Since my day job as a freelance copywriter has me working from home, I have the distinct pleasure of setting my own schedule. I work whenever and wherever I want to work, though after one of the cats sat on the laptop and cracked the screen I now do the lion’s share of my work from home either with my headphones on and listening to Pandora or with the television on in the background to act as background noise. As a result, I get to watch a lot of television – particularly police procedural shows, considering how they’ve been running for so long and they’re almost always being aired on some channel or another at any given time.
That being said, while my bread-and-butter might be copywriting, I’m also a fiction writer. Watching CSI, NCIS, and all these other alphabet shows make me cringe sometimes, especially because I’ve seen so many of these things that I’ve kind of deconstructed the general formula and I can pretty much point out who the bad guy is going to be before the big reveal in the last six minutes of each episode. This isn’t because I’m some sort of modern Sherlock Holmes or anything; it’s just that writers make awful audiences.
The best way I can describe it is by comparing it to meta-gaming, which is when you’re playing a pen-and-paper RPG or a LARP (sigh), and you use real-world knowledge to figure something out that your character in the game wouldn’t necessarily know. It’s considered very bad form and can quickly result in you not being invited back to a game, especially since it can detract from the other players’ enjoyment of the game.
How is this similar to how a writer can pick out the bad guy in the latest episode of Crime Investigation Service Show Episode #754? Well, even bad writers can develop the ability to pick apart a formula in order to figure out where to plug in names and locations – authors like Laurell K. Hamilton kind of rely on it to spit out their newest 300 page trust fund every eight months. The thing with these police procedural shows is that they’re such a cash cow for the networks that they’ve distilled the nature of the show down to an ironclad framework that allows for some wiggle room but almost always adheres to a specific set of rules.
Anyone who’s watched more than a couple of episodes will see this, but the problem is that once you can see it, you can’t un-see it. It’s like those stereo images of a sailboat at the mall, or when you look at the FedEx logo and realize that there’s an arrow in the negative space between the E and the X; all of a sudden you’ve got X-ray vision and you can’t help but see Lois Lane’s underwear every time you see her.
This is like meta-gaming because you’re not enjoying the show as a story any more. Instead you’re removing yourself from the narrative and approaching it from a technical stance, using outside knowledge of the genre to pick out who’s gonna do what to whom, though if the show has a good stable of writers they’ll try their hardest to subvert these standard tropes without deviating far enough from the core framework of the story to jeopardize their paychecks.
A good example of the meta quality behind this is by looking at a given episode – pretty much any one, from any source – and watching carefully. This is a one-hour format, and every second of screen time counts – the writers can’t afford to introduce a character that isn’t one of the series regulars if the character’s presence isn’t there for a purpose. If they don’t directly move the story along in a significant way, there’s a high probability that the character will come back in the last 15 minutes or so and turn out to play a pivotal role, and in an alphabet show this usually means they’re the bad guy or an accomplice. This can really detract from your enjoyment of shows like this, so don’t go looking for it if you like surprises. Then again, if you’re a fan of the genre, you’ve probably already noticed this, though you’ve probably not given it much thought.
For me, I’ve found other things to enjoy in the genre, especially in long-running shows like NCIS that have a reputation for not taking themselves too seriously. Character interaction and development is what keeps me tuning in every week, or keeps me from changing the channel when there’s a 10-hour marathon on over the weekend – watching these characters grow and develop over the years is so much more entertaining for me than the bad guy of the week, and I think these long development arcs are the little things that help maintain the sanity of the writers of these shows.
If I was one of those writers, I’d probably hang myself if I couldn’t inject some originality into a series that’s been churning out hundreds of episodes over a period of years upon years. I’d also probably be addicted to something a few orders of magnitude worse than hillbilly heroin.