Tough case to crack

Actors often must take a back seat on procedurals

Network skeds have filled up in recent seasons with procedural dramas, hourlong whodunits focusing on the investigation and/or prosecution of crimes.

Procedurals have become bread-and-butter programming for CBS and NBC, delivering more total viewers to these networks during most weeks than comedy and reality fare combined.

But while the subject matter of these story-driven series is most often neatly tied up in a single episode, the network execs, producers and talent associated with these series have yet to crack the case of the missing Emmy.

Way back in the early ’90s, NBC launched “Law & Order” and it immediately became a favorite of voters — during the nomination process only. The skein was nominated 11 times in a row from 1992-2002 but won only one once, in 1997. Lead actors Sam Waterston was nominated three times and Michael Moriarty four without ever winning.

During the last five years, there have been plenty of mentions for the new slate of procedurals. But again, not much to show for it.

Last year, Anthony LaPaglia of CBS’ “Without a Trace” and Mariska Hargitay from NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” received lead thesp noms, while the Eye’s flagship “CSI” program was nominated for drama. “CSI” also received series noms in 2003 and 2002, with co-star Marg Helgenberger landing actress noms in 2003 and 2001.

None of these noms was converted into trophies, however, with procedurals only fetching wins in categories such as guest thesp — Charles Dutton won for “Without a Trace” in 2003 — as well as areas like cinematography and makeup.

“With both the Emmys and the Oscars, the voters really love the actors, and that’s the first thing they look for,” says Neal Justin, TV critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “And in these procedurals, characters take a back seat to the case that’s being solved.”

Justin says the purest definition of a procedural drama is a show with a mystery-solving premise that will work no matter who plays the lead characters. “Law & Order,” which has seen its entire cast turn over during its 15-season run, perhaps fits that definition best.

On the other side of the spectrum, Justin notes that the new Fox medical drama “House” incorporates many narrative elements typical of a procedural, but the series relies too heavily on the performance of star Hugh Laurie to be categorized as such.

Wanting to stick to a sweeps-winning formula, network execs ask the producers of these dramas to focus on cutting-edge crime-solving technology and Sherlock Holmes shrewdness — and put the characters’ personal lives on the back burner.

The procedurals formula also calls for entirely self-contained episodes that require little, if any, prior viewing of the series.

“There’s a lot of pressure for us to be seen as a procedural show because procedurals are seen as working,” says Tim Kring, creator of NBC’s “Crossing Jordan.” “So solving mysteries continues to be our bread and butter.”

This makes competing for Emmys more difficult. “You’re hamstrung by the fact that you can’t serialize stories,” Kring explains. “Telling a story in a procedural takes a tremendous amount of screen time. And this lean type of storytelling requires a different form of acting, one without a lot of range. In terms of acting, it doesn’t lend itself to a lot extra. And like a lot of things, the flavor’s in the fat.”

Procedural scripts rarely if ever provide thesps with the kind of tour de force soliloquies that, say, Ian McShane enjoys on HBO’s “Deadwood.” The stars of these self-contained dramas say character development and depth does, in fact, exist — but much more subtly.

“I’ve never looked at ‘Cold Case’ as a procedural,” says Kathryn Morris of the CBS drama in which she stars. “I’ve never stepped anywhere near a microscope or a latex glove. My character is very complicated, and the nuances of the role come through on a weekly basis. By the end of the series, we’ll know everything about her.”

Chris Meloni, who plays Detective Elliot Stabler on NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” agrees: “People who watch the show regularly are engaged in what is going on with my character,” he says.

That required diligence represents a challenge to Meloni’s Emmy chances. “You learn more about (Teri Hatcher’s character) on ‘Desperate Housewives’ in three minutes than you do about Meloni’s in three seasons of ‘SVU,’ ” Justin explains. “If you’re going to appreciate his performance, it’s something you’re going to have to watch every week. Not a lot of Emmy voters are going to do that.”

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