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Journal of Film and Video 60.1 (2008) 43-59

Policing Propp:
Toward a Textualist Definition of the Procedural Drama
Chandler Harriss

A large degree of unexamined complexity attends each individual act of television viewing. Viewers negotiate narrative mazes and give little thought to the work they expend in that negotiation or to the organizing design of the maze itself. There are, of course, many ways that the critic can bring that design to the foreground. In the 1970s and 1980s, attempts were made to import Russian formalist methods—originally developed for literary criticism in the 1920s—into film and television studies. These attempts were most successful when applied to genre and narrative—providing systematic methods for making that step from the specifics of numerous, potentially related narrative texts to the general, recurring design of a true genre. Interest in such methods has waned in recent years, but I argue here that they can still provide valuable insights into the taken-for-granted narrative structures of contemporary television. In particular, I adapt Vladimir Propp's method for analyzing Russian folktales to a single television genre—the procedural drama.

For the purpose of this study, the procedural is a variant of the detective story, which is itself a variant of the mystery, globally speaking. Procedurals filter the ratiocinative action through characters who actively investigate the mystery for the viewer, following procedures that are prescribed by their professions (e.g., police detectives, forensic scientists, etc.). Despite the fact that I selected this sample solely from cop shows, the current study does not mean to suggest that the procedural narrative structure is limited to one specific profession and thus to one specific genre. It can be found in cop shows, detective shows, doctor shows, Westerns, and even cartoons. Of course semantic changes to this structure—if the lead character, for example, is a cowboy on the frontier rather than a private eye—will undoubtedly change viewers' interpretations. However, interpretive changes do not necessarily indicate fundamental structural changes, and Propp's method provides a way for scholars to uncover and define the core narrative structure for a variety of texts. Once the narrative structure has been adequately defined, it may be particularly useful for tracking similar narrative structures across different genres.

In Television: Critical Methods and Applications, Jeremy Butler recognizes that most conceptions of television genre fall into three often overlapping categories. These categories are audience response, style, and subject matter. Butler goes on to say that the third category—subject matter—forms the foundation for most genres. By subject matter Butler means that most, but not all, genres are formed initially by common narrative or thematic links that are largely fixed within the text(s). Butler presents Propp's method as exemplary of a generic approach based on narrative subject matter. Other critics have discussed this subject matter slightly differently. In Rick Altman's terms, Propp's method is rooted in the narrative structure's syntactic axis, as opposed to its themes [End Page 43] or to some other element originating on the semantic axis, the axis that commonly founds definitions of film genre.

When Propp began his work on the folktale, or more specifically the wonder tale, he first attempted to define this genre thematically. He quickly abandoned this effort when he recognized that themes are too mutable. He shifted his focus to the way these narratives were structured around character actions, and he found that these actions were less inconstant. In essence, Propp believed that there was a science to analyzing storytelling and that narrative structure was the most consistent producer of true generic categories. In this light, it is likely he would argue that stable definitions of genres cannot be based primarily on audience responses because these responses are likely to shift over time. In other words, the assumption that genres are wholly culturally defined categories may encourage scholars to dispense with methodical analyses of the texts themselves and jump to conclusions, conclusions that may very well be colored by the...


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