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procedure, sweet procedure
the poetic justice of law & order
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

All hail the procedural: the most reassuringly predictable format in all of television.

The best example of the genre is the long-running behemoth "Law & Order," which, though its many spawn crawl the earth, has also survived in its original incarnation lo these many (15, going on 16) years.

TV.com calls it “realistic but fictional.” I call it “the new sonnet.”

There’s nothing truly new about the procedural, of course—it preceded television by a good couple of millennia. Detective stories have been around since Oedipus Rex. (“Whodunit? Idunit! Augh!”) But detective fiction comes in many flavors, and the procedural is only one. Detective stories come in hard-boiled, soft-boiled, English, puzzle, or any combination thereof. The procedural is its own little creature. Boring, but wonderfully so.

The whole point of the procedural is, as the name suggests, procedure. There are clues. The clues get followed. The dots get connected. A picture forms from the clues and the dots, and the viewer waits and watches for the whole hour to get the full impact of that final, completed picture.

The beautiful thing about “Law & Order” – or its daughter “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” but not its son “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” – is the simple format. The cops find the killer; the courts bring him or her to justice. Only the first person they find is never the killer, and it’s rare indeed that the final verdict can settle easily in one’s stomach under the name “justice.”

The twists within the formula are so regular that they are, in fact, the formula.

Hence, “the new sonnet.” Formal poetry gets no respect these days, but in its own way, the procedural is the natural descendant of formal poetry. It’s a rigid formula, with plain and plodding rules, and all the inventiveness of the writer has to be packed into that little box. Do the detectives and attorneys have personal lives? Who cares? Bring on the lying witness, the unreliable wife, the child who isn’t what he seems! Bring on the defendant’s scheming family member! Bring on the courtroom confession!

At its best, it can really take your breath away. They’ll set everything up like dominoes and then, from an unexpected direction, a flick of the finger will send everything toppling into the lap of the seemingly innocent person the detectives questioned 38 minutes ago. It’s fun, and cool. As a viewer, you say to yourself, “Oh, of course, how did I miss that?” As a writer, you say to yourself, “I want to do that.” Even in such a limited form, at its best, it transcends formula.

At its worst, it turns out like this.

So why do we watch? Is it the reassurance of knowing how things are going to turn out? Not quite. We don’t know how they’re going to turn out, we just know they’re not going to turn out how we thought they would.

So do we watch to be surprised?

No, most of this stuff isn’t that surprising.

I think we watch because there are rules. Rules can be broken, but they’re agreed-upon, they’re there. The law is like this. Police work is like this. Detectives interview witnesses. We know that at least one of the witnesses will say something that gives the detectives another lead, and they’ll follow the chain, until they have a suspect. And the attorneys will question and calculate and interview, and they too, will figure out which are the dead ends, and we’ll get to a conclusion just before the hour ends.

The ripped-from-the-headlines aspect may have something to do with it too, but I don’t think it’s much. I don’t think most people read the TiVo description or the TV Guide summary and say, “Hey, cool, I was really hoping to find out more about the issues surrounding terrorism and/or designer babies and/or the diagnosis of sociopathy and/or international shipping regulations and/or campus prostitution.” I think most people say, “Huh, ‘Law & Order.’ Wonder who will turn out to be guilty at the last minute.” It’s simple, it’s enticing, and it keeps you watching until the last few minutes of the show.

And even if, every now and again, a girl who initially claims to be a suicidal rape victim turns out to have impregnated herself with sperm from unconscious superstars that she drugged in order to give the sperm to a bank run by her father manages to escape after faking her own homicide (to frame the unwilling father of the baby, a baby which she has in the meantime had and hidden) in collaboration with her mother (guest star Lynda Carter) who she had previously blamed for her stunted conscience as an escape clause from responsibility for her crimes, hey, sometimes that happens.

It’s how that particular sonnet happens to rhyme.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


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by jael mchenry
topic: television
published: 8.4.08

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by jael mchenry
topic: television
published: 7.7.06


juli mccarthy
1.4.06 @ 12:12a

The original Law & Order had been running for twelve years before I ever even heard of it. (Yes, I really AM that far out of this world most of the time.) But, I have become vaguely hooked in the past year or so on both the original, in reruns and the current Dennis Farina version, and SVU. I haven't watched it enough to pinpoint the formula, exactly, but it definitely stands out from other TV mystery shows I used to watch. I like that the characters aren't always likeable, that they screw up, that sometimes, justice ISN'T served.

russ carr
1.4.06 @ 12:13a

Is this a continuation of Joe's hate column? Because I hate L&O.

You know what L&O is, really? It's the Aristocrats. The age-old comedians' maypole, the joke that spins and spins, fouler and fouler, until, invariably, it reaches the same old punchline. With L&O, as you say, the formula of misdirection is so established, we can pretty well discount anything we see in the first 20 minutes of the show. We're gonna screw with your head five ways from Sunday in order to distract you from what's really going on...but in the end, there's the perp in court and McCoy looks like he needs a Rolaids.

Or to carry your metaphor on: the quatrains are pointless; nothing matters but the couplet.

What really irritates me, though? Is how TNT is now the L&O Network. Is Dick Wolf on the board of Turner Entertainment or something? I can't flip past without seeing Fred Thompson or Mariska Hargitay looking all angsty. Blah! You're homogenizing television!

russ carr
1.4.06 @ 12:32a

And if you won't listen to me, for God's sake, listen to Joss:

"The networks will all be creating exciting, innovative new spin-offs of today's shows. Approximately 67 percent of all television will be CSI-based, including CSI: Des Moines, CSI: New York but a Different Part than Gary Sinise Is In and NCSI: SVU WKRP, which covers every possible gruesome crime with a groovin' '70s beat."

juli mccarthy
1.4.06 @ 12:33a

Never seen CSI either. But I like the L&O shows anyway.

michelle von euw
1.4.06 @ 1:13a

Through the magic of a TiVo season pass, I pretty much OD-ed on SVU this summer. Finally turned it off this week, when my TiVo was suffering from angst-y overload of cryptically-named shows with descriptions that don't exactly distinguish among episodes: "A teen/colleague/pseudo celebrity is questioned in the rape and murder of his 9-year-old neighbor/ex-wife/immigrant girlfriend." The only variable: "Benson/Stabler/Munch gets too close to a suspect/victim."

jael mchenry
1.4.06 @ 9:06a

Russ -- TNT : L&O :: Bravo : West Wing.

'chelle, I didn't get a Season Pass, but I gave it a thumbs-up once, so now I get several episodes a day. But TNT seems to be on a slightly different schedule than the rest of the world, so some of the eps start and end at :02 instead of :00. And of course, if you miss the last two minutes, you might as well not have watched the show in the first place.

sandra thompson
1.4.06 @ 10:19a

At least you can eat during
L&O, which cannot be said for any of the CSIs.

I really miss NYPD Blue. At least I can watch Smits on West Wing, and Caruso on CSI: Miami. Anybody know what's going on with Dennis Franz?

jason gilmore
1.4.06 @ 1:08p

Great article. Law & Order continues to amaze me with its consistency. It's hard to follow the same format over and over and still hold peoples' interest. I wasn't really into L&O until I started hanging out with this girl that I liked in college who watched it obsessively.

mike julianelle
1.4.06 @ 1:23p

I like the original show, and Jael you're right when you say it's the format that hooks, with the expected twists built-in and all. I often find myself drawn in after seeing just two minutes early, knowing it will be warped in many directions and wanting to see how. More often than not it's pretty clever, even when it strays far from its initial hook, or even the hook presented in the ads.

Like last nite's SVU with Walt (i've only seen 3 eps EVER, the Lynda Carter one you mention, some mean girls one, and last nite's repeat) which I was writing off as an unfulfilling tease until the legal machinations at the end illustrated yet another angle the franchise can use to keep pulling rabbits out of its fluid formula.

jael mchenry
1.5.06 @ 11:43a

Sandra -- the only thing IMDB lists for Dennis Franz in 2005 is "Above and Beyond," a documentary short with the tagline "The brave ones fought with guns, the crazy ones fought with cameras." Not really sure what to make of that.

Do you mean CSI is too hard to follow if you're doing something else during it, or too gross to have any appetite while you're watching?

tracey kelley
1.5.06 @ 11:09p

I like "Monk." Sure, it's one step away from "Columbo" but every so often, it has a noodler that's hard to figure out. And it's often funny.

Plus there's the amazing Tony Shaloub and the wonderful Ted Levine.

One of my favorite eps had a scene in which Monk entered a house and discovered the owners kept pet snakes. He immediately jumps on the dining table. Levine's character Chief says "I thought you were afraid of heights?" "Snakes trump heights!" Monk replies, then rattles off a list of his phobias in order of freak-out factor.


I've not seen one ep of L&O or CSI. It just doesn't grab me.


jael mchenry
2.1.06 @ 12:07p

Previously unplumbed depths of L&O fandom arrive: "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"-themed Valentine's Day Cards.

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