Deconstructing Procedurals: The Opening

[I’ve decided to start another longer form blog series. I plan to examine the procedural sub-genre of TV shows and demonstrate common tropes within it. These posts will probably just contain one item per post with each continuing in order. Reading these posts should walk you through the traditional procedural show providing a general road map for common tourist attractions to look out for when watching.]

A sub-genre of television that is episodic in nature and follows a known plot pattern. Programs in this sub-genre often have a set number of main characters who each have unique skills which are used in conjunction to resolve the central conflict of each episode.

Chances are that one of your favorite shows is a procedural. Most police dramas fit in this category. CSI and its variants fit this bill, as well as the family of shows that share the Law and Order title. The sub-genre is not limited to just police programs however. House, a popular medical drama, can be classified as a procedural. Representing science fiction are The X-Files and even the more recent show Fringe. All of these can be labeled with the procedural tag. All of these share a common pool of tropes.

The very first thing you see upon the viewing of any procedural is The Opening. This is where the central conflict of the episode is introduced and serves as a starting point for both the visual and narrative style.

The Event is the main motivator, the central conflict. For the police, it’s a crime. For the doctor, it’s a medical mystery. The Event is the catalyst for the entire episode. Without it, there would be no story. Shows start in one of two ways: before or after the Event.

  1. Before

    The openings of these types show in police dramas often start with seemingly innocent scenes that quickly devolve into the murder. Examples of this style include the couple all alone in the woods. We are shown the couple from the killer’s point of view and as the scene continues the camera gets closer and closer as the viewer is given conformation that, yes, these people are about to be killed.

    The show House often shows the patient of the show doing some normal thing before a medical crisis happens. A teacher will be talking to her students before having a seizure. The business man will be giving a lecture when suddenly he starts screaming. More often than not the actions of the future patient are quite banal before doing something profoundly different. These abrupt changes help highlight both the patient’s helplessness and helps the viewer empathize — that could be you.

    Science fiction procedural shows are so prone to this style that they have their own name for it: monster vision. This is named after the convention of science fiction shows to have a “monster of the week”.  The X-Files used this to great effect. Often the first few minutes of a show would be dedicated to show how the antagonist of the episode sees the world. The visuals would be filtered in an interesting way. A green tint and a washing out of primary colors could mean that a reptile monster is on the loose. A camera view from underwater can indicate that a creature is lurking just below the surface.

  2. After

    Several prominent police dramas start this way. The viewer is introduced to a crime scene from the eyes of the investigators. As they learn more about what happened, so does the viewer.

    CSI has grown in popularity by using this method and relaying to the audience through various visual overlays what an investigator is thinking. Did the perpetrator come this way, stepping here? As the investigator ponders, the viewer is show what might have happened as either a superimposed image or as a separate scene quickly played out.

    The Closer, another popular police drama, has the main characters talk out the crime, often while near or at the site of the crime scene. Discussions take place concerning motive and means. These initial conversations are usually useless to the plot and only serve to provide the viewer with important information so they too can start to draw their own conclusions.

My next post in the series will cover the opening credits are how they help root the viewer into the fiction of the show while also providing a short hand of the visual language of the show.