamp the show, the producers put it out of its misery.

With a strong ensemble cast, one could have expected the spin-off, Major Crimes, to have a good shot at being a good show. Well, from what I could see in the first couple of episodes, the show had moved away from a maverick cop getting results, to a politically correct bureaucracy preachily extolling the virtues of following the rules and not getting results.

And in addition to this unsatisfying turn of affairs, apparently half of each episode was devoted to the implausible plot device whereby the new female lead, Captain Raydor, invites a young, shrill, selfish, and irritating young criminal/victim to live in her home while she delivers on a promise to locate his neer-do-well mom who has abandoned him. During their time together, Raydor shares her innermost vulnerabilities with this whiney victim while he throws tantrums in response, with his victimhood his license to be an ingrate. At this point, its clear the writers here are talent-free regurgitators of cliche, so we all know that these two will come to develop a strong bond and yada yada. But I certainly didn’t care if this happens or even want to stick around to see it.

As is often the case with spin-offs, Major Crimes didn’t have the legs its predecessor did and quickly lost viewer interest and deservedly wound up un-mourned in an unmarked grave.

With this example providing a roadmap, one can see how so many police procedurals start out with great promise and evolve into something implausible and loathsome, alienating their erstwhile loyal followers. If you like procedurals for the same reasons I do, watch for the pattern and you will see it.

There are some precious franchises which escape these tawdry failings, and they seem to come mostly from England (the birthplace and motherlode of the Police Procedural), but that is a discussion for another day.