You’ve seen cop shows. This is the formula.
1-5 minutes in: something wild, violent, or surprising happens.
5-45 minutes in: hypotheses are rendered, leads are tracked down, and wild geese are chased.
45-55 minutes in: a plot twist and an epiphany!
55-60 minutes: ties are created between the action of the past 55 minutes and the future of the characters therein.
With something so cut-and-dried, where’s the intrigue? What makes formulaic shows like police procedurals or medical dramas so fascinating? What makes me sit down “while I eat dinner” and watch three episodes of Bones in a row? Just like the first 45 minutes of the uniquely strange cases Dr. House tackles, no one answer can cover all of these questions. Let’s dissect the magic like Dr. Brennan dissects desiccated corpses.
Bones: This tender tale of a super-hot FBI agent and a team of fairly hot nerds led by a super-smart (and hot, it’s Hollywood) forensic anthropologist drives home the point that there really are different kinds of intelligence. Also, that decomposed dead people look super gross.
The biggest boon to this show is its focus on character development. Most formula-following shows allow viewers to pop in to a random episode and not feel like they’ve missed any kind of plot point (I’m looking at you, Law & Order: Our Characters Have no Lives Outside Work). With Bones, there’s enough subplottery (read: sexual tension) adjacent to the typical we-found-a-mangled-body-whodunit that while the show is still enjoyable as a one-off, there’s undoubtedly more to enjoy watching it in serial form. I can attest—its complete presence on Netflix Instant Watch both ruined my productive Sunday and made my Sunday chock full of awesome.
House: This mack daddy of all formulaic dramas is in its eighth (and final, thank goodness) season. Like Bones in that there’s a hefty chunk of plot swimming around in the medical-mystery soup, House is ultimately inferior in one fatal way: while all the other main characters change, the MD of the title remains entirely stagnant—a selfish, misanthropic drug addict determined to live life with as much loneliness as is possible when surrounded by people trying to care about you.
While the overarching theme of the show is that everybody lies and no one changes, it doesn’t change the fact that television is no place for a complex human to become a stock character by virtue of longevity. Dr. House is generally hilarious and brilliant, but he eventually squanders whatever morsel of happiness he gleaned—if he had actually shot himself in the foot as many times as he has metaphorically done so, they would’ve amputated years ago.
Psych: This buddy-cop hybrid has the intrigue of police cases with the hijinks and rampant miscommunication (He thinks I’m seeing someone else? She’s convinced I’m gay? We’re both just playing games to make each other jealous when the whole thing could be solved with a simple, clear conversation?) of a comedy. Light on the actual shoot-em-up drama, Psych concentrates on what fun it is to solve crimes and pretend to have extrasensory powers! This show definitely brings the splashy quirkiness to the Formulaic Spectrum.
White Collar: USA loves The Formula Lite (see above). White Collar is no different, incorporating humor and character development in the little window of a “There’s a crime, there’s a red herring, oh look we solved it!” formula. The actors have real chemistry, the glamorous white-collar thefts are ripe for sexy undercover galas and sting operations on yachts, and the writing is quick and smart enough to keep things moving. Like any good con man, White Collar tricks you into believing it doesn’t follow the formula until you’re hooked, and it’s too late to protest.
Formulaic these shows may be, but they’re never boring. Even if you know that every week, a mystery will arise and a bad guy will get caught in the same hour, there’s something there that keeps your attention. Forget the spontaneity of reality TV or the slap-you-in-the-face surprise of a soap. Love the Formula.