In recent years, the TV industry has seen plenty of changes. Since the golden age of TV, the long-term power of TV shows has shrunk exponentially, with the number of episodes in a season of any given TV show rapidly shrinking from a whopping average of 39 episodes to as few as ten. Perhaps this is due to our diminishing human attention spans. Maybe it’s merely consistent with TV companies’ attempts to grab a viewer’s interest as quickly as possible in order to boost viewing and avoid the constantly looming threat of a network-ordered cancellation that guarantees a one-way ticket to TV purgatory — something that’s becoming more common in the industry. Along with shortened seasons, the runtime of the average TV show has also shortened significantly, with the average TV show now lasting only three to four seasons. For TV lovers who dream of the bingeable perfection of long-lasting sitcoms like “Seinfeld,” “Friends” or “The Office,” this recent TV trend is surely devastating. For fans of a certain beloved TV genre, however, this news is nothing short of irrelevant: When it comes to longevity, there is no genre that’s safer from short seasons and network cancellation than the American crime drama.
Compared to your average television show, crime dramas possess a longevity that’s unmatched in any other genre. As of this year, two of the longest-running shows on air are procedural dramas (“Law and Order” and “NCIS”), with the overall genre making up nearly half of the 15 most popular scripted series on the air today. So why are these shows so enticing for American audiences, and why do series of this genre have such long lifespans?
Both trend-defying and extremely popular, crime dramas and police procedurals have a long history in American television, with the first popular detective drama originating as a radio show before making its way onto the American TV screen. The genre has been a staple of television, with its popularity still present in the TV shows of today — think “Criminal Minds,” “Law and Order,” “NCIS” and dozens more. Though seemingly straightforward, crime and procedural dramas have nuances and storytelling quirks that have evolved and aided them in harnessing a large viewership. Investigative-based shows face a forked road, at the end of which lie two TV tropes: the “whodunnit,” or the traditional mystery, and the reverse whodunnit. In a classic whodunnit, the viewer (or reader, as this trope was popularized primarily through written detective novels) is limited in their knowledge of the crime and perpetrator and is held hostage by suspense as they uncover clues along with the investigators until the episodes’ final minutes reveal the crime’s culprit. The reverse whodunnit, popularized by the ’70s investigative drama “Columbo,” turns the trope on its head, choosing to reveal the details of the crime to the viewer beforehand, which allows them to know more than the show’s investigators. Enjoyed due to its increased element of nail-biting suspense, the reverse whodunnit can be seen in plenty of popular procedurals such as “The X-Files” or “Criminal Minds,” while shows like “Law and Order” and “Bones” opt for the more traditional style.
Oftentimes, this repetitive format and focus on the nitty-gritty goings-on of an FBI office or city’s police department edges out the importance of character development and complexity in the crime drama genre, making these shows much more action and suspense-based than character-based. However, due to the general longevity of the police procedural — and the tendency of police drama actors to serve long sentences on their respective shows (Mariska Hargitay, (“Nightcap”) has been a “Law and Order: SVU” cast member for almost 25 years) — viewers have the privilege of getting to know their favorite police officers and agents fairly well over time, making the shows of the genre almost perfectly balanced between action and character development. Viewers also have the pleasure of seeing many familiar faces in most of their favorite procedural dramas — the cop typecast is real, people. Christopher Meloni (“Man of Steel”) has hopped around “Law and Order” spin-offs for nearly 12 years, Shemar Moore (“S.W.A.T.”) has been a cop for the entire back half of his acting career (excluding his stint on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and David Boreanaz (“Angel”) has been investigating peculiar crimes on various shows since he started “Bones” in 2005. The career truth of “once a cop, always a cop” might not be the main reason for crime drama’s such high viewership, but it sure doesn’t hurt.
It’s well-known that TV audiences have a love for drama — what else, besides our propensity for technology addiction, could draw us back into the TV sphere time and time again to binge-watch the newest Netflix series or “Game of Thrones” installment? But more than drama, what viewers love is resolution: the tidying up of plotlines with patterned wrapping paper and pretty, perfect bows, delivering us the conclusion of our dreams. How many times have you watched a movie or TV show and thought: “That would have been great, but the ending just really sucked?” Undoubtedly, hundreds of times. And thus, we have one of the most essential areas in which your typical procedural excels.
A trademark of the genre, no matter the show, is the consistency in pacing and the one-episode arcs that never fail to end with an arrest or good-guy victory of some kind. These arcs are appealing to viewers, and more importantly, the resolution that is specific to cop shows and investigative dramas appeals to the human sense of right and wrong and drive for justice. No matter how questionable or problematic it may be to personify fairness and righteousness as an NYPD detective or FBI agent, the longstanding representation of participants in the justice system as arbiters of true justice in popular media allows for that correlation to hit home with the audience, leaving them satisfied with the culmination of any crime drama episode’s events.
Additionally, whether for better or worse, police officers, detectives, government agents and other participants in the justice system are omnipresent figures in society, making their actions a constant source of intrigue. Shows like “Law and Order” and spinoff “Law and Order: SVU” often try to use this to their advantage, basing many episodes on real-life stories and crimes as well as prevalent current events or hot-topic issues like LGBTQ+ rights, domestic violence and toxic masculinity. Cop shows like “Law and Order” and many others are always going to be topical, ensuring that they keep viewers hooked for many generations of television.
But the American crime drama isn’t always based out of a police headquarters with dusty locker rooms and cop-shop coffee. Since its introduction to television, the genre has expanded from police and detectives to include government agencies, often following the investigations of FBI or CIA agents with shows like “Criminal Minds,” “Quantico” and “Person of Interest.” Shows such as these, with a little more bureaucracy and a lot more secrecy, play off of not only the average American’s desire for resolution and justice but their innate psychological curiosity. As the long-hailed backbones of national security and justice, agencies like the FBI and CIA have an aura of mystery surrounding them, and the popular media’s emphasis on the mystifying and secretive aspects of these institutions only amplifies the TV audience’s intrigue and engagement with these programs. Often overlapping with political dramas such as “Scandal” and “Madame Secretary,” these types of procedural dramas represent the American unknown and generate a generous portion of the enthusiasm for shows of the investigative nature that keeps the crime drama genre afloat.
In a world of constant cancellations, TV as we know it is most certainly changing. But one thing is for sure: America’s favorite genre of television isn’t going anywhere.
Daily Arts Writer Annabel Curran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.