In praise of supernatural procedurals

Police, monsters, and mysteries - a match made in TV heaven. From Sapphire & Steel to Grimm, Caroline celebrates supernatural procedurals...

Read Caroline’s list of the top ten geek procedurals, here.

The police procedural in its purest form has existed pretty much since television began and, compared to the modern fantasy drama with which it is now so often combined, it’s practically ancient. Along with sitcoms, it was the genre that formed the building blocks of today’s television landscape, and that means that executives and showrunners have been clamouring over themselves to come up with new and exciting ideas to keep viewers interested for decades. That has resulted in the supernatural procedural, a hybrid genre that incorporates the ghoulies and beasts of horror and fantasy fiction with the weekly mystery structure of your typical crime show.

The procedural is a close cousin of the cop drama, but has little in common with it in practice. In terms of the supernatural procedural, the definition of the genre translates to a show that leans more on weekly plotlines and less on the personal drama of its characters from episode to episode. The mystery-of-the-week format so innate to the police procedural becomes the infamous monster-of-the-week plotlines of many an 80s and 90s show and, while the main characters are less important than in their serialised cousins, it’s normal for these central figures to have either supernatural powers or some level of know-how about the other world within our world. They’re almost always the entry point, and the person grounding the show in the real world.

Supernatural procedurals used to be the bread and butter of genre television, with 70s series like Kolchak: The Night Stalker and Sapphire & Steel providing weekly fantasy hijinks for both US and UK viewers, and these shows have become well known for presenting their audience with nothing but the weekly case, with none of the mystery surrounding the detectives themselves ever really delved into or explored. These crime solvers often showed up out of nowhere to deal with the case of the week, and there was no angst or brooding about their own past traumas to be found. Kolchak, especially, has often been cited as the main inspiration for later examples like X-Files, and the progression of the subgenre can immediately be seen between the two shows.

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Now, it feels as though these shows can either be procedurals with a fantastical hook or fantasy shows with a procedural element – rarely are the two equally balanced. Seeing where the favour is laid in shows for each television season can tell us a lot about the mainstream appetite for genre shows and, with geek culture in general becoming a huge thing for pretty much every entertainment medium right now, it’s understandable by supernatural procedurals are becoming increasingly common. With these shows in the past more often than not cancelled before their time, it’s pretty amazing that shows like Grimm are prevailing in an increasingly crowded landscape.

Television used to be almost entirely episodic, and it wasn’t until the so-called first ‘golden age’ of television showed up that viewers really learnt to care about whatever was happening to those people they watched from week to week. As long as the mysteries are both entertaining and surprising, the purest procedurals rarely endeavour to dive deeper into the back-stories or feelings of the cop or detective at the centre of them. The main difference brought in by fantasy elements, therefore, is that in order to build the world and establish the rules of whatever creatures exist there, the protagonist has to be an stable enough figure to ground the action in something the audience can relate to.

You could see this in early examples of the genre such as Forever Knight, where many of the character and plot elements bled into later shows like Angel and Moonlight. Supernatural procedurals have often leaned, for obvious reasons, towards having a human investigator discovering the world of monsters and magic – providing weekly villains and a central figure we can relate to – but Forever Knight was one of the purest examples of the other way of doing things. It showed that making the protagonist a monster himself, fighting against his own kind in search of redemption, could be equally if not more compelling for the audience.

It’s a fact of life that television lovers are rarely fans of typical procedural shows like CSI or Law & Order, but it’s never as much of a surprise when they admit to liking shows like Warehouse 13 or Grimm. Series like Pushing Daisies, Moonlight and Beauty and the Beast have even courted fiercely loyal fanbases. Essentially, the rules of these shows are the same, and it’s the fantastical elements that change the way in which they present their weekly plots. In series like Ghost Whisperer or Pushing Daisies, for example, the protagonists have as many special powers as the suspects they question and the cases they solve, and this makes it more important for the show to establish some kind of through-line that the audience can relate to.

The protagonist becomes a character, rather than a stand-in for the audience just as hungry to solve whatever the case of the week is, and, through this, supernatural procedurals have been gaining in popularity for years. Whether the hero is a cop, a vigilante or a private investigator, the most successful procedurals are those that embrace the focus on character that has been brought to the table by serial dramas, and incorporate this into the well-worn episodic structure, and this has meant that series that begin as monster-of-the-week shows like Supernatural or Beauty and the Beast can make us care about the supernatural detectives as much as we do the mysteries they are trying to solve.

This way of constructing a weekly fantasy show was arguably popularised by series like Forever Knight and The X-Files in the 80s and 90s, but since then, we have seen a lot of promising shows come and go with alarming regularity. Series like Miracles, Pushing Daisies, Awake, Alcatraz, Moonlight and Tru Calling were cancelled before their time for not finding a big enough audience and, while these examples differ wildly in the way they did things, they were all procedurals with ambition, incorporating the trend for heavily serialised fantasy shows in the wake of Lost and Heroes with the weekly mystery format.

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Television procedurals have enthralled viewers for many of the same reasons that crime novels had for centuries before. We desperately want to know the answer to the puzzle, but we don’t know all of the information until the very end when we solve the case alongside the on-screen detective. In supernatural procedurals, this becomes even more of a challenge since, in addition to the vital clues being hidden from us, we also have to figure out how the crime relates to the fantastical world we’ve entered. Not knowing the answer is part of the fun, and having an entirely new set of rules to play with breeds creativity among showrunners, writers and executives.

As the continued presence of fantasy shows with this weekly structure has demonstrated, the supernatural procedural will probably be around forever. But in this weird moment where The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are the biggest thing on television and series like Grimm, Lost Girl and Warehouse 13 have to fight for attention from both viewers and critics, it’s hard to shake the preconception that shows that choose to present self-contained, episodic stories each week are somehow inferior. We may have forgotten the many joys of procedural television and, with so much great telly presented to us on a weekly basis, surely there’s more room than ever for smart and entertaining fantasy shows of all kinds.

Maybe it’s time to rethink the fantasy procedural drama, and embrace it for all of the creativity and fun those episodes so often referred to as ‘filler’ can bring. There’s a reason why supernatural procedurals have been so popular for so many years and that’s because, with the ability to bring in new characters and new villains on a weekly basis, they can be infinitely more creative and ambitious with their stories. We often think that the old-style watercooler moments come only from serialised narratives, but there’s also something equally enthralling about following the same characters on multiple adventures, all wrapped up by the episodes end but promising an equally entertaining ride the following week.

Nowadays, as a reaction to the decreased appetite for shallow, comfort-food television, shows have become much more adept at combining this weekly fast food with the underlying season arc, giving fans the best of both worlds. If you think about it, almost every show on the air now has elements of both, and that has made the show that unabashedly embraces its monster-of-the-week format all the more appealing.

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

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