Why are TV writers making their mysteries less mysterious? I think it’s because lots of new procedurals try to fit more than just a case of the week into the 44-minute running time. Most shows also have a serial element, a mystery—usually a quest for elusive information—that lasts throughout the whole series. In the case of Unforgettable, it’s Carrie’s attempt to remember the day her sister was murdered; on Person of Interest, it’s a driven cop’s attempt to capture Reese, who is wanted for a number of serious crimes around the world. Person of Interest’s writers are also trying to draw our attention to that Big Brother machine and the principals’ back stories: Why does Finch have a terrible back injury, and why is Reese such a loner? These larger arcs are supposed to encourage fans to keep tuning in each week, but they can’t be so intrusive that they alienate casual viewers and send them stretching for the remote. That’s why most shows relegate the serial to a tacked-on coda.
Established, syndication-friendly network procedurals—the CSI, NCIS, and Law & Order franchises—soft-pedal the serial stuff. These lean, mean shows win in the ratings, but they don’t often get credit from critics for their absolute mastery of the form. Tune in for an hour of CSI, and you know exactly what you’re going to get: a body, a cause of death, a dose of high-tech forensic science, and a confession.
Procedurals that try to expand on the genre’s basic formula have a much more difficult task. Consider CBS’s The Good Wife. In its third season, it’s juggling storylines about Alicia and Peter Florrick’s separation, the budding love affair between Alicia and boss Will Gardner, Peter’s new job as the Cook County state’s attorney, the financial health of the Lockhart & Gardner law firm, Eli Gold’s crisis PR practice, Kalinda Sharma’s kick-ass love life. And, oh yes, there’s also a weekly legal case. To make room for all that personal drama, the screen time devoted to the legal story has been pared down—this season, it’s never taken up more than half the show’s running time.
The Good Wife squeezes a lot into every scene (a development in the investigation can also serve as an opportunity for flirtation or conflict), but it’s still trying to weave too many threads into each episode. It’s frustrating to get only seven minutes of Eli’s scheming, and I feel bad resenting young Grace Florrick for eating up precious screen time chatting with her tutor.
The Good Wife is in some ways a victim of its own success: There’s so much to like about the show that a single episode can’t contain all the goodness. Unforgettable and Person of Interest have the opposite problem—they don’t do anything well.
Irrespective of the quality of these shows, it’s always the legal cases that get shortchanged. By cutting out the clues and the witness interviews and the blind alleys—you know, all the stuff that makes a mystery a mystery—the writers can build in more time for a series’ recurring elements. Far too many of The Good Wife’s courtroom plots, for instance, end with a last-minute bombshell courtesy of investigator Kalinda or an unexpected legal TKO. And in Unforgettable and Person of Interest, the premises themselves make depth an impossibility.
Instead of doing a crummy job solving unsatisfying mysteries, perhaps these shows should make an even more radical turn. From time to time at least, The Good Wife needs to ignore the courtroom and stick to the subplots—let Eli’s work for the cheese lobby take center stage, or focus exclusively on a showdown between Alicia and Peter. Meanwhile, Unforgettable and Person of Interest would do well to pay more attention to the big picture. If they get us thinking about larger puzzles, maybe we’ll be too distracted to fixate on the shows’ ridiculousness.