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From ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ to ‘SVU,’ How Procedurals Became Must-Have Comfort TV

Procedural drama series have been the backbone of television since the days of “Dragnet” and “Perry Mason.” Even as viewers are inundated with new, edgy and artsy programs, they’re embracing sturdy shows that blend potboiler tales and indelible characters like never before.

Whether on broadcast TV — where procedurals were the first wave of scripted series to return to the air following last year’s writers and actors strikes — or streaming platforms (hello, “Suits” revival on Netflix), audiences gravitate to close-ended storytelling about cops, doctors, lawyers, firefighters and other first responders.

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Indeed, just four days after the SAG-AFTRA work stoppage ended on Nov. 9, Wolf Entertainment got back to work on the nine scripted procedurals on its slate: three “Law & Orders” and three “One Chicago” shows for NBC and three “FBI” dramas for CBS. The “Chicago” franchise was the first of the strike-delayed series to return with fresh episodes on Jan. 17.

“A good procedural is like comfort food: consistently satisfying,” says Erin Underhill, president of Universal TV.

The familiarity of the format makes procedurals easy to watch — even if the stories themselves are often dark and anxiety-inducing. NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU,” one of the most successful of its kind, revolves around detectives tasked with securing justice for sexual assault victims. In her role as Capt. Olivia Benson, Mariska Hargitay is a heroic figure on screen and off, given her 25 seasons (and counting) on the air.

“They are successful because our viewers see them as comfort television. They don’t disappoint you, and you want to keep coming back,” says producer Dick Wolf.

FIRE COUNTRY (9:00-10:00 PM) “I Know It Feels Impossible” – The station 42 and third rock crews face a daring rescue when a massive mudslide tears through Edgewater. Meanwhile, Bode’s (Max Theriot) freedom is on the line at his parole hearing. First season finale airing May 19.  Pictured (L-R): Max Thieriot as Bode Donovan and Stephanie Arcila as Gabriela Perez.  Photo: Sergei Bachlakov/CBS ©2023 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
“Fire Country”

And viewers of all ages are along for the ride. On Variety’s tally of most-watched primetime telecasts of 2023, no fewer than 12 episodes of CBS’ “NCIS,” five episodes of CBS’ “Blue Bloods” and four episodes each of “Chicago Fire” and “FBI” landed spots. Even freshman series “Fire Country” and “Accused” broke through. Because consistency pays off.

“We have all our energies focused on making things great — because without that, it doesn’t matter what your technology is or what your delivery system is,” says Peter Jankowski, chief operating officer of Wolf Entertainment.

Moreover, procedurals require a deft balance: An episode centers on the drama surrounding the case (or disease or disaster) of the week, as tackled by characters that have ongoing plotlines and deep backstories. New and vintage series such as CBS’ “Blue Bloods” and “Fire Country,” or ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and “9-1-1,” thrive on the bonds viewers make with characters. Just as the end of every episode isn’t always happy, the principal players aren’t always perfect either.

“What makes ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ such a comfort for so many people is that its characters are based in reality and flawed just like us,” says Meg Marinis, showrunner of the medical drama that is set to begin Season 20 on March 14. “Everyone can find parts of themselves in the episodes, and we pride ourselves on crafting storylines that are relatable and speak to the human condition. So much of living in today’s world is about holding back and tempering feelings. ‘Grey’s’ gives people an outlet to actually feel those feelings.”

GREYÕS ANATOMY - ÒWedding Bell Blues/Happily Ever AfterÓ - SimoneÕs wedding day arrives as Jo and LinkÕs relationship hits a major turning point. Meanwhile, the attending surgeons fly to Boston, forcing a reunion between Nick and Meredith. Bailey gets a big surprise. THURSDAY, MAY 18 (9:00-11:00 p.m. EDT), on ABC. (ABC/Raymond Liu) CAMILLA LUDDINGTON, CHRIS CARMACK, KIM RAVER
“Grey’s Anatomy”

As the TV universe has been upended by the rise of streaming platforms, the broadcast nets that still draw the largest linear audiences have doubled (and tripled) down on spinoffs. Ryan Murphy’s “9-1-1” led to “9-1-1: Lone Star,” with the franchise now straddling ABC and Fox. A police-focused spinoff of “Fire Country” is coming to CBS, while the “NCIS” universe comprises five shows, with a prequel series in the works. Even series that are no longer in active production — from the original “Star Trek” and “Gunsmoke” to “CSI” and “House” — now run endlessly on subscription and ad-supported streamers.

Experts of the genre say there’s another reason why procedurals remain extremely popular at a time when consumers have a multitude of options beyond TV and movies to command their leisure-time hours.

“Our world is a little nutty right now. You wonder if your neighbor actually likes you or wants to go to war with you these days,” Jankowski says. “Procedurals are somewhat reassuring that there is some order to the universe. You get to see people care about other people deeply and sacrifice their own energies and time to make other people whole. Something we play on with all our shows is defending the little guy. I think the audience feeds off that.”

Creator of NBC’s “The Irrational” Arika Lisanne Mittman adds that there’s “something reassuring and ultimately satisfying” about a mystery that you don’t have to invest 8-12 hours in. “New worlds and new cases bring a unique, fresh energy to each episode, and it makes the individual episodes themselves more memorable as a result,” says Mittman.

Plus, giving the audience “a puzzle to solve every week” is something extremely satisfying, says “Found” showrunner Nkechi Okoro Carroll: “We get to become part of Columbo’s team, part of Benson & Stabler’s teams, part of Mosely & Associates, and help solve a case, help get justice, help save a life. Who doesn’t love to be one of the good guys? It’s as satisfying and as reliable as coffee and a crossword puzzle on a Sunday morning.”

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