The Five-Step Procedural

I do not write mystery/thriller, so I have no idea if what I'm about to say applies to the written word. That kind of question is better served by Jennifer Hillier. But it was the procedural drama that ended my 5-year hiatus from television1. Now the best procedurals on television today (or at least over the last decade) keep their freshness by exploring new facets of their characters. The crimes (and overall plot) follow a predictable format each episode, which can help you figure out the whodunnit before the end of the show2.

Step 1: The Crime - Show us the body. This may even include the actual murder, but usually is a "slice of life" moment where a woman or a couple stumble on a body and the woman screams. This is the piece you get before the opening credits. Also the first bit after the credits where the medical examiner arrives, takes liver temperature, tells you time of death, and the investigators point out any clues that you need to keep in mind for later. This is a lot of telling not showing...or would be if it wasn't television where they're showing you everything.

Step 2: The Science - Cue musical montage, quirky lab techs, and lots of pseudo-medical jargon that makes real medical professionals roll their eyes (or occasionally applaud in appreciation of the accuracy). This is also where criminal professionals cringe as what is happening might be scientifically possible but not in that time frame or on their budget. Lots of computers and flasks and analyzers. If you're watching NCIS, they'll have the body cut open and you can see a few internal organs. This is where the people that don't carry guns (unless you're on CSI) start telling you a bunch of stuff that basically narrows the focus down to only a few possible suspects. This is also when the people who carry guns (same people if you're on CSI) interrogate people and get their first suspect.

Step 3: The Twist - Oh no! Newfound evidence provides an alibi for primary suspect. New information comes to light that changes the motive of the crime, calls into question the victimization of the corpse, or in some way broadens the scope of the investigation so that everything has to be questioned again. Boss person or hot head detective/investigator will lose his temper here. He'll posture, maybe hit his fist on the table and threaten. But witnesses will all point fingers at each other so now anyone can be guilty. Whatever shall we do!

Step 4: The Chase - We have the break in the case we need! Grab your guns and your cars and let's go drive recklessly! We will not call for backup or in any way coordinate with the local squad cars or if we do, none of them will be able to accomplish anything other than chasing us or possibly hitting a parked car and flipping upside down. There may be a foot chase or a gun fight. Someone might get nicked. If you're one of the good guys, you might look like you got shot, but don't worry, it only hit your vest so get back out there! Oh, you were too slow. The villain got away. But the chase revealed the information you need. Now one of you knows the whodunnit. You're not going to tell anyone else, though, because if you didn't orchestrate the person's capture and then reveal their identity Scooby-Doo style, how would any of your peers know that you're better than them?

Step 5: The Capture - Through guile and wit, you trick the villain into a carefully laid trap, not only apprehending the criminal, but eliciting a confession as well. Criminals are the talkingest people out there. Shut up and get a lawyer. A lot of the time, their evidence is purely circumstantial and then you go blabbing and do yourself in (a la every episode of Monk or Psych3 ever made). Finally we get the reveal and it of the non-main characters you've met this episode. The criminal is NEVER someone you haven't met before because it makes the entire thing seem like a total waste of time. If you haven't had a chance to try and guess, that's cheating. It breaks the unspoken rule between viewer and procedural drama that you should have the chance to guess before the villain is revealed. (Every so often, it's a double-twist where the original twist-causing witness is in fact the villain having sent the investigators on a wild goose chase.)

And thus, justice is meted out over our fair city!

1 So I quit watching TV in 99 and totally missed Firefly and the West Wing. I saw both on DVD and worried I had missed other awesome programming (I had not). Then I saw a commercial while I was at Burger King for a new show called Numb3rs. This looked awesome. I bought some rabbit ears for my TV and checked it out. I then saw "Call of Silence" from season 2 of NCIS and was totally hooked. I devoured TV for awhile until I got bored with almost all of it4. NCIS seemed the only procedural that cared more about its characters than the crime (or at least it did until Shane Brennan took over then that show went to crap and I stopped watching).

2 Unless one of the good guys becomes the bad guy. This will happen at the end of season 2 or 3 or if they last, around season 7 or 8 to reinvigorate the franchise. Oh no, didn't see that coming! If a case goes unsolved, it will either be a recurring villain used for multiple season finales (or mid-season breaks) or it will be one of the investigators.

3 Don't get me wrong. I love Psych and own every season on DVD but most of those criminals would go free if they didn't confess.

4 I still watch Castle every week. That's the only show I make sure to watch weekly.