The Procedural Formula
Here’s a simple formula for destroying an original idea by adapting it for television: take a film (or comic book) series and shoehorn it into a format suited for syndication. The defaults you’ll find on network television are: ER clones, law firm look a-likes, New York ad agency stories, the monster of the week, and the cop drama. When in doubt, go with the cop drama.
Find someone in the source material with a unique ability. Reduce them to a roving freelance detective who plays by his own rules. I specify “his” because the maverick on network TV is almost always a “He,” (iZombie is one of the few exceptions).
Pair your maverick with a by the book detective who happens to be without a partner. This role is usually played by a buxom bombshell, the type of woman Chris Carter said Fox wanted him to cast as Agent Scully on The X-Files.
Use your maverick’s quirky ability to solve the murders of bland under developed characters. Tease an overarching mystery to keep us hooked: the type of serialized mythology we wish we were watching all along. Finally hint at the possibility that the platonic partners have a romantic interest. Draw their feelings out beyond believability. Wait to cash in their feelings at an awkward time in their relationship, like when your show gets canceled.
If this formula sounds familiar it’s because you’ve seen many variations of it on: The Mentalist, Castle, Sleepy Hollow, John Doe, Forever, and many other shows.
This fall season’s latest crop of cop-schlock ensures audiences will see all those tropes again.
Minority Report is a sci fi thriller that dares to ask the question if our fourth amendment right to reasonable searches and seizures extends to our possible futures. The TV show is about a psychic who can’t help but betray that moral, by using his gift to thwart crimes before they happen… Oh, and he has a by the book female partner.
Limitless is a film about a loser writer who discovers his potential with a brain boosting wonder drug called EZT, and all the horrible things he has to do to maintain his dosage. The TV show is about a guy who uses EZT to solve crimes… Oh, and he has a by the book female partner.
Lucifer is a comic book series about the devil retiring from hell and doing everything he can to flee God’s creation. The TV show is about how Lucifer retires from hell to help solve crimes. In this case, Lucifer’s arcane knowledge proved too abstract for TV, so they borrowed Daniel Radcliffe’s ability to make sinners confess from the film Horns… Oh, and Lucifer has a by the book female partner.
Also, based on these three trailers, stubble seems to be in this year.
Let’s Turn Everything into a Cop Drama
Here are some more film franchises the networks can ruin by adapting them for television:
Idiocracy… as a cop drama
An average unremarkable police officer accidentally runs down a mob boss during a raid. A career making arrest turns into a suspension hearing when it’s revealed the officer forgot to read the boss his rights. Down on his luck the officer submits to the Human Hibernation Research Study, believing he’ll be put under for five days. Instead he’s frozen for five hundred years.
The officer wakes up to find the world has devolved into a waste-scape where morons have outbred intellectuals, where everyone is dependent on technology that’s been automated for centuries, and the police are hapless to stop the violence. The officer re-enlists in the force where he discovers he’s the Sherlock Holmes of his time. The department quickly pairs him off with the most decorated cop on the force; an up-speaking valley girl by today’s standards, but a genius in the future.
Together they catch the dumbest criminals imaginable: thugs caught playing with the murder weapon when our duo comes knocking. The ongoing mythology could pit the officer against an average criminal who’s also woken up in the future (think Demolition Man if both characters were morons).
A Nightmare on Elm Street… as a cop drama
The quiet midwestern town of Springwood is being stalked by a sadistic killer. Each victim is eviscerated in broad daylight and there are always signs of a struggle. The town’s folk have whitewashed all records of Freddy Krueger, the serial killer that haunted their children’s nightmares, but Nancy, a head strong police officer, remembers hearing whispers. She looks into Freddy’s supernatural slayings and finds that this recent string of deaths don’t fit his M.O.
Still, Nancy can’t help but fall asleep with Freddy on the brain. Her fear of Freddy Krueger is enough to summon him into her nightmare. Nancy finds Freddy an emaciated husk of his former self, starving for souls. He doesn’t even have the strength to injure her. As Nancy investigates the daytime slaying she realizes they were done by more than one culpret. When she tells the sheriff she senses a conspiracy, he tells her to drop it.
Desperate, Nancy turns to the weakened dream dweller for help. She offers Freddy the conspirators’ souls if he can uncover the mystery. Reluctantly he agrees.
Mary Poppins… as a cop drama.
And you thought P. L. Travers hated Disney’s adaptation.
Bert is a grizzled cockney copper with one last assignment before retirement. He has to find out who killed George Banks, an investment banker with ties to London’s criminal underground. When he arrives at the crime scene at Cherry Tree Lane he learns the children have hired their own investigator: Mary Poppins. She introduces herself as a private detective “Who’s practically perfect in every way.”
Bert finds himself lagging behind Mary at each stage of his investigation, arriving at crime scenes she’s turned upside down. Bert decides that if he wants to get anywhere he’ll have to tail her. He learns Mary’s results come from her magical abilities, contacts in the supernatural underworld, and the enchanted objects she always keeps on her person. The pair pool their resources. Bert gives Marry access to the department’s files while she shares her tools: a bottomless evidence bag that contains an entire forensics lab, a surveillance drone in the shape of a kite, and a talking gun.
Bert can’t help but admire Mary’s methods. She’s an expert interrogator, making her suspects sing through actual song, infiltrating hideouts by floating on the ceiling, and getting intel from talking animals. The pair make a formidable team.
Here are More Franchise to Ruin by Putting Them on Television:
- A Harry Potter procedural where Potter consults on cases involving wizard on muggle violence.
- A Santa Claus procedural where Santa repurposes his network of elf confidential informants to tell him which suspects have been naughty and which have been nice.
- A Tron procedural where Sam investigates cyber crimes represented by actual crime scenes on the game grid.
- The Matrix as a procedural about an agent charged with tracking down rogue programs who casue glitches that threaten to expose the system.
Can you think of a franchise to ruin by adapting it for television? Please share your pitches in the comments.