Monday, 15 February 2016

Serials, Procedurals, and Episodic TV Shows

I have noticed a disturbing trend in articles and blog posts on television of late. Quite simply, people are treating serials and procedurals as if they are polar opposites. While they are using the term serial correctly, they are misusing the term procedural to refer to nearly any show in which stories are wrapped up in one episode. As I will demonstrate below, this is most decidedly not the proper use of the term procedural.

Of course, before anything else I should define the terms serial and procedural and talk a little bit about their history. A serial is any show in which a story unfolds over multiple episodes (sometimes even the entire length of the series). Serials are nothing new. In fact, the best example of serials may be the soap operas that once proliferated on daytime television. Soap operas can be traced back to the days of radio--the first radio show considered a soap opera was Painted Dreams in 1930. On television soap operas were by no means limited to daytime, as they have periodically appeared in prime time as well. Peyton Place, Dallas, and Melrose Place are all examples of prime time soaps.

While soap operas were once the most common form of serialised TV shows in American television, they were by no means the only ones. Even in the early days of television there were a few shows that could be described as "semi-serials". That is, for the most part stories unfolded in the course of a single episode, but there were a few story arcs that unfolded over multiple episodes. A very early example of this was The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, the first of the "adult Westerns" to air on American broadcast network television. While most stories on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp ran their course in a single episode, the show did have story arcs that spanned many episodes.

The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp would be followed by a few other shows with a semi-serial format. For the most part stories on The Fugitive unfolded in a single episode, but the show had an ongoing storyline involving the falsely convicted Richard Kimble's search for the one-armed man, the person who really murdered his wife. Strangely enough, another early example of the semi-serial was the sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies. Throughout its run The Beverly Hillbillies had story arcs that sometimes spanned several episodes.

It would be in the Eighties that full-fledged serials would become more common on prime time television. Dallas debuted in 1978 and sparked a whole cycle towards prime time soap operas that lasted for most of the Eighties. The Eighties would also see an increase in serials that were not soap operas. Such shows as Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and Wiseguy used a serialised format.  The turning point for serials on American television may have been the debut of Twin Peaks in 1990. Following its debut there were several shows in the Nineties that could be considered semi-serials or full-fledged serials. For the most part stories on The X-Files unfolded in the course of one episode, but the show also included an ongoing storyline in the form of its "mythology". Shows such as Homicide: Life on the Streets, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and The Sopranos were much more firmly serials, with story arcs spanning several episodes.

It was with the Naughts that serials began to dominate American television. The decade saw the debut of such serials as The Wire, 24, Lost, and Mad Men. It would be Lost that would popularise the serial format on prime time, broadcast network television. With its success the networks debuted a spate of shows with a serialised format. That this was not a passing fad can be seen in that today many, and quite possibly most, network prime time dramas are either serials or semi-serials.

As to the term procedural, it originated from the earlier term police procedural, a genre of detective fiction, films, and TV shows in which the focus is on police procedure as they attempt to solve crimes. The police procedural also has a very long history. The quintessential police procedural on television may well be Dragnet, which debuted on radio in 1949. A television version of Dragnet debuted in 1951 and proved to be phenomenally popular. It led to several other police procedurals over the years, including Naked City, The Untouchables, Adam-12, Hill Street Blues, and NYPD Blue. The debut of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in 2000 sparked a rather large and long-lasting cycle towards police procedurals whose impact is still being seen today.

With the popularity of police procedurals from the earliest days of television, it should come as no surprise that other sorts of procedurals would also arise. Among the most popular may be the medical procedural, which focuses on the procedures of physicians as they treat patients. Among the medical procedures over the years have been Ben Casey, Marcus Welby M. D., E.R., and House. Of course, there are other procedurals beyond police procedurals and medical procedurals. Arguably the classic British spy series Danger Man was an espionage procedural.

Historically stories on police procedurals and medical procedurals have unfolded in the course of a single episode. That having been said, this is not always the case and some of the best known procedurals have actually been serials. Hill Street Blues was very much a police procedural, but it was also very much a serial. Homicide: Life on the Streets was another example of a police procedural that was also a serial.  Arguably the 1995 series Murder One was a legal procedural that was also a serial. House was a medical procedural with a semi-serial format. Among the shows that were both procedurals and serials are Wiseguy, Twin Peaks, N.Y.P.D. Blue, The Wire, and the British TV show Broadchurch.

Given that there are procedurals that are also serials, it would seem that serials and procedurals cannot be considered the antithesis of each other. What it more, it must be pointed that not every single show in which the stories unfold in the course of a single episode can be considered a procedural. Quite simply the emphasis on any sort of procedural is on procedure. This is not true of the vast majority of shows that have aired over the years on the American broadcast networks. The classic science fiction show Star Trek was not a procedural because its emphasis was on its characters and their adventures, not the everyday operations of the starship Enterprise. The classic Western Bonanza was not a procedural because its emphasis was on the lives and loves of the Cartwrights, not how they ran the Ponderosa from day to day. Although it features a police officer as its protagonist, the classic mystery series Columbo cannot be considered a procedural either. In fact, Lt. Columbo generally ignored procedure and went his own way in solving mysteries! To call such shows "procedurals" would seem to be a gross misuse of the term, as there is very little procedure featured in any of them.

What, then, is the correct term for shows in which plots unfold in a single episode. It's quite simple. They are episodic television shows or episodic TV series. The term episodic television has long been used of any show with continuing characters in which stories run their course in a single episode. Episodic TV shows are then the exact opposite of serials, not to mention anthologies (in which there are no continuing characters). The vast majority of TV shows aired on American television have been episodic and it is still the most common format for sitcoms. A procedural can be episodic or serial in format. An episodic TV show can never be a serial.

To some it might not seem to be a particularly important matter, but as a television historian I would like some precision in the terms I use. If the term procedural is used of any episodic television show, then what does one call Hill Street Blues, The Wire, or Broadchurch? Every one of those shows is a serial, yet their emphasis is on procedure. And what of a family drama such as The Waltons? It seems rather silly to call it a procedural, even though its stories generally unfolded during a single episode. Ultimately, I think it might be best if people writing about television simply used the various terms with their original meaning intact. A serial is any show in which stories unfold over multiple episodes. A procedural is simply a show whose emphasis is on procedure and can be serial or episodic. An episodic TV show is one whose stories unfold in simply one episode. It is a lot less confusing that way.

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