Top 10 geek procedurals

Feature Caroline Preece 17 Feb 2014 - 06:52

From Life On Mars to Person Of Interest via Grimm and The X-Files, here are 10 of the best geeky mystery-of-the-week shows...

Read Caroline's article in praise of supernatural procedurals, here.

It’s tempting to group TV shows into two groups – serialised and procedural – and, while the former invariably get the most plaudits and attention, genre procedurals have played a huge role in making sci-fi and fantasy television the rich, innovative and exciting genre we know it as. With new worlds to explore or new creatures in our own reality, science fiction and fantasy has always lent itself perfectly to combining with other established genres and, for crime shows and procedurals, that means the weekly mystery or monster of the week format. While these stories have developed a reputation for being filler episodes in otherwise better shows, there have been many fantastic series that have embraced the procedural format wholeheartedly.

10. Haven

Haven is the perfect example of a sci-fi procedural that hasn’t received its fair share of attention over the years, but it has become one of the most consistently inventive and entertaining shows on television over its four season run. Originally based (very loosely) on Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid, it follows FBI agent Audrey Parker as she is drawn to a mysterious town where residents are afflicted with various supernatural abilities and powers.

To say anything else would be too close to spoiler-territory, but a recent 26-episode fifth season renewal guarantees that it’ll be around to its twisty-turny stories until 2015 at the very least. SyFy series have always been great examples of procedural shows and, with an effortless balancing act between the weekly cases and the overarching mystery of Audrey’s identity, Haven is no different.

9. Warehouse 13

Another SyFy production, Warehouse 13 comes from Buffy’s Jane Espenson and incorporates a lot of the same fun and sense of humour. Most famous for concocting an entire show out of the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the series is one of the purest geek procedurals left on the air and, after four seasons (with a six-episode fifth and final season on the way), it thankfully hasn’t lost the weekly format that gave it its unique character.

The initial team of two has expanded over the years to include lots of different recurring and guest characters, and Warehouse 13 is a part of SyFy’s unique ‘shared universe’ that also includes Eureka and Alphas, making it the last surviving member of the channel’s ambitious genre procedural franchise. It remains one of the most successful series in SyFy’s history, with its accessible structure and light feel perfectly complimenting the more ‘out there’ genre elements that periodically crop up.

8. Grimm

Grimm started off as that ‘other’ fairytale show behind ABC's Once Upon a Time but, while that series has fallen out of favour with some who accuse it of having run dry of ideas, Grimm has become stronger and stronger over time. Based on the idea that the characters in Grimms’ Fairy Tales are real and walking around modern day Portland and our protagonist, Nick Burkhardt, is a descendent of the brothers who can see their true faces, it has rarely strayed from its ingrained episodic format.

Though a seasons-long thread is woven through Grimm as Nick explores his mystical heritage, David Greenwalt and Jim Kouf purposely designed the show to be accessible to the casual viewer. Greenwalt explained to Collider that their goal in season one was that "you could sit down on Friday nights and watch an episode of Grimm and you wouldn’t need a scorecard to keep up. Some shows get too much mythology." Early on, Greenwalt describes Grimm's ratio of stories-of-the-week versus overarching story as "about 85% to the 15%".

It’s precisely this simplistic silliness that makes Grimm work so well, as it deviates from its cop drama-convention just far enough and often enough to make the most of its twist. It’s one of the least genre-heavy examples on this list, and it has so far resisted the urge to drop the usually solid weekly cases that have introduced us to so many weird and wonderful beasts and ghoulies over the years.

7. Pushing Daisies

Like Firefly, Pushing Daisies will forever be remembered for being a show that was cancelled too soon, but few who didn’t catch it actually know anything more about Bryan Fuller’s peculiar procedural. The distinctive visual identity of the show is the first thing that separates it from the crowd, and there’s so much quirk and eccentricity in Pushing Daisies that it’s impossible to compare it to anything else before or since.

The rather macabre concept is of a humble pie-maker, Ned, who is enlisted to bring murder victims back to life just long enough to help solve the case. Talking to the victims is a surprisingly common trick for geek procedurals (as seen in shows like Tru Calling and Ghost Whisperer), but the decidedly dark undertones that ran under everything made it an altogether more interesting watch. It may have failed to become a long-running thing, but it’ll likely never be forgotten by its small but loyal audience.

6. Continuum

Continuum is one of the best sci-fi series on television right now, with the cop drama inherent to main character Kiera’s placement in a Vancouver police precinct meshed seamlessly with cyberpunk sci-fi, political commentary and mind-bending time travel shenanigans.

Originally a Canadian production for Showcase but brought to US and UK screens via SyFy, it’s smart, relevant television that has too often been ignored. One of the biggest twists on the procedural format is the fact that, while both central good guys are cops, they’re cops from vastly different points in time. Carlos is our modern-day entry point while Rachel Nichols’ Kiera is sent from the future along with a dangerous terrorist group she must recapture before returning. Continuum has a lot to say about the government’s hand in our everyday lives, and isn’t afraid to question its heroes own moral code when dealing with the ambiguous motives of Liber8.

5. Person of Interest

One of the first and only CBS procedurals welcoming to a geek audience, and maybe even the last (if you don’t believe me, take a look at Intelligence), Person of Interest has been a bigger hit than could ever have been expected but has faced an uphill struggle with genre fans simply because of its perceived reluctance to embrace its sci-fi elements in the beginning. Since then, however, it has bridged the gap between audiences and become hands down one of the best shows of its kind.

It’s actually much ‘more sci-fi’ than some of the other examples on this list, with supercomputers and shady agents paired with questions of fate and Minority Report-esque questions about pre-crime. The procedural element comes with numbers The Machine spits out relating to ordinary violent incidents, and the season arcs can then be on a much bigger scale using the same tool. It’s a ‘crime show with a twist’, as so many modern series are, but it has managed to surpass its moniker and tap into themes not being explored anywhere near as well elsewhere on television.

4. Life on Mars

The ultimate fish-out-water crime show, the BBC’s Life on Mars is one of the best examples of how to incorporate fantastical elements into an otherwise mundane concept, only using them when they want to propel the story forwards or wrap up the mystery of Sam Tyler’s ‘time travel’ to 1973. It was, however, one of the most imaginative examples of the cop show, the nostalgic period drama and the genre-infused procedural in the last decade, and was so adored by British audiences that it’s been remade in four different countries (though, judging by the US remake, most likely with diminishing returns).

The masterstroke was the attention to detail and general entertainment value of the weekly cases in the 1970s, which arguably hooked viewers far more than the genre elements that might have had them in the first place, and this was what made Life on Mars and sequel series Ashes to Ashes so accessible and widely loved during its short time on our screens.

3. Supernatural

Not a police procedural like the other shows on this list, Supernatural does nonetheless belong to the genre. Especially in the early days, when Sam and Dean would go on weekly hunts every week instead of in-between apocalypses, the weekly monsters were more creative and inventive than anywhere else and were what undoubtedly got the show noticed beyond its ‘hot guys on the CW’ trappings. Now, Supernatural is one of the longest running geek series on the air and, at nine seasons and with a spin-off on the way, who knows if it will ever end? The Winchesters have quite literally battled heaven and hell over the last decade and, while later episodes are arguably creatively weaker than in the first five seasons, the show still deserves to be held up as one of the bravest and most entertaining fantasy/mystery shows ever made.

2. Fringe

Billed as the new X-Files, the new Lost and even the new Twilight Zone back when it premiered, once Fringe started to incorporate its fantastically complicated mythology into the already-established weekly mysteries, people finally started to notice it for all the new things it was able to offer on its own. Sadly, by the time the show really found its feet, a lot of people had already made up their minds and, while Fringe managed to reach 100 episodes over five seasons and finish things off properly, it never had as many eyes on it as it deserved.

It did, however, collect a vocal and passionate cult following over the years and, despite fighting for life pretty much since the beginning, it has been remembered as an unabashed sci-fi show (at a time when there weren’t many of those) that never dumbed itself down and always found fresh and surprising ways to use its procedural format through to the end.

1. The X-Files

What it all comes back to is seminal sci-fi/horror series The X-Files, with FBI agents Mulder and Scully two of the most iconic genre figures that ever lived and many of the conventions apparent in the other entries on this list drawn directly from their adventures together. Unsolved cases with unexplainable elements were our weekly way in to the weird and wonderful world of government conspiracies, alien abductions and unresolved (before it was famously resolved) sexual tension that made X-Files the cultural phenomenon that introduced complex science-fiction television into the mainstream appetite during the 90s. It was a show where the standalone episodes were often as strong, if not stronger, than the mythology-based hours and, as well as being the show to kick of an entire sub-genre, it still rises to the top of the pile in retrospect.

Grimm season 3 currently airs on Wednesdays at 9pm on WATCH in the UK (Sky TV 109 & Virgin TV 124).

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