In Memory of the Consultant Procedural, a Near-Extinct Subgenre in TV’s Crime Drama Repertoire

TV Features crime dramas
In Memory of the Consultant Procedural, a Near-Extinct Subgenre in TV’s Crime Drama Repertoire

The procedural genre is one of the pillars of American TV. In fact, some of television’s longest running shows are procedurals (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit will be celebrating a historic 25 seasons on NBC soon), and it’s easy to see why. These types of series often involve the technical aspects of policing (and sometimes firefighting or medical services), and their strict episodic structure and few overarching through-lines make them rerun gold. I mean, who hasn’t sat down on the couch, turned on ION, and sat through an unreasonable number of Criminal Minds episodes simply because it was on and you got hooked? That’s the beauty of the procedural: you can jump in at any time, and the formula always makes for a low barrier of entry, ultimately closer to its sitcom peers than the more serialized dramas we flock to today. 

While the procedural drama is still alive and well, especially on the big broadcast networks with their vast arrays of fire, medical, and police spin-offs and shared universes, there is one subgenre that seemed all-encompassing a number of years ago, but has all but gone extinct: the consultant procedural. 

While there is really no true term for this type of series, “consultant procedural” seems to fit the bill rather well; after all, one of the only real differences is that the main character is actually a consultant rather than a cop. Though this genre was not unheard of prior to the 2000s (Murder, She Wrote being one of my favorite oldies about a mystery writer often consulting with the police to help solve cases), a number of the most recognizable and all-time great procedurals are from a similar era, like USA’s Psych, White Collar, and Monk, as well as ABC’s Castle, FOX/Netflix’s Lucifer, CBS’ The Mentalist, and many more. In the early aughts through the late 2010s, it seemed that every network took a crack at throwing some kind of outsider into their usually stricter procedurals—to incredible results. Each show listed above lasted at least five seasons, received vast critical acclaim throughout their runtime, and has lived on in syndication, beloved by many. 

But what was it about this specific subversion of the typical police procedural that launched all these shows to success? In the case of Psych, probably the best of the consultant procedural offerings, the charm of this break in form comes from Shawn (James Roday) and Gus’ (Dulé Hill) episodic antics, and how their unconventional approach to solving crime (through Shawn’s fake psychic powers) allows for cases to be solved that would have originally slipped through the cracks of the Santa Barbara Police Department. There are numerous episodes that follow Shawn and Gus as they attempt to solve a case actively in contempt of detectives Lassiter (Timothy Omundson) and Juliet’s (Maggie Lawson) suggestions, and they end up helping countless people because of their insistence upon never giving up, as well as their ability to work beyond the bounds of the police department.

Similarly, Castle’s delightful execution also stems from Richard Castle’s (Nathan Fillion) unorthodox methods, in the same way that Neil’s (Matt Bomer) criminal charm elevates White Collar, Patrick Jane’s (Simon Baker) unusual methods and connection to killer Red John bolsters The Mentalist, Mr. Monk’s (Tony Shalhoub) history and perseverance boosts Monk’s episodic storytelling, and Lucifer’s (Tom Ellis) supernatural abilities and devilish smile make Lucifer as unique a procedural as they come. The inclusion of these outsider characters allows these shows to break away from the stifled nature of the procedural, taking a lighter approach in most cases, all while allowing these shows to move beyond the straight-up copaganda of its stricter peers. Most importantly, humanity and empathy bleed through the lines of red tape and badge-related duty. 

Of course, it isn’t just the outsider dynamic that makes these series so compelling; it’s that, more often than not, these shows also hinge on a slow-burn crafted between the series’ two leads. Castle and Beckett (Stana Katic), Lucifer and Chloe (Lauren German), and Shawn and Juliet all make for compelling TV, allowing these shows to implement more series-long through-lines, while still maintaining their case-of-the-week, episodic nature. You don’t have to have watched every season of Castle for each individual episode to make sense, but watching every episode does make the moment Castle and Beckett finally kiss for the first time so much sweeter. 

In many ways, the consultant procedural was a product of its time. Broadcast dramas were moving closer and closer to serialization, and the effortless way these shows toed the line between episodic procedural and serialized drama was the perfect bridge for a genre shifting away from the old ways into a more serialized, binge-first ideology. Which, really, could explain why this genre of procedural all but disappeared. 

In fact, Lucifer is the perfect example of how the shift in the medium caused by the pivot to streaming and the rise of “prestige television” and “Peak TV” was the final nail in the coffin of the consultant procedural—mid-series, it switched formats in its move to streaming. Gone were the Season 1 days of Chloe and Lucifer solving a mystery every week, in the Netflix seasons, Lucifer moved closer and closer to serialization, doing away with its case-of-the-week vibes and trading them in for the kind of “bingeable” TV Netflix cranks out daily. As streaming services gained massive popularity and pivoted further towards serialization and the binge model, the procedural itself became an aged convention, mostly living on through broadcast, leaving this subgenre floundering. In the new streaming landscape that was created, formulaic genres and case-of-the-week capers became obsolete in the eyes of studio executives and streaming CEOs, leaving this beloved format to peter out in a sad, slow death. 

However, a glimpse of any streamer’s “most popular” category will reveal that, perhaps unsurprisingly, shows just like Psych, Castle, Lucifer, and The Mentalist all populate those most-watched lists. Especially on FAST channels, where streaming becomes more like traditional cable than ever before, shows like White Collar thrive with their episodic structure and low barrier of entry. More than ever, calls for the return of 22-episode, episodic seasons have risen in volume on the Internet, with folks both seemingly nostalgic for their favorite long-running shows, but also for a type of TV that allowed its characters, stories, and seasons to be unabashedly long-form, something that is sorely missing from most television today. After all, when shows get canceled after a maximum of two seasons (often resulting in less than 20 episodes over its entire lifespan), how can two characters like Shawn and Juliet possibly have that same world-ending slow-burn that makes TV worth watching? If all our shows lean so heavily into serialized drama, where does that leave the charming, easy viewing, case-of-the-week shenanigans that made Castle and White Collar work so well? 

The entire television ecosystem is in an upheaval right now, with the current WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes impacting every rung on the ladder of televised entertainment, and as the writers and actors call for a new system to match an already-changed medium (and ask for the improvements and benefits they rightfully deserve), it’s difficult to avoid mourning the subgenres, styles, and storylines that allowed shows to blossom and thrive for years upon years and seasons upon seasons. Streaming killed the consultant procedural, and its demise adds more credence to the idea that television has irrevocably changed—and not necessarily for the better. 

Anna Govert is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For any and all thoughts about TV, film, and the wonderful insanity of Riverdale, you can follow her @annagovert.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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