Look at any broadcast network’s programming slate, and you’ll see that the procedurals that tend to stick around are those most like a snuggie: Comfortable, easy to settle into at the end of a long day, and as bluntly unfashionable as they are commercially successful. It doesn’t matter if neither the snuggie nor the too-predictable broadcast procedural is your scene: Both pop culture artifacts are hugely popular with masses of people who aren’t you.
But this doesn’t mean that networks are going to stop trying to find exciting ways to tweak the procedural formula, nor does it mean that critics are going to stop hoping that those big procedural swings might stick. (God bless you, Person of Interest.) What it does mean is that when the spark of something fresh finally manages to capture a broader audience, the race is immediately on to prove that the spark can become a self-sustaining flame. The problem: Spark too bright, too fast, you risk burning up (RIP, Life; RIP, Limitless). Spark too little, or too confusedly, and you risk either fizzling out (sorry, Deception) or having your spark subsumed by the formulaic procedural bonfire never far from hand (ah, Elementary, I love you, but even you long ago succumbed to formulaic snuggie-hood).
What’s interesting about the broadcast moment we’re in right now is that it’s by leaning into this push-and-pull between genre-busting innovation and too-comfortable formula that the most compelling of the network season’s new recruits have made space for themselves not just to spark, but to blaze right out of the gate. By taking the most trope-y elements of other mainstay genres and layering them over their own barely-tweaked procedural formulas, these network rookies have managed to find a kind of novelty that is too fresh to feel overly predictable, but familiar enough to feel snuggie-like.
The most fresh of these new recruits is Whiskey Cavalier, the spy dramedy/Scott Foley vehicle that ABC previewed after the Oscars and then premiered the following Wednesday, and which, if you are one of the 8.3 million combined viewers who tuned in those nights, you can already tell absolutely plans (to use a description coined by my colleague LaToya Ferguson) to be a procedural that fucks.
Starring Foley as Will Chase, an FBI agent (codename: Whiskey Cavalier) and born romantic tasked to co-head a super-secret team of globetrotting American intelligence experts alongside Frankie Trowbridge (Lauren Cohan), a CIA agent (codename: Fiery Tribune) and learned cynic, Whiskey Cavalier is Alias, but with SkyMiles and an ooey, gooey romantic comedy core. The main procedural formula it follows is that of an action-packed spy thriller, and like Blindspot, the NBC series that inspired LaToya to invent the procedural that fucks designation in the first place, it has the clout (read: budget) to film that action internationally. (Although, unlike Blindspot, it got the green light to do that right from the start.)
Foley and Cohan driving a spy-show formula would make for a satisfyingly predictable procedural—just look at the immediate success NBC’s more traditional, fine-but-uninspired spy drama The Enemy Within found after its own late-February launch, with 5.76 million viewers for a Monday night premiere against both The Good Doctor (6.36, ABC) and Bull (6.72, CBS). But Whiskey Cavalier doesn’t stop there. Layered on top of the spy show skeleton is the dopey, romance-forward comic formula that powered Chuck (a procedural that didn’t fuck so much as frack)—which Foley, as a Felicity alum, is perfectly primed for—as well as the droll, hijinks-heavy ensemble formula of your Boneses and Leverages and Warehouse 13s. Whiskey Cavalier is working with all of these formulas, all at once, and in so doing feels fresh in a way that even procedurals working hard to break precedent don’t often manage. And while I’ll allow that it’s possible the slickness of the series’ pond-hopping production has combined with the overwhelming charm of Foley’s Will Chase to trick me into seeing a better show than Whiskey Cavalier truly is, the sharpness of the premise’s execution in the few episodes that have been provided for review is undeniable, and promises a lot of fun still to come.
On the other side of the procedural mashup coin is the newest Nathan Fillion vehicle, The Rookie, also an ABC series, though one completely unlike Whiskey Cavalier. This fact alone is immediately striking, as both the ostensible star of the The Rookie—the roguishly witty Nathan Fillion of Firefly and Castle fame—and the show’s premise—a fortysomething ex-contractor survives an armed bank robbery and is inspired to move to Los Angeles to train to be a rookie beat cop—seem so primed for goofily layered action-romance-comedy. But those aren’t the layers The Rookie is playing with.
Echoing Fox’s short-lived The Chicago Code in both tone and gravity, and filling, to some extent, the hole left behind by ABC’s rookie FBI workforce/federal crime ensemble drama, Quantico, The Rookie (whose total average viewership hovers between 3 and 4 million) is nothing if not dead serious about the policing world it’s portraying. Where Foley’s background as both rom-com love interest on Felicity and Scrubs and scary-good (slash, just plain scary) super spy on Scandal work together to make him the perfect fit for romantic badass Will Chase, Fillion’s background as a swaggeringly confident, naturally charming leader among men informs nothing of his almost dangerously earnest rookie cop-with-a-heart, John Nolan.
Dissolving into the life of John Nolan, Fillion delivers a performance in The Rookie that is so self-effacing and generous to every other member of the ensemble that you would be forgiven for taking whole episodes to internalize that it’s not a set-up, and that no shoe is ever going to drop. The Rookie is not a comedy, and Officer John Nolan—like the Los Angeles community he and his fellow police officers interact with every day—is not a punchline. This subverted expectation is itself a formula to be layered atop the ensemble cop drama at the heart of The Rookie, and one that elevates the show’s specific elements of interpersonal characterization—elements that all procedurals live and die on—to the height that only the best cop shows (Bosch, for one) ever manage. The Rookie humanizes the people doing a tough, dangerous job, while still allowing for them to be flawed individuals who can (and do) make equally flawed decisions, both on and off the job.
Having premiered in the fall, The Rookie has had much longer to make a case for what it will be in the long run than Whiskey Cavalier (although even then, it didn’t need more than three episodes for ABC to up its first-season order to 20 episodes), and so far, that case has been one of hard-working and respectful (but not worshipful) gravity. The Rookie has the same bones as many police dramas, but in using Fillion’s particular profile it subverts the audience’s expectation of comedy (on his part) and the glorification of police work (on the genre’s) in such a way that it’s wholly believable half a dozen seasons’ worth of fresh, exciting stories are still in The Rookie’s tank.
Two excellent formula-busting broadcast procedurals would be exciting enough for one network television season, but there are still several premieres to come, and one of them—CBS’ The Red Line, which was co-created by Caitlin Parrish and Erica Weiss and executive produced by Greg Berlanti and Ava Duvernay and debuts in late April—is promising to subvert procedural audiences’ expectations in the boldest way yet by layering together not only a whole different set of broadcast formulas, but by using the ultra-snuggie reputation of CBS as a procedural-friendly network to challenge the expectations of the network’s core audience.
Starring Noah Wyle (ER) as a white man whose black husband is accidentally shot to death by a white Chicago cop, The Red Line has elements of a procedural, but with so much of the focus on Wyle’s Daniel Calder and his and his husband’s biracial daughter, Jira (Aliyah Royale), the core formula looks to be that of the family drama, with threads of a political justice drama woven in. To put it bluntly: This is not the kind of drama that the 6+ million people tuning in for NCIS: Los Angeles on Sunday nights are likely to be expecting. The nuance embedded in the trailer alone is so far from snuggie territory, in fact, that I nearly forgot my own metaphor. And yet, between Wyle (like Foley and Fillion) as such a known quantity all on his own, and Berlanti and Duvernay as such known quantities on the EP front, chances are high that, like for Whiskey Cavalier and The Rookie, The Red Line will find success not by treading new ground, but by layering together so much old ground that it comes to seem new, even as it feels familiar and safe.
Only time will tell whether this strategy of folding together what’s old and familiar to trick audiences into stepping outside their comfort zone will succeed any better than any other experiment that broadcast networks have tried to freshen up the procedural landscape in recent, but for now, we’ve got all this promise to revel in. I plan to enjoy it while it lasts.
The Rookie airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC. Whiskey Cavalier airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC. The Red Line premieres Sunday, April 28 on CBS.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.