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Breaking Down the Differences Between Procedural and Serialized Television

Breaking Down the Differences Between Procedural and Serialized Television

If you have television-obsessed friends, you’ve likely heard a lot of rogue terms thrown around. Television is a singular word used to encompass the many ways we consume media. There are TV shows on Netflix and Amazon — most of which you can watch on your tablet or phone. This phenomenon is fairly new in the world of television but many categorizations of shows have remained through these technological changes. There are news, reality, and talk shows. There are soap operas, situation comedies (sitcoms), and dramas. All of these show types help us to categorize and manage expectations when turning on our content device-of-choice. But ultimately, television storytelling can be squarely categorized in one of two ways: either procedural or serial. While procedural shows have in the past been the most prominent, serial shows have been gaining audiences and critical acclaim. So here’s our breakdown of what it all means.

Procedurals

Procedurals are shows in which each episode is self-contained. These shows generally have the same characters across episodes and may even have some over-arching storylines but largely an episode can be watched out of order. Well-known procedurals are Law & Order, CSI, NCIS and Criminal Minds. These shows have a crime, mystery or case in each episode which is typically solved or finished by the end.

Serials

Serials are shows that should be watched in a series. There are complex plots and stories carrying from one episode to another. If you watched a random episode of LOST in the middle of Season 5 you’d be…well, lost. Well-known serials are Game of Thrones, Mad Men, True Detective, The Walking Dead, Orphan Black and Breaking Bad. These shows are often complex and each episode builds upon another leading to a much greater time commitment but also a greater payoff.

The Pros and Cons

It’s impossible to say whether that one type of show is better than another because it’s all based on personal preference and show execution. Both come with pros and cons, and nowadays many shows don’t fall strictly into one category or another — like NBC’s Hannibal — but instead are somewhere between the two. There are brilliant shows like The Good Wife that expertly blend procedural and serial elements. Like Grey’s Anatomy, which has had several episodes where cases were interwoven with recurring character storylines. Some shows even oscillate from procedural to serialized as they progress (like Fringe). Typically procedural shows spend more time on story than character and don’t necessarily need to be watched in any particular order, making syndication — when shows are essentially leased out to other networks to air — is much easier. If you miss an episode of a procedural show, you might not catch a few subtleties in the next episode but you can still fully understand what’s going on. Like House. In a serial show, the audience needs to be very dedicated and tuned-in. Missing one episode of a serialized show isn’t an option. Serialized shows require more of a commitment from the audience, which frankly some people just aren’t willing to do.

In the documentary Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show, Damon Lindelof says he enjoys serialized shows more because life itself is serialized. That said, I think procedural shows have their place on television — there will always be an audience that passively watches TV or prefers to have closure at the end of each episode. There is nothing wrong with that. Me? I prefer serialized shows because of the complex storylines and character arcs that can be created over the course of seasons. I like the cliffhanger and the rush of waiting for a whole week to find out what happens next. Serialized shows seem to always keep the audience coming back.

What sort of television style is your favorite?

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