The fall TV season is just kicking off and it’s time to begin crafting a weekly TV-viewing schedule that fits your needs, genre preferences, and tastes, and that hopefully includes something old, something new, and something that’s been around for a while that you’ve been meaning to check out. Following up on Sound on Sight’s coverage of the fall’s new network series, contributor Claire Hellar will be recommending her top choices, by genre, of the networks’ returning shows.
As a general rule, the procedural is a TV genre in which there are too many rather than too few to choose from, though that doesn’t imply an embarrassment of riches. Middling, perfectly competent procedural series abound and differences in quality spring not so much from what certain shows do differently, but rather how they deliver the same set of elements. It’s nearly impossible to choose between mid-line series, for example the equally pleasant, equally bland Rizzoli & Isles and Hawaii Five-0. However, some shows deliver an extra element or unusual tone, series which have elevated case-of-the-week into an art form or have strong but not overwhelming serial elements, and these are the series that will still be watched on Netflix in 10 years. In this realm, seasoned veterans shine.
Airs Mondays at 10 pm ET on ABC
Castle has been one of the most consistently-written shows on the air for years; season after season, it delivers quality, tightly-constructed plots and steady characterization that makes sense. It also navigates the balance of episodic versus serial storylines more deftly than any other procedural on air. Long-running stories are given just enough time to be juicy without growing tiresome; Beckett’s mother’s death and the will-they-won’t-they Castle/Beckett relationship run for several seasons and then are ultimately resolved (or kicked into gear, in the case of the latter). If ever there was a perfect marriage of procedural and serialization, this is it.
Airs Tuesdays at 8 pm ET on CBS
It’s like putting a check in a checkbox to include NCIS, which is the most popular drama in the U.S. and was the world’s most-watched drama in 2013. But NCIS pulls in incredibly high ratings year after year for a reason: its episodes are extremely tightly written. The series is powered by a highly competent writing staff, production team, and set of directors who have largely been with the show since it began.
The show is characterized by a blend of all the elements that, spread out across other shows, have helped to make them popular: a rapport between male-female partners out in the field, a funny, highly intelligent tech genius, a dry sense of humor from leadership, and a great ensemble cast. It’s assisted by the structure and inbuilt rules of the Navy, which adds focus and heightened tension (a strong element to parent show JAG in its 10-season run as well). Currently in its 12th season, it shows no signs of slowing down.
Airs Thursdays at 10 pm ET on CBS
The first season of CBS’s Holmes adaptation was poor, but the second improved markedly, delivering a few episodes of stellar network television, particularly its mid-season premiere and finale. The writing has historically been uneven. Certain case-of-week episodes are laughably constructed, while some of the excellent serialized storylines, particularly those with Moriarty (the fantastic Natalie Dormer), feel as if they originate from an entirely different creative team. Much like The Mindy Project, the show may never become truly consistent, but it is generally entertaining.
Elementary has a more intimate feel than most procedurals, in part because it’s largely (so far) set in Holmes’ brownstone residence, and in part because it has two leads instead of an ensemble cast. The Holmes/Watson relationship is very much a focus of the series and is constantly evolving. Nuanced acting from Johnny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu, Dormer, and Rhys Ifans as Mycroft gives the series an aura of sophistication it might not otherwise have, and the show occasionally touches on social issues such as homelessness and drug abuse in a surprisingly delicate, thought-provoking way. For season three, the show appears to be expanding, adding Ophelia Lovibond as Holmes’ mentor and giving Watson her own place and a new boyfriend.
Airs Thursdays at 8 pm ET on FOX
Bones, like Castle, is an extraordinarily steady drama. Both series put most other shows on TV, not just other procedurals, to shame with their consistency. Further, characters are allowed serialized story-lines and growth while maintaining an episodic structure. Booth and Bones, Angela and Hodgins, and the other team members fall in and out of love, move in together, get married, have kids…and keep catching bad guys. Tonally, it falls somewhere between the zippiness of The Mentalist (which sometimes has dark cases but a generally light-hearted vibe) and the morbidity of Criminal Minds. Cases may be macabre, but the characters approach their jobs with a lot of humor, leavening this. Headed into its 10th season, the show’s been around long enough for the audience to have gone through the same relationship progressions the characters have, and if not, it could conceivably be on the air long enough for all that to happen and much more.
Honorary mentions: The Mentalist, which is returning for its seventh and final season, Justified, which has left its procedural roots behind in favor of serialized stories, and Hannibal, which will appear in another category.