For These TV Procedurals, The Formula Still Works

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The long-running crime franchises “NCIS” and “Law & Order” continue to endure — and even expand — after decades on the air.

Waves slap gently against the shore along the southeast coast of Australia, the morning sun glittering on the horizon. A cheerful swimming teacher is giving her students instructions and then suddenly, panic: A shark appears. It soon swims off, but leaves something behind. Everyone panics again: It’s a severed human arm.

This is the opening scene of a recent episode of “NCIS: Sydney,” the fifth series in the long-running crime procedural franchise, which premiered on CBS earlier this month. But it could be the opening scene of almost any episode of any “NCIS” series, or of almost any episode of any network crime procedural, from “Law & Order” to “Bones” to “Criminal Minds.” The genre is among the most steadfast in television, drawing in many millions of viewers each week with a format that has hardly changed in more than three decades. This new spinoff is more of the same, and that is entirely by design.

“There’s definitely a template that I’ve managed to extract from watching hundreds of hours of the show, a kind of typical ‘NCIS’ structure,” Morgan O’Neill, the creator and showrunner of “NCIS: Sydney,” said in a video interview. “That’s the overall architecture of the show, and it’s always going to be that.”

“It still works,” O’Neill added. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The popularity of these shows bears out this wisdom. Television has been in a near constant state of volatility and change in the two decades since “NCIS” premiered, in September 2003, a period that has seen the flourishing of reality and prestige programming, cord-cutting and the fading of cable, and the rise of streaming platforms and their more recent consolidation. Through it all, one constant has been the popularity of procedural franchises like “NCIS” and “Law & Order,” which have thrived as purveyors of familiar predictability.

Even after 20 years and nearly 1,000 episodes across the entire franchise, the original “NCIS” remains extraordinarily popular. It has been the No. 1-rated broadcast drama for five seasons running and is one of TV’s most-streamed shows. It is the most popular series on its home platform, Paramount+, and has been among the Top 10 most-streamed shows across multiple platforms for 136 consecutive weeks. (It is also available on Netflix.)

“Law & Order” has had more ups and downs since the original debuted in September 1990. But the sex crimes spinoff, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” has been a cultural fixture for 24 seasons and counting on NBC, and this franchise, too, is still expanding. “Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent” is currently in production.

While early series like “Dragnet” established the police procedural as a reliable TV format, it was the original “Law & Order” that set the modern template that shows like “NCIS” continue to follow, to great success.

That structure is constructed around the “cold open teaser,” or “body drop,” in which the fresh corpse of the week’s victim is discovered; three acts of investigation, broken up by commercial breaks; and a last-act race to catch the perp or secure the evidence to prove guilt “to re-establish order over chaos,” O’Neill said. It is how “NCIS” has been written since its debut, and it is how all of the “NCIS” spinoffs, including “NCIS: Hawaiʻi” and “NCIS: New Orleans,” are written as well.

“That’s almost a relief,” O’Neill said. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. It’s proved itself as a really fantastically functional structure.” While the rigid format discourages experimentation, what is lost in novelty is gained in reliability.

“It’s one of those shows that people love to tune in and watch when it airs on Monday nights, and it’s been that way for a long time,” Amy Reisenbach, the president of CBS Entertainment, said in a video interview. “But it’s also one of those shows where you’re sick in bed on a Saturday night, and you just pick a random episode and then keep going. We’ve got a ton of episodes on streaming.”

Reisenbach described “NCIS” as “comfort food with a side of murder.” Its consistent structure makes it accessible and undemanding, and its crimes, though often violent, are rarely if ever disturbing.

“It’s not like ‘Game of Thrones,’ where it’s shocking you with what family member is doing what with whom,” Sara Netzley, a journalism professor at Bradley University who writes about “NCIS” for Entertainment Weekly, said in an interview. “There’s a crime, we’re going to solve the crime, we’re going to make some dad jokes and then we’ll see you again next week to do it all again.”

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You don’t simply watch “NCIS,” she added. You get “swaddled in the show’s embrace.”

That comforting feeling can be traced back to early “Law & Order,” when the series lead Jerry Orbach was often praised for his reassuring warmth and deep inner calm. Like “NCIS,” the franchise has maintained an enviable base line of popularity, with “SVU” and its stalwart star, Mariska Hargitay as Olivia Benson, remaining fan favorites even after the original “Law & Order” was canceled in 2010. Since 2021, Hargitay’s former “SVU” partner Christopher Meloni has thrived with his own show, “Law & Order: Organized Crime.”

The flagship was revived last year with its signature star, Sam Waterston as Jack McCoy, and drew impressive numbers. More than five million people tuned in to the first episode — technically the Season 21 premiere — in February 2022, while last year’s three-way “Law & Order” crossover special was the most-watched and highest-rated program on the night it aired, on NBC.

“Dick Wolf used to say that ‘Law & Order’ is like high mass,” Peter Jankowski, the president and chief operating officer of Wolf Entertainment and a producer on “Law & Order” and its many spinoffs, said in a recent video interview earlier this month. “You know what’s going to happen. It will take you somewhere spiritually and at the end of the hour, hopefully you leave feeling a little more enlightened.” (Wolf created the franchise.)

“Law & Order” puts a defining spin on the procedural template, following the cases further into the courtroom and mining drama from the district attorneys and their wrestling over ethical dilemmas. But Jankowski said writing to template doesn’t make producing “Law & Order” any easier. Coming up with a new case each week and making the machinations of the case interesting “is like solving a math equation,” he said. “It’s a very hard thing to do. But when it works, it’s magic.”

Not every spinoff has been a hit. “Law & Order: Trial by Jury” and “Law & Order: LA” each only lasted a single season before being canceled. “Some things work and some don’t, for myriad reasons,” Jankowski said. (Other crime dramas under the Wolf Entertainment umbrella, including the multiseries “FBI” and “Chicago” franchises, have built enormous followings with slightly different spins on the procedural format.)

The less successful spinoff efforts suggest that while audience demand for these kinds of shows is high, there is still a risk of diluting the brand.

“It’s imperative on us that we don’t overtire the franchise,” Reisenbach said. “We have to be thoughtful, calculated and specific about when and why we expand. We don’t want to print them out like they’re little widgets.”

“NCIS: Sydney,” in particular, was a bit of a fluke. Originally conceived and produced exclusively for Australian television, it was picked up by CBS for broadcast in the United States as a result of the recently ended guild strikes — a savvy way to skirt the labor disputes and keep new content flowing outward from the network to audience screens.

“It was definitely not intended to be on CBS prime time from the get-go,” Reisenbach said. “I can’t tell you what would have happened if there hadn’t been a strike, but it was like lemonade out of lemons. It fit so perfectly.”

While it may not have been made specifically for American audiences, “NCIS: Sydney” still reliably offers the body drop, the investigations, the satisfaction of seeing the heroes solve the crime — the things many viewers clearly still crave week after week.

“As much as you like to go out to a fancy restaurant now and again, you generally come home and you’re still hungry,” O’Neill said. “You drive past McDonalds and you think, ‘I wouldn’t mind that.’ I think these shows have a real comfort food value, and there are whole generations of people who have grown up on that comfort food.”

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