2:03pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: When Every Fox Show Becomes a Procedural, It Gets Very Boring
On Friday morning at the Television Critics Association press tour, Fox chairman and CEO Dana Walden declared that the network is not in a creative rut when it comes to drama series structuring.
"I certainly don’t feel like it’s a rut and I would say that the way that we've approached our development and I think throughout the history of Fox, the procedural elements are secondary to who the characters are and what those relationships are. So when I think back to Ally McBeal or 24 or The X-Files, they all took place in a world where there is a storytelling engine that is procedural, that's helpful to storytelling but is always balanced with what's going on with human beings in their lives and very heightened situations. So no, I would say no rut."
Facts suggest otherwise.
For the 2015-16 season, Fox has or has had seven dramas in which the core premise can be boiled down to: quirky civilian contractor(s) aid law enforcement.
It's a resilient and effective formula, and Fox didn't come close to inventing it. You take somebody with no business fighting crime, but a particular set of skills, and you pair them with somebody committed to law and order and you get instant drama and, more importantly, instant weekly procedural structure.
You can trace the current Fox crop back to Bones, with its story of an on-the-spectrum forensic anthropologist and her team assisting a by-the-book FBI agent. Fox is home to the recent originator of the trend and many of its most distinctive adherents, but also one of its most generic versions in Rosewood, which has to work very hard to explain how its main character is a private pathologist and therefore not technically in the employ of the Miami PD.
Other networks have QCCALE shows as well, some successful and some not, several directly nodding to one of the most famous quirky civilian contractors to aid law enforcement, Sherlock Holmes.
What makes Fox's current rut so conspicuous is the drama development team's insistence on shoehorning intellectual property into the QCCALE cubbyhole.
For the 2015-16 season, Fox has at least seven dramas that center on QCCALE. In addition to Bones and Rosewood, you have an assortment of shows featuring variably recognizable characters who have nothing better to do than lend their services to the cops.
Already deceased is Minority Report, an adaptation of the Spielberg movie (based on the Philip K. Dick short story), in which a twitchy clairvoyant formerly enslaved by the future justice system lends his services as a freelancer to the same system that previously kept him in a milk bath.
On Sleepy Hollow, time-traveling Revolutionary War hero Ichabod Crane is preventing myriad apocalypses, but he does this by working with a Sleepy Hollow cop, now employed by the FBI.
Newly premiered (and already practically as dead as Minority Report) drama Second Chance began its life as a takeoff on Frankenstein, in which the monster has been reimagined as a resurrected corrupt sheriff trying to set things right by helping his FBI agent son solve a slew of crimes.
Coming soon, the DC Comics adaptation Lucifer takes a juicy premise from a comic book — the devil takes an extended vacation on Earth and chaos ensues — and inexplicably uses the gimmick as a reason for Old Scratch to help an LAPD detective solve crimes.
Finally, Fox is eventually going to debut Houdini & Doyle, a drama in which famous magician Harry Houdini and famous author Arthur Conan Doyle become partners, and the only thing they can think of to do is assist Scotland Yard in various investigations.
Satan, Frankenstein's Monster and Ichabod Crane are famous characters capable of doing a lot of different things. Why must they conscript themselves to law enforcement? And why must they all be doing it at the same time? Is there literally no other engine that folks at Fox can think of to drive an ongoing TV series? Most of the recent entries in this genre have also struggled to find their creative footing, proving that easy isn't necessarily better when it comes to adapting IP in this fashion.
Not every Fox drama fits into this genre, but even several of the ones that don't, kinda do.
Scream Queens, renewed this morning because its rating would have made it a smash hit on cable, isn't technically about quirky civilian contractors aiding law enforcement, but the arc of the first season was absolutely a bunch of sorority girls, rent-a-cops and college officials trying to unmask a couple murderers.
Gotham, based on a franchise in which a masked vigilante works at the beck and call of law enforcement but isn't actually under contract, really isn't a QCCALE, but some of its most effective episodes have involved future Commissioner Gordon putting aside his sense of morals to team with the Penguin to help clean up the streets.
Empire is its own thing. And Empire is, by far, Fox's most popular show. But if you don't think there's a slippery slope down which Cookie, already a former government informant, finds herself working with a handsome and straitlaced cop, you haven't been paying attention.
It wouldn't be surprising to see Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. apprehending musical criminals next season as "Seacrest's Angels."
But no, Fox's drama development definitely isn't in a rut.