It seems obvious to say, yet it’s still a striking thought: A procedural drama, historically a staple of television, is unlikely to ever win another best series Emmy — and, indeed, will probably struggle even to get nominated.
That’s reflected in this year’s nominees — all of them serialized — highlighting an appetite for such storytelling that has permeated not just television, where it has found its deepest and most satisfying roots, but multiple forms of entertainment.
Indeed, modern-day film franchises have adopted a serialized approach, as evidenced by the book-to-screen successes that have become such lucrative annuities, from “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings” to “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games.” Where James Bond’s adventures were once crafted into largely stand-alone affairs, the latest run starring Daniel Craig adopted a trilogy-like connection more reminiscent of Jason Bourne than vintage incarnations of 007.
There are many suspects for why the broadcast networks have been frozen out of the Emmys’ drama category, even in a year when CBS’ “The Good Wife” did such yeoman work. Yet all roads lead toward a rarefied appetite for novelized stories — the more dense, the better — which ties into other factors and helps explain why the argument about the most creatively satisfying medium has tilted so heavily in TV’s favor.
Because once the audience has acquired a taste for the thoroughly unpredictable turns of “Breaking Bad,” say, it’s hard to get quite as excited about something that labors to provide closure, or at least a semblance of it, each week. And given the challenges associated with conjuring those twists and writing one’s way out of corners, it’s a sizable advantage to produce a dozen or fewer episodes a year than 20 or 22.
Hence, HBO’s “True Detective” can focus on a single story with laser-like intensity, just as “Downton Abbey” can arc a season around its sprawling cast and “House of Cards” can chart the next leg of Frank Underwood’s campaign for power from beginning to end.
Moreover, the nature of the experience has been considerably enhanced by the freedom afforded producers to wrap up their series — as “Breaking Bad” has, and “Mad Men” is building toward — to which all concerned owe a sizable debt to the creative masterminds behind “Lost” who championed the concept.
Broadcasters, understandably, have chafed at this turn of events. After all, the overall audience for CBS’ “NCIS” dwarfs most anything on cable with the exception of “The Walking Dead” and the aggregated tune-in for “Game of Thrones,” suggesting the procedural form has ample life left in it, commercially speaking.
Nevertheless, the major networks’ own evolution and experimentation — from short orders to limited series to programs like “The Blacklist,” that wed nabbing different bad guys each week with an ongoing mythology — indicate their realization that this is an itch it behooves them to scratch.
During its heyday, pundits frequently observed that David Simon’s “The Wire” was essentially the great American novel as written for television, unfolding its story over 60 glorious hours.
Yet the HBO drama’s limited audience — fervent though it was — was always a source of consternation and concern. What’s changed a mere six years after the show’s sobering finish is the influx of players like Netflix and other outlets that embrace the premium HBO places on passion as opposed to raw tonnage, enhancing prestige as a form of TV currency.
At Showtime’s recent TV Critics Assn. tour session, entertainment chief David Nevins noted in terms of strengths, “One of the things that television always does best is the close-up.”
The corollary of that, it seems, is the ability not just to zoom in, but then to hold the shot, drill down into it, and before the image has lost its novelty, move on.