In Defense of the Procedural

In the past few weeks, New York Mag has decided to take on the hefty job of determining the best TV drama of the last 25 years. Their approach, albeit nonsensical, is quite entertaining. They've set it up like a tournament, pitting one against another, then having the winner advance to the next round. This ridiculous system has led to a lot of silly match ups like "My So-called Life vs. The Wire" or "Breaking Bad vs. Friday Night Lights." It has also led to a giant fucking travesty.

The fact is that everyone's a critic, and everyone has their opinions. And to be honest, there's literally no real-world impact of some guy saying Twin Peaks is better than Battlestar Galactica. Not to mention, no agreed definition of the word "best." No, my problem is not in what they picked (they're not done yet, though I have my suspicion), it's with how they picked them. They're on round 3 and we have, let's see, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos. All the shows have one thing in common: they are all examples of long-form TV story structures. Shows like The X-files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer get tossed to the side when pitted against long-form juggernauts and while sometimes it is an example of one show being a boundary breaking, heart-stoppingly good show, sometimes it's just bias.

For whatever reason, we've all fallen in love with long-form Television lately. And while, I'll be the first to admit there are certain stories you could only tell with long-form (Homeland being the first that comes to mind), I'm becoming increasingly aggravated with the pervading assumption that long-form=quality.

Let's talk examples: Mad Men is coming back to our living rooms this week, and with it, the customary parade of critical fellatio. Mad Men is, in my opinion, one of the most irritating long-form Dramas on TV. It has some of the worst actors I can imagine (January Jones, Vincent Kartheiser), side-plots worthy of the CW (no offense to my boys at Supernatural) that occasionally pop up and take over the show (most of these side plots involve January Jones and Vincent Kartheiser), and the constant need to punch you in the face with the 1960s. It always seems like the writers are afraid that if they don't constantly remind you what decade it is, you might forget. As if the indoor smoking wasn't enough. The show occasionally replaces plot points with long pensive shots of people smoking and staring at nothing (this happens, literally every episode), and constantly undercuts it's own characters by forcing them into archetypes so the writers can bring up some social issue (usually about sexism). Now, I want to stress that I don't hate Mad Men. Sometimes, the show manages to be really goddamn interesting and fun to watch. I just want to point out that the show has some serious problems. Problems that are so often overlooked because no one wants to be the one critic in the room not getting on his knees and facing Mad Men Mecca.

Now let's talk about the procedural. In the advent of this long-form boon, there's been two major responses I've noticed from the world of procedural TV. First, you have the unsuccessful (though one more immediately than the other) Play Boy Club, and Pan-Am. These two shows pitifully attempted to grasp on to whatever makes Mad Men so popular and cram it all into a procedural structure. Unfortunately, they both wound up listless messes because when you invite the comparison to an established AMC flagship, you might as well shoot yourself in the foot.

But there are other procedurals that perfectly merge the long-form season arc while also giving solid individual stories every episode. Shows like Justified, Luther, Doctor Who, The Good Wife, and (the late) Terriers. Shows that manage(d) to tell compelling and dynamic stories with only 45 minutes of screen time to tell them. It is an art form, and a difficult one at that, to tell a concise story. As any writer will tell you, a short story is often far more difficult than a novel. And while we're at the comparison, let's go down the Rushdie road and talk about the TV-Book comparison. A lot of popular novel writers are discovering that, to avoid the hatchet job most movies will give them, the best solution is to get a TV adaptation. The wildly popular (and increasingly annoying) True Blood, and the very big budget (and shining bastion of all that is good fantasy) Game of Thrones both stand as testaments to why any novelist worth their best-seller status should be taking their words to TV. But if a season is a book and a chapter is an episode then since when is a chapter better than a short story? This is my point, really. TV critics seem to be in the business of excusing poorly paced, or badly written moments, as long as they're leading somewhere, yet never give the proper credit to the shows that don't hide behind their ending climax, and instead just give you a brilliant episode of television with no aspirations of building towards a series finale.

Before I wrap up, I want to talk about Buffy the Vampire Slayer as I so often do. This whole tirade really began with Buffy losing to Mad Men so I guess I should at least explain why that pissed me off. Buffy is campy. It's sometimes woefully soapy, badly acted, horribly choreographed, and usually a little annoying. BUT, Buffy the Vampire Slayer produced some of television's most shining moments. The episode "The Body" took a stark and realistic look at death. And not monster caused death, just aneurysm caused death. The episode has no score, and only four scenes. The show ignored conventions to the point of being almost experimental. There's a great moment when Xander Harris punches a plaster wall out of anger, and then can't get his hand out. This constant finger pointed at the conventional while also rejecting the cliche is what makes Buffy one of my favorite shows ever. I would also gesture emphatically towards episodes like "Hush" where Whedon threw out his signature snappy dialogue in favor of a totally silent and often terrifying episode. Or "The Zeppo" which is a great dissection of being cool in high school, from sex to popularity to rebellion. Plus, the episode serves an example of Buffy making fun of itself by constantly having Xander on the sidelines, only barely involved with a fight to save the world from an apocalypse. All in 45 minutes. No pieces were set up in the previous episode to get us there. We were given the beginning middle and end of a great goddamn story that grabbed our hearts, or tickled our brains, or totally redefined what TV was and we didn't need a "previously on" to enjoy it.

So, I guess, fuck you NY Mag.

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