Procedural Problems: Why NCIS:LA Will Forever Frustrate Me
Don’t get me wrong, I love NCIS: Los Angeles. But I’m afraid it will never truly satisfy me because of its very nature: it’s a procedural. A network television procedural at that. No matter how wonderful the actors, writers, and producers, there are things we’ll never see on NCIS:LA simply due to the show’s DNA.
CSI. SVU. NCIS. Strict Formulas = Big Profits
An episode opens with a crime and ends with the bad guys either arrested or dead. In between, the main characters focus primarily on the case, with little time spent outside of work. Sound familiar? It’s not just a description of a typical NCIS:LA episode, but a time-honored television tradition called the police procedural. NCIS:LA’s predecessors go all the way back to Dragnet, and include classics like Columbo as well as a plethora of current shows, among them NCIS:LA’s new lead-in, Scorpion, not to mention the mothership and its newest spin-off.
Because a procedural has little continuing storyline from week to week, casual viewers can easily follow along with any random episode. That makes them perfect material for syndication, with its huge profit potential. NCIS is the most popular television show around the entire world. NCIS:LA signed the longest-ever (12 year) syndication deal, with cable’s USA Network, at a price tag of more than $2 million per episode.
There are aspects to the procedural that I enjoy, and NCIS:LA does them as well as or better than anyone. Its witty banter and bromance are second to none. The action is great: shoot-outs and car chases, along with the best explosions in TV history. There’s also the wonderful way the team serves as a surrogate family, a common characteristic on shows where we only see the characters on the job. Unfortunately though, there are also drawbacks to such structured storytelling.
The Procedural’s Opposite (and Its Competition)
In many ways, the opposite of a procedural is the serial. Serialized TV is all about the continuing storyline that carries over from one week to the next, the classic example being the soap opera. It also includes a growing number of crime dramas, such as Showtime’s Homeland, FX’s The Bridge and AMC’s Breaking Bad. These programs require a bigger commitment from the viewer to watch every week so they don’t fall behind. That means they don’t make the best syndicated programming (or profits).
But serials do offer storytelling advantages. For example, showrunners don’t need to solve the whole case in 44 minutes, so they have time to delve deeper into the private lives of the main characters. Imagine an episode like “Impact” where there was no plane crash to investigate, and instead we got 44 minutes of the team dealing with the aftermath of Siderov. Sure, there’d be no shoot-outs or explosions, but it would still be compelling television, allowing us to better understand- and care about- the characters.
Another advantage of serials is their often limited runs, with fewer than 24 episodes per season for less than the network-standard seven years, which keeps “filler” episodes to a minimum. It also gives showrunners more flexibility to kill off characters. Knowing your favorite character could die at any point instantly makes every shoot-out frightening. Anyone watching the season finale of HBO’s True Detective was genuinely on the edge of their seat over whether Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s characters would both make it to the end of their single-season run alive. By comparison, was anyone really worried about Callen and Sam getting safely out of that sub at the end of Season 5?
NCIS:LA did kill off Dom in Season 1, but that was because he wasn’t working out as a character. In contrast, The Wire famously killed off its most charismatic bad guy. Think about non-cop serials like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, where beloved characters can die at any moment. On the other hand, never mind, forget I mentioned this… I can’t bear the thought that Deeks might be taken away from us by a stray bullet!
The Network Television Factor
Being on network television instead of cable brings its own handicaps. Network censors (and federal decency regulations) impose limits on profane language and nudity. Now, I’m not saying you need these things in order to make good drama, but I am saying they make the drama feel more realistic. When the worst thing a character can say is “dammit” while bad guys are shooting at them- or torturing them- it just doesn’t ring true. It’s an especially difficult world to maintain when it’s so easily contrasted with the programming on even basic cable television, where characters can more fully express themselves in a way that sounds authentic. Which workplace sounds more true to life, the squad room on The Shield, or the OSP Mission?
OK, and yes, I do like the sexytimes. Typical though for much of American television and movies, the NCIS:LA showrunners seem far more comfortable depicting graphic violence, such as when a decapitation opens “The Frozen Lake” or a man’s head is cleaved by a machete in “Black Budget,” than they do showing characters expressing physical affection.
Then there’s the time limit imposed on network programs, which at most run one minute long. Squeezing in all the plot developments needed to solve a case from start to finish just doesn’t allow room for much more in 44 (or 45) minutes of storytelling. On the other hand, programs on basic cable often run up to 15 minutes long, just because the showrunners had some extra story to tell that week. Imagine the director’s cut of “Spoils of War” or “Ascension.” We might get a more fully fleshed out story, with additional details that fill gaps in the timeline or plot. But more importantly, we’d have time for scenes that are critical to the characters’ ongoing storylines (like the deleted flashback to “Recovery” in “Spoils of War”) or include emotional content not crucial to the plot (the deleted “Ascension” scene showing Deeks’ struggles in the hospital). These scenes add so much to our enjoyment of the episode but they seem to be the first ones cut in the name of exposition.
Still Room for Compelling Drama
Despite these disadvantages, there’s still plenty of room for NCIS:LA to continue to flourish. The procedural format doesn’t have to be a straightjacket. Here are a few things I’d love to see:
More Long-Running Story Arcs
Where NCIS:LA has succeeded in bucking its procedural constraints has been in story arcs that have spanned one or more seasons. Most obvious is Callen’s quest for identity that will run until the show’s final episode. But there have been other examples, such as with bad guys Janvier and Siderov. They were introduced in a single case-of-the-week but got away, only to return later to haunt our fearless team. Failing to catch the bad guy in a single episode still gave casual fans plenty of action, but also delivered a longer running storyline for more dedicated fans to enjoy.
More Character-Driven Stories
There’s a continuum in procedurals, from those that focus almost exclusively on the case (Law & Order) to those that operate with considerably more focus on character (Monk, White Collar, Justified). The casual fan may need the case-of-the-week structure, but we obsessed fans couldn’t care less about the plot. To us, it’s all about the characters we love.
Over the course of a season, NCIS:LA offers its share of character-driven episodes, where the case itself is tied to or personally affects one of the main characters (“Plan B,” “SEAL Hunter”). But there are many other episodes which, to us regular viewers, can feel like fillers, with the case taking center stage and only broken up by some witty banter.
It’s the character-driven episodes that we all remember, and enjoy the most. This seems to be the case even for the actors. In a recent interview, Eric Christian Olsen talked about “Praesidium’s” wonderfully emotional boatshed scene:
“I think you’re always itching to play those scenes, and I think the beauty of a show like ours, though, is unlike, you know, family dramas where this happens every single week, the backbone of the show, is because we’re inherently a show about NCIS and about all these crimes, and about these scenes that you get them once every seven episodes or so, you maybe get these juicy moments that are about characters, and they’re about the emotion of the characters. And so, yeah, we loved getting those, and it’s so fun to do them…”
ECO is smart to ensure his job security by talking about “the beauty” of only getting these emotional scenes three or four times a season. But the more NCIS:LA can feature scenes like this one that show us the hearts of the characters we love, the more it will rise above its procedural formula, and the more it might actually move its casual fans into the regular viewer category.
Maintain Suspense through Character-Based Drama
While we may not have true suspense over the main characters surviving a shoot-out or the bad guys’ latest plan to blow up Los Angeles, we can still have it over the characters’ emotional well-being. For example, for me “Spoils of War” was the single most suspenseful episode of NCIS:LA. It wasn’t because I thought the team might be killed on that hilltop, or Kensi might never be rescued. It was because I didn’t know how much of Deeks’ soul would be lost as he interrogated and then tortured the cleric. In both parts of “Blye, K,” we never really worried that Clairmont was going to kill Kensi or hurt her mom. We did worry about how she would be affected by the experience.
Episodes like these are one reason that much of Season 5 felt like a wasted opportunity to many fans, where Deeks’ (and Kensi’s) PTSD, as well as their romance, wasn’t explored as fully as it might have been. In episodes like “Spoils of War” or “Blye, K”, casual fans are still free to enjoy the action; they just don’t have the understanding of the full emotional impact on the characters that more dedicated fans, familiar with their backstory, get to enjoy.
One way to increase the frequency of such scenes and episodes is to do more two-part stories, like the “Blye, K” pair. There’s no reason to save such two-parters for the season finale/premiere. They give the writers time to both roll out the exposition for the case, and tell the story of its impact on the main characters. Imagine not just the director’s cut of “Spoils of War,” but an epic two-part rescue mission where all the plot holes and timeline questions are cleaned up, and we also have time to see additional emotional scenes from all the characters.
Advancement of the Romance
Speaking of romance, it’s certainly not unheard of for a procedural to have a strong romantic aspect; for an example one need look no further than ABC’s Castle, airing at the same time as NCIS:LA. The wonderful chemistry between Deeks and Kensi can be enjoyed by a casual fan watching a random episode, as well as by regular viewers. There’s no reason the Densi banter can’t always be a mainstay of the show. But there’s also no reason to keep them apart. Castle has managed to have both flirty chemistry and an adult relationship. And after all, the NCIS:LA writers chose to make the Deeks/Kensi work partnership, in the midst of this procedural, into something personal. They owe it to loyal fans to keep things moving along, and publicly so.
Embrace the 10 PM Time Slot
There’s no compelling reason to make the violence on NCIS:LA more graphic than it already is. But the current level of sexual content pales in comparison to many network programs, particularly those airing at 10pm. It’s pretty tame even for 8pm standards. Why not show these characters, who live such difficult lives of violence, enjoying some intimate human contact? I know it’s network TV, but this is the time slot that brought us naked shower scenes on NYPD Blue more than a decade ago. It is entirely within network standards to show us more than a single kiss.
The Top of My DVR List
Despite its shortcomings, NCIS:LA will remain at the top of my DVR list. Its ability to continue giving me the characters I love, and the love story I obsess over, will keep me coming back for more. And even if it’s not all I long to see, it’s enough to keep me entertained. I look forward to being continually frustrated for many years to come.
Want to Read More?
The Washington Post: The power of traditional TV: ‘NCIS’ and its older audience deliver gold for CBS
Deadline: Why TV Procedurals Also Rule The World
Variety: Why Serials Knocked Procedurals Out of the Emmy Race
Frustrated… LOL! Yes, but it’s a main reason we keep coming back, right? Our expectations have, if rarely, been met and exceeded, so we just keep hoping for it each week! Out of all your points, the continuing arcs and personal insights are at the top of my list!
You make us sound a little like Charlie Brown trying to kick Lucy’s football, which probably isn’t too far off!
totalmente de acuerdo yo que vivo en uruguay no estoy exactamente en el centro de la audiencia de estados unidos y sinenvargo soy una fan numero 1 de la serie y de densi y estoy cada semana alli siguiendola y ojala que por muchos años.
Muchas gracias Veronica y bienvenidos a todo el mundo en Uruguay!
…which is why the fandom is so eternally torn between fascination and frustration – but that’s what drives us. We’re inspired by things the show touches on and feel compelled to see them fleshed out in a way that the show will never do for us. Love your suggestions for ways the show can improve. If only 😉
PB, yes, I suppose there’d be less need for all the wonderful fan fiction out there if the show gave us everything we want. But that doesn’t make me stop wishing for more…
I’m in agreement with you as usual, Karen. We know what we’re getting into when we choose to watch procedurals, but I don’t see how breaking the mold would be a bad thing for this show. Like your suggestions for improvement. 🙂
Thanks hdawg! I’ve certainly never had quite this experience with a procedural, where I craved so much more than it was capable of giving. And like I said, I suppose that’s unlikely to stop for as long as I stick with the show.
Wow, that is a fantastically written article. A great analysis of the genre and yes i think all fans will agree with the frustration we feel when episodes are wrapped up inside 44 minutes, but gaping plot holes are left.
Thanks I Feel Possessed!
In any show, whether a procedural or a serial on cable, it always comes down to the characters…do we love them or even like them? Do they ring true and do we root for them no matter what? Is anything perfect? Probably not, but we reach for it. If the characters are strong and we care about them, we watch. If not we keep searching for something that brings us joy. This show and its characters make me happy. Is it perfect? No. But I always feel compelled to watch it and Deeks has everything to do with that. ECO’s portrayal is always worth watching…for the subtleties and the humor and humanity he brings to the character…giving life to the words on the page. I am a fan, pure and simple.
As usual, Karen, you outdid yourself. There is no one better able to analyze and make sense of all the complexities that make up our favorite show. Your suggestions are right on…still searching for complete joy.
Thanks Lindy! Wonderfully said. You couldn’t be more right about ECO’s portrayal. And I think something this show does well in general is to give us super interesting characters, even if they’re a bit larger than life, and that’s something many procedurals lack. It’s also something that can be hard to find in those serialized cable shows where the hero is more of an anti-hero, who might be quite interesting but can be a lot harder to fully embrace. Here’s hoping we get at least a few moments of joy this season!
Great analysis!! Your point about syndication and the ability for each episode to stand on its own makes total sense. I agree that within this framework, a two part storyline would still allow the case of the week to play out along with a bit more meat on the back stories and relationships. And in case I am not clear, by relationships, I mean Densi😉.
There’s something about NCIS LA that continues to draw me faithfully each week to watch. I find that it’s the characters first and then the procedural that draws me. I tune in to be entertained but also to catch all the little tidbits of backstory that is doled out. And I am in total accord with Sweet Lu, ECO’s portrayal of Deeks is compelling to watch for all the reasons stated.
Karen, Great analysis and recommendations 😄. I’m a fan of critical review with accompanying suggestions/solutions😃
Thanks Reader (can I call you that?)! It’s amazing to me how little I even pay attention to the particulars of the plot (except on the weeks when I am writing the review). As you say, it really is all about the characters, the backstories, and the relationships. And of course ECO.
I have een shows do both. Castle,
(Sorry about the comment above I was in thought when it posted and there is no way to edit)
I have seen shows succeed with doing both the romance and the storyline. Castle, Remington Steele, Scarecrow and Mrs King are few I can remember off the top of my head.
IMO NCIS LA goes out of its way to avoid the romance part of Densi. This might not be a popular opinion but I don’t think the show ever intended Deeks and Kensi to have this much chemistry which is why ECO didn’t have an audition with Daniela. In general if you want two characters to have a relationship you need to have a screen test with the actors before you hire someone and they did not do that with ECO and Ruah. They just got lucky these have as much chemistry as they did. When I say lucky I mean lucky for us fans not lucky for producers who never wanted this to be part of the storyline but fans made such a big deal about the chemistry they had no choice.
The last few weeks I have been watching Castle and taping NCIS LA and I am pretty happy with my decision. Castle is a much more well rounded show and the characters are all very likable where as NCIS LA has 2 characters I don’t care for and I feel like the producers are stringing us along and never have any intentions of giving us fans they want. I don’t know if that is true or just my opinion but its how I feel.
Stuck, I totally get your point of view. Those examples are great ones of procedurals that combined romance. I’m old enough to remember Hart to Hart too. The showrunners have a history with their other shows of dancing around any actual romance, a track record which is pretty discouraging. And this season so far sure has felt like they don’t want to move them forward, or at least they don’t want to share what’s happening with the audience. It’s hard to believe that next week the season will be one-third done, with next to nothing to show for it Densi-wise. That’s such an interesting point about how ECO didn’t audition with DR- I had never thought about that even though we’ve all heard the story of how they met for the first time at the table read. I think ECO has amazing chemistry with everyone, not just DR but also Linda Hunt and LL Cool J too, so they definitely made a good choice to cast him. I’m a Castle fan too, and a Nathan Fillion fan, but as long as ECO is there, NCIS:LA will be my first stop on Monday nights.
Sick of Mckenzie wining about not getting pregnant. She goes from badass to wining weak woman. What a blast to females everywhere. Writers…please do something with this.