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The Case for the Prestige Procedural

Yes, it is possible to make high-quality television with episodic rhythm, and even the occasional mystery—just look at ‘The Good Fight’

CBS/Netflix/Ringer illustration

The first season of The Good Fight had to negotiate an especially awkward position. As the debut scripted series on CBS’s All Access streaming service, the Good Wife spinoff found itself at the intersection of network television and the brave new world of online entertainment—a place without censors, year-round production schedules, or time constraints. Broadcast TV and streaming television are typically seen as polar opposites, and yet The Good Fight was somehow both at once. Torn between the two media, Robert and Michelle King, along with their cocreator, Phil Alden Robinson, hewed closer to the rhythms of the procedural, but added in a season-long plot about a Madoff-like scandal that defrauded thousands (and rudely ruined Christine Baranski’s Provencal retirement). The result was an addictive yet sophisticated legal show that preserved what made The Good Wife such a joy, but also struggled to balance week-to-week casework with an overarching story that felt rushed, like a 20-plus-hour saga crammed into just 10 hours.

The Kings have always had an uneasy relationship with prestige television. While The Good Wife was still on the air, CBS hinged an Emmy campaign on the show’s ability to do everything HBO could do at half the budget and twice the season length. The Kings even wrote an in-show analog to, and parody of, their perceived competition: Protagonist Alicia Florrick becomes a regular viewer of a Breaking Bad–like show called Darkness at Noon; The Good Fight’s creators have never been interested in cable flourishes for cable flourishes’ sake. Still, in its second season, The Good Fight appears noticeably more comfortable with taking advantage of its writers’ recently acquired liberties. Characters swear freely. (Christine Baranski telling Audra McDonald to fuck herself is a GIF waiting to happen.) The sexual tension between disgraced heiress Maia Rindell (Rose Leslie) and her former tennis teacher is illustrated with flashes of frank nudity. Diane tries microdosing.

Beyond aesthetics, The Good Fight’s second season has landed on a happy medium between tightly constructed episodes and serialized, long-term storytelling. Traditionally, network television’s overreliance on the former—to generate enough material for an extended season, and to make sure viewers tuning in intermittently could keep up—has limited its ambitions. More recently, cable and streaming series’ overemphasis on the latter has resulted in bloated, sagging seasons that lose sight of entertainment value as they strain for profundity. The Good Fight suggests there’s no need to make a false choice. This season sees compelling threads about the introduction of a new name partner, who quit the Department of Justice before she could be fired for calling the president a white supremacist on Twitter; Maia’s prosecution for her potential complicity in her father’s Ponzi scheme; and a chilling streak of murders targeting lawyers. Yet there’s still room for self-contained ventures like an episode transparently based on this summer’s alleged sexual misconduct on the set of Bachelor in Paradise, and another where Maia’s long-brewing legal troubles come to a head and transform into the case of the week. Unflinching and often morally ambiguous, these plotlines don’t feel like a compromise, or excerpts from a less intelligent show. Rather than a mashup of two distinct genres, The Good Fight has evolved into a genre unto itself: the prestige procedural.

The procedural—the crime, legal, and/or medical show that takes as much pleasure in closed-ended processes as the people who carry them out—is arguably the most successful genre in the history of American television. And yet, as once-derided genres from soap operas to animation have been propelled into acceptable essay fodder by well-executed examples, the procedural remains something to be subverted, never accepted on its own terms. The assumption is that the procedural template is a matter of necessity rather than choice, a format to be abandoned as soon as a shortened season and more high-brow target audience allows for conflicts that can’t be started, negotiated, and resolved in less than an hour. In its migration to streaming, The Good Fight suggests that the procedural is a baseline to be augmented, not replaced.

I thought of The Good Fight often while watching the long-awaited second season of Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Though Jessica Jones remains the strongest of Marvel’s television efforts, which include Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC and a slew of Netflix shows, its follow-up lacks the first volume’s magic ingredient: a compelling supervillain. Without David Tennant’s Kilgrave to focus Jessica’s efforts and provide an obvious theme, Season 2 spends much of its first half without an obvious raison d’etre. There were compelling components: the lingering after-effects of trauma, the struggle between confronting one’s past and moving past it, various attractive people hooking up with one another. There’s just no unifying force to tie those threads together.

While this season may have less overarching conflict, there’s also more of something quite promising: Jessica doing her job. Allergic to the idea of heroism, Jessica makes her living as a private investigator, running Alias Investigations out of her Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Because this season’s mysterious killer is trying to evade Jessica—as opposed to Kilgrave, who actively pursued her—we get to watch her put her chops to use, applying cunning as well as genetically enhanced brute force toward her ultimate goal. There’s a familiar comfort to watching a confident, talented person in action, with the unspoken assurance they’ve done this countless times before. Jessica’s sleuthing is a procedure, and showing her going through that procedure more consistently and for lower stakes than a life-or-death confrontation would solve several of her namesake show’s problems in one fell swoop.

One of Jessica Jones’ greatest strengths has always been its subscription to the theory that “superhero” is less a category unto itself than a collection of superhero-flavored selections from other forms of fiction. Jessica Jones is, unabashedly, a hard-boiled noir. There’s a moody voice-over to set the tone. The credits are a Mad Men–lite montage of silhouettes. Hilariously, Jessica spends an episode complaining about New York City’s intolerable summer heat without ever deviating from her de facto uniform of a black T-shirt, black boots, black fingerless gloves, and a leather jacket. Yet a series that looks, talks, and acts like a brooding detective show is still shy of portraying Jessica as a working detective. The framework is there (a business! a sidekick! a few intriguing glimpses of eccentric clients!), just not the will.

Over the past few years, streaming shows have begun to opt into the stand-alone episodes the platform initially eschewed. Episodic anthologies like Black Mirror and Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams create and disassemble entire worlds in a single chapter. Animated shows like BoJack Horseman and Big Mouth try out high-flying concepts in one episode only to move on in the next. Sitcoms, whether multicamera (One Day at a Time) or auteurist (Master of None), use the individual installment to take on specific subjects. Not coincidentally, Netflix’s first great unscripted success story, the updated reboot of Queer Eye, rests on the old-school satisfaction of identifying someone’s problems, fixing every single one of them, and moving on in the time it takes to eat a bowl of microwaved mac and cheese. (In a way, Queer Eye itself is a procedural of sorts, with the Fab Five as policemen of personal grooming, doctors of the soul.) It’s a satisfaction viewers seem to be missing, and one more streaming-native shows are actively pursuing.

The hour-long drama, however, remains curiously resistant to this gradual drift. For every perspective-swapping Handmaid’s Tale, there’s a monotonous Looming Tower. Shows working in more procedural-friendly territory, like David Fincher’s Mindhunter or Sneaky Pete, still frequently define themselves in opposition to the style that influenced them. Mindhunter seemed to actively resist the episode in its slow-burn quest to reinvent the serial killer search, right down to chopping a perfectly organic open-and-shut investigation into two abbreviated halves. Sneaky Pete began its life as a CBS series, where it would have presumably developed into a Psych- or Suits-like con-caper-slash-procedural, only to end up at Amazon, where it became a more condensed story about one man’s unsuccessful reinvention.

The recent vogue for crime-centered miniseries and seasonal anthologies across prestige outlets in general and streaming services in particular, á la Netflix’s Collateral, signals a potential pivot toward definitive endings. It’s possible to envision a future where more showrunners decide to take The Good Fight’s lead and compress their stories even further. There remain legitimate reasons the procedural isn’t associated with ambition; there’s a neatness and convenience to their structure that’s at odds with realism and nuance. But if Peak TV proves anything, it’s that no genre is so compromised that it lacks strengths. (Over-serialization has its drawbacks, too!) The prestige procedural has too many unrealized possibilities not to investigate, preferably by a certain raven-haired PI.