Police procedurals are one of the most popular TV formulas around, with their episodic depiction of crime stories making each story its own mini-movie. The genre uses a low cost/high output strategy to deliver weekly episodes following the same characters as they deal with new and unique cases. Perhaps unsurprisingly, gimmicks are part of the formula.
The use of gimmicks to help a crime show stand out from others has had a very mixed effect over the years. While some of these hooks seem absurd, others are quite compelling and some have even reinvented the TV sub-genre. A great gimmick could be as little as a character trait or as significant as other genres added in, but in a crowded field, every series needs a unique hook.
Though many take the current police procedural format for granted, it largely traces back to CSI. The idea behind the series was to create condensed, movie-like weekly crime episodes of higher quality than people had been used to from older crime series.
CSI basically created a new template for the procedural, such as the widely expanded cast of characters and fixation on the science behind crime solving. Where most crime shows had centered around police officers, CSI made them secondary to the forensics experts.
9 Criminal Minds
Criminal Minds picked up on a niche in the procedural market that hadn’t been done before—a series entirely focused on serial killers. While shows like CSI and NCIS usually followed more localized, realistic murders, Criminal Minds made every episode into a high-stakes thriller.
Though many have poked fun at the show’s excessive number of active serial killers, the hook earned it a dedicated and strong fan base. For people who liked crime shows but wanted more than what other cable cop shows offered, Criminal Minds was the perfect series.
JAG combined the worlds of A Few Good Men and Top Gun into a military-themed legal and police procedural. The series followed the military lawyers and investigators as they handled everything from crime solving to courtroom representation and even naval aviation.
JAG was surpassed by its more popular spin-off, NCIS, but remains the superior show when it comes to the concept. In the series, fans could tune in to see anything from an espionage episode, characters at sea on an aircraft carrier, or an investigation on a nuclear submarine.
7 The Mentalist
The Mentalist, like many crime series of the 2000s, focused on a character with incredible skills of observation. It followed Patrick Jane, a former fraudulent psychic who decided to put his skills to good use in aiding the police on a series of murder investigations.
The Mentalist helped create a new sub-genre in the procedural formula of shows centered around niche consultants who would bring unique skills to crime solving. Each episode showed Jane putting to use the skills he once used to manipulate people to solve murders as he built towards solving the killing of his wife.
6 Lie To Me
Though the science behind Lie To Me is debatable, the concept and hook made for an interesting one. The series followed Cal Lightman (Tim Roth), a master detector of deception who was able to read even the smallest of facial ticks and cues to tell when someone was lying.
Lie To Me only lasted three seasons, but gained a passionate fan base who loved the idea it represented in being able to read other people. The idea of a human lie detector as the main protagonist made for some compelling stories and was a great hook.
Despite its fantastical nature and literal monsters for suspects, Grimm is, at its core, a police procedural series. The show combines the worlds of the classic Grimm fairytales with the detective genre, following a Portland detective charged with battling the forces of evil in his city.
Grimm’s hook was simple: a cop series where, more often than not, murder suspects in gruesome and unusual crimes would be revealed to be supernatural creatures. Using horror/monster stories as a backdrop, it followed in the footsteps of series like X-Files in its bending of genres.
Psych had a couple of great hooks. Not only did the series revolve around a fake psychic detective, but it was full of episodes that were homages to classic films, from The Exorcist to Scooby-Doo callbacks. The almost Saturday morning cartoon and sitcom nature of the show made it brilliant.
Psych took the otherwise serious formula of police procedurals and combined them with comedy, something that worked brilliantly. And, much like great detectives before him, Shawn Spencer used the ability of hyper-observation that allowed him to maintain the scam of being a psychic.
Though many may disagree with how the series would depict psychological disorders, Monk is nonetheless an excellent procedural. The standard template followed Adrian Monk, a widower detective who suffered from a number of phobias, compulsions, and anxieties that made his life difficult.
Monk’s key hook was showing how the character’s eccentricities and issues, rather than being a hindrance, actually made him a brilliant detective. The more comedic approach coupled with Tony Shalhoub’s portrayal of the detective made for a Sherlock Holmes with a twist.
One of the series credited with reviving the modern Western genre, Justified followed a US Marshal, Raylan Givens, as he was sent to a small Kentucky town to combat crime. The cowboy persona made the series the perfect neo-western for people who wanted a twist to cop shows.
Justified is centered around the role of the Marshals in tracking down fugitives, with each season following the typical formula of long-term villains coupled with episodic antagonists. Bringing the tone of the Old West to modern-day policing made for one of the most compelling crime shows of its decade.
1 The X-Files
The X-Files‘ hook took the simple police procedural and added a sci-fi element to it. Rather than simply investigating murders, Scully and Mulder would find their cases take a detour into questions about vampires, werewolves and aliens, with an elaborate conspiracy as the backdrop.
The X-Files completely reimagined what the police procedural could be in what became one of the biggest shows of the 1990s. Swapping out common killers for witches and shapeshifters was excellent, and influenced the creation of shows like Supernatural and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
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