Carter, Take Two and the Art of the Fish-Out-of-Water Procedural

TV Features Take Two
Carter, Take Two and the Art of the Fish-Out-of-Water Procedural

In an era of “peak TV” or “too much television” or whatever you want to call it, it’s easy for lighter fare to fall through the cracks between prestige programming. So you might have missed that this summer has brought us two very similar—but still very charming—new series, both easy, breezy crime procedurals.

First up, there’s WGN America’s Canadian transplant, Carter. Jerry O’Connell plays a TV actor named Harley Carter, with his own procedural, Call Carter, where he plays “Charlie Carter” and the whole show-within-a-show is loosely based on his life. After getting embarrassed on the red carpet by his wife, Winter Wood (Brooke Nevin), and his former Hollywood best friend—causing a scene after he learns that the two had an affair—Harley returns to his small hometown and almost immediately starts helping his childhood best friend-turned-detective, Sam Shaw (Sidney Poitier Heartsong), solve homicides.

Then there’s ABC’s Take Two, in which Rachel Bilson plays a TV actress named Sam Swift—alliterative lead female characters named Sam are all the rage this summer—the star of her own procedural, Hot Suspect. After her show’s canceled (though not before notching a more-than-respectable 200 episodes), she’s dumped by her her fiancé (Greyston Holt) and ends up in rehab. Sam’s comeback—her “take two,” if you will—depends on booking a feature film role as a private investigator. To prepare for the role, she shadows actual private investigator Eddie Valetik (Eddie Cibrian)… in a situation that quickly goes turns into a genuine desire to solve crime and help people (as well as court-mandated probation).

Let’s make one thing clear: Pointing out that Carter and Take Two are similar to each other—and similar to a lot of other shows, on a macro level—isn’t a slam on either. Carter is sometimes the smarter show, really leaning into the “going back home” aspect, where Take Two’s decision to keep Sam in Los Angeles makes it more difficult to suspend one’s disbelief. (E.g., the show makes her out to be a pretty big star, and even bigger tabloid fodder, which makes it harder to buy that she isn’t recognized during her undercover duties. That said, the times it does acknowledge this and chooses to put her in ridiculous disguises is a large part of the show’s cheesy charm.)

Carter and Take Two approach their similar premises in appropriately different ways, with Harley hindered by the vanity that comes with celebrity (in the context of a big-fish-in-a-small-pond setting), while Sam, far more down-to-earth, is constantly surrounded by reminders of her screw-ups (especially because she remains in L.A.). Take Two also hits the will-they/won’t-they aspect of the Sam/Eddie relationship more aggressively than Carter does with Carter/Sam. In fact, Amy Glynn’s review of Carter noted just how much the show avoids that element, calling it “an obvious near-miss love thing between Harley and Sam that no one talks about.” (One of the biggest “missteps” of Carter is on this front, when it eventually sparks more of a will-they/won’t-they debate about Carter/Winter just by putting the question front and center for even a moment’s time.) In any case, Take Two draws on the will-they/won’t-they trope enough for two TV shows.

Both Harley Carter and Sam Swift use their years of “I’m not a cop, but I played one on TV” knowledge—and sometimes the general access they have to consultants they had for their shows—to help their actual crime-solving partners Sam Shaw and Eddie Valetik save the day. In Harley’s case, his detective skills are something he put on the back burner: The darkest aspect of Carter is the fact that Harley, Sam, and their friend Dave Leigh (Kristian Bruun) helped put Harley’s mom’s killer in prison when they were kids (which is part of why his life story inspired Call Carter). In Sam Swift’s case, Take Two doesn’t even have to get that deep to explain her crime-solving ability: “Well, you can’t make 200 episodes without picking up a thing or two along the way.”

Honestly, that’s enough of an explanation to make for a wildly entertaining TV show, and both Take Two and Carter are impressively aware of this, despite the fact that this is the stuff of TV “fluff.” It’s not like Harley Carter and Sam Swift are perfect when it comes to their new gigs as acting detectives: Harley expects the medical examiner to have lab results almost immediately—in a typical procedural, the length of a commercial break—and Sam asks Eddie to enhance a picture, only to learn that enhancing only exists in these types of shows and not in real life. The level of expertise on these series doesn’t need to equal that of an actual cop or private investigator for the premise to work—though that is an argument FOX’s The Grinder, which paired a TV lawyer with a real-life lawyer, regularly mocked. But it still works for procedurals to an alarmingly enjoyable degree, because by now the audience watching knows every trick in the game. Sometimes it’s nice just to get confirmation that we’re as in-the-know as these characters: Carter and Take Two are, in effect, commentaries on why we find Law & Order and NCIS so enjoyable, while doing the things that make traditional procedurals enjoyable, too.

What is it about this particular fish-out-of-water—but really adamant about jumping in—formula? After all, that’s essentially the concept of these buddy-cop shows where one of the buddies isn’t even a cop (or fed or investigator). It’s not just a meta thing—or the will-they/won’t-they thing—that makes these shows work, either. While both Carter and Take Two employ this tactic because its protagonists are actors, these fish-out-of-water procedurals are all about the partner dynamics. Before it worked, with a cop and an author, for Castle—from Andrew M. Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller the husband-wife writer/producer team behind Take Two—it worked, with a fed and a forensic anthropologist, for Bones. It also worked for Lucifer, which takes the format from “cop and non-cop” to “human and the literal Devil.”

The thing about this type of show is, whether or not you care about the will-they/won’t-they of it all, you still care about the characters in general: They’re always the center of the drama, the tension and the emotional beats. Not the cases, not the larger mystery or threats. Seeing these likable characters work their way through difficult situations is fun, and these shows still treat it that way. And as much as one may want to discount it, there is absolutely a method to creating a successful fish-out-of-water procedural, in terms of entertainment value, creativity, and even ratings; it can’t succeed with just any duo. Consider ABC’s recently canceled Deception (a.k.a Magic Cop). The fact that the series adopted a premise in which the FBI would be working illusion-based crimes was the show’s major issue in the first place: The Mentalist had already made a psychic exposed as a fraud use his observational skills to help the feds, and Psych before that had already found a way to have a secret fraud of a psychic detective use his observational skills to help the cops. The cases themselves didn’t have to be “special” to make these shows work (or fail to, as the case may be), because the actual magic almost always begins with the lead duo.

There’s a twist in characters like Harley Carter or Sam Swift, who only played experts in these fields, teaming with the experts like Sam Shaw and Eddie Valetik—or someone like a Richard Castle, who only wrote about experts in these fields, teaming with the expert Kate Beckett. While there are plenty of team dynamics in your standard procedural, those are ultimately about the procedural first and the characters second. It’s not that there’s no characterization to latch onto in your typical procedural: To say such a thing about Olivia Benson would be a bold-faced lie. It’s that Carter, Take Two, and other fish-out-of-water procedurals live and die by the characterization, as opposed to the actual cases. And no two series’ specific dynamics are ever the same.

Ultimately, lighter series like Carter and Take Two run on the idea of an incompetent who is surprisingly competent, where even an A-list actor can still be considered a regular person; and that regular person can typically save the day with knowledge they cobbled together from the very existence of “too much television.” That’s awesome—and, in some ways, it’s more compelling than seeing a group of experts succeed (even if those experts have those different perspectives). Because, rather than winking and nudging about the genre’s conventions to the point that it becomes isolating, fish-out-of-water procedurals tend to embrace, and celebrate, the fact that the audience knows every trick in the book. After all, their heroes do, too.

Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.

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