Some of the television industry’s biggest names reveal their choice of the most influential drama of the past 21 years.
Highlighting shows from The Sopranos to The West Wing, Lost to Friends, Seinfeld, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Bridge, Mad Men, Dexter and others, leading writers, showrunners, producers and network execs pick over the titles that have been most transformative for the business. But what is their ultimate choice?
This DQTV special features contributions from: actors Michael C Hall and Jimmy Akingbola; Jack Ryan creators Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland; Netflix VP of international originals Erik Barmack; Narcos showrunner Eric Newman; AMC Networks programming chief David Madden; Paramount Network senior VP of scripted development Ted Gold; Scrubs and Spin City creator Bill Lawrence; The Mysteries of Laura creator Jeff Rake; Castle creators Terri Edda Miller and Andrew Marlowe; writer Danny Brocklehurst; Red Production Company founder Nicola Shindler; and many more.
From the creators and executive producers of Castle comes crime procedural Take Two, starring Rachel Bilson and Eddie Cibrian.
Bilson (Hart of Dixie) stars as Sam Swift, the former star of a hit cop series who suffers a breakdown and heads to rehab. Desperate to restart her career, she begins to shadow private investigator Eddie Valetik (Cibrian, Rosewood) to research a potential comeback role.
Though Eddie resents babysitting Sam, she uses her acting skills to prove herself surprisingly valuable.
In this DQTV video, Miller and Marlowe talk about how the series mixes a case-of-the-week structure with lightly serialised elements that allow viewers to learn more about the central pair.
They also reveal the international route Take Two took to win a commission and discuss why procedurals are still in fashion despite the rise of serialised storytelling.
In addition, cast members Aliyah O’Brien (Detective Christine Rollins) and Xavier de Guzman (Roberto ‘Berto’ Vasquez) offer their take on their characters and the appeal of the series.
Take Two is produced by Tandem Productions and MilMar Pictures in coproduction with ABC Studios for ABC in the US, Germany’s VOX and France 2. It is distributed by StudioCanal.
Procedural series were once the bread and butter of US broadcast networks. But international buyers are finding them harder to come by amid the appetite for increasingly serialised storytelling. DQ examines the future of the story-of-the-week format.
For more than a decade, the Monte Carlo Television Festival has recognised the most watched television dramas in the world with its International Audience Award. Last year’s winner was NCIS, which drew 47.1 million viewers worldwide in the previous 12 months.
Since the gong was first handed out in 2006, NCIS has won three times, while CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has scooped the prize on seven occasions. The Mentalist and House also each have a win to their name.
Notice anything they have in common? They’re all US procedurals – story-of-the-week series that follow a team of crack sleuths as they bid to solve a different crime each week. Or in the case of 2009 winner House, an unlikely doctor and his unconventional medical approach, with new patients being admitted into his care in every episode.
The award is proof that US procedurals continue to be popular around the world, even if they’re not as loved as they once were at home. Because while international broadcasters have been crying out for a new influx of these traditional series, the format has been taking on a decidedly serialised evolution over the past few years. Such is the demand overseas that Germany’s RTL and TF1 in France went so far as to commission their own US procedural, hostage drama Gone, in partnership with NBCUniversal.
“I feel like they’re on life support,” Adam Pettle, showrunner of legal drama Burden of Truth, says of procedurals. “They still attract probably an older audience, while broadcasters are always trying to find a younger demographic, which is the Netflix generation where television is consumed in a very different way and people bulk-watch TV.”
Yet series such as Blue Bloods, Law & Order: SVU, NCIS (renewed for its upcoming 16th season) and its multiple spin-offs, and the ever-expanding Chicago franchise on NBC are just some of the episodic series still pulling in millions of viewers each week, not to mention the older series still drawing eyeballs in repeats and syndication.
Lloyd Segan, showrunner of detective procedural Private Eyes for Canada’s Global and ION TV in the US, describes case-of-the-week dramas as “comfort food” for viewers. “I can come home and put my feet up and watch a show where the characters are family,” he explains. “The storyline has a beginning, middle and end and I feel comfortable not having to worry about mythologies or binge-watching a series.”
With shooting on season three underway, Segan says Private Eyes – which sees Jason Priestley and Cindy Sampson team up as private investigators – is “completely procedural.” He continues: “The serialised aspects are the relationships between the main characters but the stories themselves are straight procedural. You could probably programme them in any order you wish. You don’t need a recap. The shows play to themselves. It’s a fantastic, delicious feast for audiences all over the world to enjoy.”
One showrunner who knows more about procedurals than most is Peter Lenkov, who is currently running CBS series MacGyver and Hawaii Five-0 (pictured top) and is also behind a pilot remake of Magnum PI for the same network.
“CBS still treads in that pool, they still do those kind of shows and they still do them successfully,” Lenkov says. “I know every season they still develop several traditional procedural series and they try to mix it up with how you get into those worlds and who those characters are.”
However, he adds that the network has been embracing greater serialisation in its case-of-the-week series, supporting character arcs and stories running across multiple episodes.
“That was frowned upon years ago, but is something that the studio and network really welcomes now,” Lenkov says. “My experience there over the last 10 to 15 years has been how much they have embraced serialised arcs within the traditional procedural format.”
Lenkov also has experience on serialised series, having worked on the fourth season of Fox’s real-time thriller 24 in 2004/05. “What we realised when we did that show was, even before bingeing existed, a lot of people were bingeing episodes three or four at a time,” he recalls. “That’s something that really helped changed storytelling on TV.”
Best known for long-running ABC crime procedural Castle, husband-and-wife team Andrew W Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller will be back on the network this summer with Take Two. The series stars Rachel Bilson (The O.C.) as Sam, the former star of a hit cop series who is fresh out of rehab. Desperate to restart her career, she talks her way into shadowing rough-and-tumble private investigator Eddie (Eddie Cibrian) as part of research for a potential comeback role. She soon draws on her experience as a TV cop to help solve a high-profile case, leading them to team up for future cases.
Echoing Segan, Miller believes viewers love closed-ended stories because “sometimes you don’t have the time to watch a long serialised drama and you just want to come home and watch a story that has an ending to it. There’s also the aspect of beloved characters in those stories, and that doesn’t go out of fashion either.”
Take Two, like Castle before it, is described as a light-hearted procedural that allows its creators to place just as much focus on the characters’ relationship as the crimes they solve each week.
“Terri and I both come from features so the ability to close out a story in an episode feels very comfortable to us,” Marlowe says. “But we also like big, epic storytelling where you’re telling a novel over 15 episodes. We watch that as well. The nice thing about ‘peak TV’ is there’s room for them all. For us, it isn’t one pushing the other out of the market. It’s just an expanding international palette, to allow room for all sorts of storytelling.”
Different types of storytelling don’t just extend beyond the procedural, but also within the episodic format itself. “There are some procedurals that depend upon different mechanisms of storytelling,” Marlowe continues. “Something like CSI is much more interested in the forensic evidence than it is necessarily the character journey, whereas other procedurals are much more interested in focusing on the character journeys and what their approach to crime-solving is. Even in a procedural format, there are plenty of sub-genres there for the audience.”
Hakan Kousetta, chief operating officer for television at See-Saw Films (Top of the Lake), notes that there has been an increased focus on serialisation but says all of the main US broadcasters are still hunting for “that killer procedural.”
“It’s to do with shows having characters that are so strong that the audience connects and comes back to them week on week,” he says. “Also, these particular shows contain a puzzle at their heart, which audiences love to engage in solving. In procedurals you are rebooting a new story in the same world each week, with gradual character evolution, whereas in serialised drama you need to create both a world and a set of characters that transform from one episode to the next, while delivering complex plots that hold the series together and hopefully carry your audience through to a satisfying ending.”
Pettle admits the procedural is going through an evolution. “It does still exist but it’s on its way out,” he argues. “I don’t see a younger audience tuning into it. Maybe there’s just not enough story. It’s very linear and incredibly well crafted but I think we’re moving in a different direction. The Good Wife is a procedural format with legal cases of the week but they meld personal and procedural so effortlessly on that show.
“For me as a writer and showrunner, it’s very difficult to plug into something for eight months where you’re not digging deep and writing about real people and exploring the multiple dimensions of different characters. I don’t think I could run a show like NCIS. I wouldn’t be hired to do it. I wouldn’t stay emotionally engaged in it as a creator.”
Pettle, who is also a co-showrunner on The Detail, admits CBC would not have commissioned a serialised drama like Burden of Truth six years ago, at a time when there was more demand for traditional episodic TV. The series, which like Private Eyes and The Detail is distributed by Entertainment One, sees Kristin Kreuk play a lawyer who returns to her hometown and tackle a legal case with social issues at its core.
“There’s still that balance broadcasters want,” Pettle says. “I remember on Saving Hope, which I co-ran for two years and ran on my own for two years, from year to year when we went into CTV at the beginning of the season, it was always like, ‘We want it to be more procedural,’ or, ‘We want it to be more character-driven.’ One year they gave percentages – ‘It can be 40% procedural.’ What’s in fashion is always changing.”
Pettle’s The Detail co-showrunner Ley Lukins also believes serialised storytelling has come to the forefront thanks to the introduction of Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services. “But I do believe there’s still a heavy appetite for case-of-the-week, episodic dramas,” she says. “Grey’s Anatomy is a great example of a show that has both serialised and case-of-the-week content within it. And even with something like Law & Order would still draw an audience today. But to me, and from the conversations I’ve had with people, there’s more of an expectation these days that there is a serialised element to the case of the week. If you marry the professional and the personal well, you can serve both audiences quite well.”
In the case of The Detail, which is based on British crime drama Scott & Bailey, it was US broadcaster ION Television, rather than its Canadian network CTV, that sought more procedural elements in the series. “It’s not to say we didn’t have character and that character wasn’t a major part of it, but it was definitely their wish to have a more case-of-the-week type of series because it does well for them,” Lukins says.
Hybrids such as Blindspot and The Blacklist, which marry deep mythologies with new cases each week, were heavily influenced by serialised US cable dramas, the success of which led broadcast networks to “find their own language” and remain competitive, Marlowe notes.
“There were lots of interesting experiments out there to see what the audience would respond to,” he says. “But what sustains is good storytelling and good characters. If people are engaged in the storytelling and the characters, whether it’s serialised, closed-ended or a hybrid, the audience will show up for it.”
The resurgence of procedurals, coupled with television’s never-ending infatuation with recycling old hits, means shows such as Magnum PI and Cagney & Lacey have been piloted this development season. “What you see right now is a confluence of familiar formats that people know are tried and true but also bringing in the element of IP,” says Marlowe, who believes the biggest challenge facing creators is how to break through the noise. “Some recognisable IP certainly helps.”
Lenkov says he simply prefers the challenge of mapping out 22 stories a season. “I just like the puzzle aspect of building a plot each week,” he says. “I find that a lot of fun as a writer.”
But when they’re boiled down to their bare bones, procedural series are built on the simple concept of good versus evil, he adds. “If you look at the live numbers of a lot of CBS procedurals, they do really well. It shows you there’s an audience there that still likes that format. When eight million people tune in to watch a show live, that tells you a lot of people still like the genre. They still like the crime procedural. I think it’s alive and well.”
René Balcer, best known for Law & Order and, more recently, Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, certainly believes there is still a place for procedural television. As for what such shows might look like in the future, that is less clear. “One can argue that the success of the just-the-facts procedurals of the 1950s, such as Dragnet, was a reaction to the subjective character-driven film noir detective films of the 1940s like The Big Sleep. Audiences liked them because they were new and different. Character-driven procedurals like Hill Street Blues were a reaction to the Dragnets and Adam-12s. And, like audiences, creative content-makers get bored with the status quo, so expect the pendulum to keep swinging.”
However, Mikko Alanne, showrunner of National Geographic’s The Long Road Home, begs to differ. “In broadcast, due to the weekly format, there will likely remain room for them, but I definitely feel audiences are increasingly gravitating toward more character-driven serialised stories,” he says.
With season two of Burden of Truth in development, Pettle says there will be another single case at the show’s heart, which will focus on sharing information and protecting people’s privacy. But, interestingly, he adds there will be more episodic elements.
“It will be a more high-octane season,” he says. “Season one was all in a small town and this season will be split between the city and a small town. There will be more stories – it will still centre around a serialised case but there will be more story and a faster pace.”
Lukins concludes: “I don’t believe procedurals will ever go out of style. In a lot of ways, in shows that might not be considered procedurals per se, there is a case-of-the-week element, it’s just maybe not a cop case or a medical case. But there’s a pattern to be found in anything. And so procedurals may change in terms of how they’re delivered but I do think the formula of the procedural is here to stay.”
As broadcasters around the world continue to seek procedurals for their schedules, it’s hard to argue with Lukin’s assertion. But with today’s showrunners preferring to delve into personality over plot, what shape they may take in future is less clear.
Castle executives Andrew W Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller tell DQ how they plan to put some fun back into television with new series Take Two, which aims to replicate the light-hearted tone of the recently cancelled procedural.
US television viewers are used to seeing their favourite shows hauled off the schedules at a moment’s notice when a broadcaster wields its axe to halt poor ratings and critical maulings.
Yet for fans of Castle, ABC’s long-running crime procedural, the decision to bring the series to an end after its recent eighth season was still something of a shock.
Despite falling to its lowest ratings (averaging around six million) and suffering the departure of popular leading actress Stana Katic, reports suggested the cast had signed on for a ninth season in 2016/17 – Katic’s co-star Nathan Fillion among them.
The series followed Richard Castle (Fillion), a bestselling mystery novelist, and Kate Beckett (Katic), an NYPD homicide detective, as they worked together to solve unusual crimes in New York City.
But as ABC juggled its plans for the year head, the network decided it would not push ahead with a new season and instead dropped Castle. The series concluded on May 16 this year.
Fans of the show’s comedy-drama tone and its leading double act shouldn’t fret for too long, however, as creator Andrew W Marlowe is busy in development on a new series with the potential to eclipse Castle’s global popularity.
Alongside his Castle writer/producer wife Terri Edda Miller, Marlowe is setting up Take Two, a new procedural that sees a private investigator solving crimes with the help of the former star of a hit cop show.
“With Take Two, we thought that after working on a procedural show, what would we be able to bring to a crime scene and what would the actors bring to a crime scene having done so many?” explains Marlowe (pictured top alongside Miller). “We thought it would be an interesting pairing to have a PI, somebody who’s a former cop who’s serious about the job, and somebody who’s been living in this imaginary world but thinks they know everything and also has all these amazing plot lines to draw upon.
“We thought we had some really great elements for an amazing show because we could take a very familiar procedural format but populate it with these new and interesting characters and watch what happens when they’re forced to be together.”
While the premise might seem stranger than fiction, it may not be that far from the truth, according to Miller. “Living in LA and doing what we do, you actually run into that all the time,” she reveals. “What happens after coming off a show – where do you put all that energy after having been a star for eight or 10 years and then having all that go away? You have so much to give but then your energy becomes defused and it can go to a really bad place or, if directed more interestingly, can go to a really good place, which I think is what’s going to happen with our main character.”
Having created a hugely successful show that ran on US network television for eight years. Marlowe says the secret is having great characters – but with the understanding that they will have to be reinvented as the show progresses.
“You have to allow those characters to grow in ways that keep them in conflict and keep them moving towards each other and away from each other,” he says. “If you don’t have those ingredients, the show can peter out very quickly. It will just be a conceptual show. So the time and diligence really has to go into crafting a longer-term arc for all of your characters so that when people get to the end of a season, they can feel a satisfaction and a pay-off but also a desire to see the characters grow in new and interesting ways in the next season.
“Some of it is alchemy, some of it is just luck and some of it is the TV gods smiling down on you with a particular project. But you can stack the deck in your favour through smart casting, finding people who genuinely have chemistry that you can see on camera, and making the show aspirational for the audience.
“But we also know the audience has seen so many procedurals that you have to deliver great stories with great twists and turns. You always have to try to be out in front of your audience, given everything they’ve seen, to try to figure out how you can play fair and be surprising at the same time. Those are all the things you look at and then you cross your fingers.”
Though the pitch for Take Two might echo that of Castle – a cop teams up with an unlikely partner to solve crimes – that’s where the similarity ends, Miller says of the new LA-set series. In particular, while Castle’s homicide detective dealt only with murder, having a PI at the heart of Take Two opens up a wider range of crimes for its characters to investigate.
“You have new characters with a fresh and different point of view, so that changes the territory right away,” she continues. “You can have somebody like our main character Emma, who’s an actress and has been through 300 of these cases in her show – but what about the first time she actually sees a body? Her reaction is going to be really different from what Beckett’s reaction would have been or Castle’s reaction would have been. The audience is going to be living through her eyes and that will make it a completely different experience.”
The show’s creators believe procedurals are growing in importance as an alternative option for viewers in a market dominated by serious, hard-hitting drama. “There’s this desire in the US among the broadcast networks to compete with cable, but there is appetite for all sorts of different shows,” Marlowe observes. “When they compete with cable, they generally have a watered-down version of what you can do in a subscription or cable market. What we’re seeing is the result of that cycle, of that desire to compete. But it’s left the audience with a hole that we hope a show like this can fill.
“Audiences are still hungry to have some fun, to be able to be closed-ended, to not think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to watch all 12 episodes.’ So the ability to have closed-ended fun, to just drop in for the episode, have a really good time and have a fulfilling experience, still holds significant value for viewers. We totally get binge-viewing – we binge stuff ourselves – but sometimes you just want not to have that kind of commitment. Doing that, you can actually grow a fanbase over time.”
Marlowe says he and Miller share a love of classic screwball comedies and Hollywood power couples such as Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey, which have influenced their own screen careers.
“One of the things we love about our creative process is sometimes it mirrors our characters, with sparks flying,” he explains. “We each come at things from a different point of view so we naturally gravitate towards those sorts of stories. Part of it is in our artistic DNA but part of it is also in our relationship DNA.”
The pair are executive producers of Take Two for their MilMar Pictures label, alongside Tandem Productions’ Rola Bauer. StudioCanal will distribute the series.
It was the strength of Castle’s international popularity that persuaded Marlowe and Miller to set the show up with Munich-based Tandem. Looking back at their first meeting, Bauer recalls: “I had followed Castle for many seasons and I loved the lightness of it. We have a little too much serialised, dystopian, negative drama. The biggest challenge was really not talking about story but getting our respective reps to move on making the deal. We did and it got made and it’s really wonderful.”
Miller continues: “We listened to Rola talk about Castle internationally and how it was received. Her thoughts about what the foreign market was like and all the things she was looking for fitted with something Andrew and I had in our back pocket and really wanted to do.”
Unusually – but representing an increasingly common practice in today’s global television market – Take Two was announced without a broadcaster. Tandem and StudioCanal are scouring the globe to see who’s interested in picking up the story, at a time when European broadcasters are crying out for the type of light procedurals US broadcasters no longer appear to be interested in making as they instead pursue high-concept dramas in their battles against the dominant cable and SVoD platforms.
Bauer adds: “We have maybe sidelined the entertainment aspect of television, and that’s a shame because there has been a desire to dig more into our weaknesses and our desire to find a certain type of redemption. I get that, and that’s important. But it’s also important to be entertained. That’s what we’re looking for – to have a good, entertaining show. But there aren’t going to be ‘popcorn crime’ cases. There are going to be some really interesting crimes that are fresh and that will resonate with viewers. Combine that with the entertainment of the double-act lead characters – the banter, the potential love – and it will be fun.”