Even in procedurals, character key to keeping viewers attached

It’s nearly impossible to channel surf without coming across a cop show or three. With countless police dramas to choose from, you might assume audiences have had their fill of the genre, but evidence indicates otherwise.

It’s not just high-stakes action fueling viewers’ desire for the genre, either. The creative marriage of showrunner, characters and cast — combined with the storytelling power of police skeins — keep people tuning in.

For one, strong characters have driven the popularity of police shows from “Kojak” to “The Closer.”

James Duff wrote and created the role of Brenda Leigh Johnson, and Kyra Sedgwick amplified it and put it through her own filter,” Turner programming topper Michael Wright says. “The combination created a character that I would say, without hyperbole, has become iconic.”

USA senior veep of original scripted programming Bill McGoldrick notes that the return of Vincent D’Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe (as detectives Goren and Eames) to “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” delivered “great ratings.”

“I don’t think people flocked back to the show because they thought there was a crime they’d never seen before,” McGoldrick says. “The energy and enthusiasm came from these two people they remember, know and trust coming back, and seeing what they’re up to. That’s essential for any of these shows — a character that’s memorable and unique, who you want to spend time with.”

Says Shawn Ryan, exec producer of “The Chicago Code,” “Terriers” and “The Shield”: “The genre is elastic enough to tell these tales in very different ways with very different kinds of characters. Even private eye shows like ‘Monk’ might as well be considered cop shows, since he worked with another cop and solved crimes — he just solved them in a very idiosyncratic, comedic way.”

The importance of character isn’t limited to the right side of the law. On some shows, the criminals shine.

“For us, it’s important to make the bad guys entertaining as well as scary,” says “Justified” showrunner Graham Yost. “If they’re just bad, I don’t think that’s as interesting, and it’s going to be tough to keep that going on a show. ‘The Wire’ was one of the greatest shows, and they had some spectacularly complex bad guys who were Shakespearean in their level of intrigue and tragedy. We shoot for that on ‘Justified’ to a degree, and at the same time always try to be entertaining.”

When characters resonate like that, McGoldrick adds, audiences keep coming back for more, even in today’s cluttered TV environment.

“By and large, if you can’t talk to your friends about a character you’ve seen on one of these shows, or talk about something they did either on the job or outside the job on the show, I don’t think you’ll have a long-term success,” he says. “People can go back, to this day, and talk about certain things Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) did on ‘NYPD Blue’ as if it were yesterday.”

An increase in broadcast and cable outlets is another factor behind the sheer number of the shows on air — and feeds an important level of variety. Today’s broad definition of the genre includes all manner of law enforcement: police, private detectives, U.S. Marshals, federal agents, crime scene investigators — even a mystery writer and couple of fake psychics.

Yost says epic, engaging villains are more likely to populate cable series. “You can do it in network (shows),” he says. “You can pitch it like Shawn did with ‘The Chicago Code,’ but networks are usually more interested in things that can stand alone.”

“I happen to think ‘The Chicago Code’ and ‘Detroit 1-8-7′ would have worked on cable,” McGoldrick says. “It’s well-documented that there are certain freedoms here in cable that you can’t get on broadcast, even with this tested, tried and true genre.”

With cable’s creative freedom come smaller budgets, but it’s made space for such network series as “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and “Southland,” which were snapped up by USA and TNT, respectively.

” ‘Southland’ has been a hit for us,” Wright says. “It doesn’t draw the same ratings as some of our other police dramas, but it can survive here.”

Will viewers ever tire of them? Ryan says there are so many police-type shows on TV now that it’s an uphill battle to gain viewers’ attention.

“I think we’re at a saturation point where people are saying, ‘We like the genre, but we don’t like it exclusive of everything else,’ ” Ryan says. “I’m feeling a little bit of backlash at the moment in the industry, away from the cop, doctor, lawyer shows which have always been the staples. … But they’ll come roaring back. It will just take one show.”

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