Thursday, July 27, 2006

Procedural comforts. Natalya is in the process of moving out. It makes me sad. Every time I look at the fridge or the table, do some laundry or stroke Meep, I feel that nasty precarious feeling of knowing it'll all be gone soon.

Instead, I will be presiding over a House of Hipsters, a term which suggests our house will be strewn with Japanese toys and framed comic book art, filled with back issues of Vice magazine and pieces of vintage clothing, and ringing with the likes of Spank Rock, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Dance with Voices.

Luckily, Natalya is a procrastinatory packer, so I get the comforts of my old house a little longer. Last night she gave me a bunch of her CDs that she now has on her computer. One of them was The Diary of Alicia Keys, which I listened to this morning while getting dressed, thinking about the comforts of soul. Another of the comforts I will miss is the routine of communally watching procedural television shows.

For a lovely while at the start of the year, it was a ritual to watch Law & Order: Special Victims Unit with Natalya, Jeremy, and occasionally Penny and Stuart. It is one of my dearest memories that one night Jeremy started rummaging in his bag and said, "I brought something for everyone," and we were all, "What? What?" and then he brought out some bottles of Liptons Iced Tea. And Natalya and I always ritualistically perform the Law & Order theme song, taking turns to be the guitar and the clarinet.

This got me thinking about the soothing rhythms of procedural television. The joy of watching it comes from how the characters, like jazz, gospel and soul musicians, improvise over a narrative structure that both performers and audience know intimately. For instance: last night was an early episode of House (we were arguing over how early) because the rhythm of the photography wasn't quite right, and you could see the narrative structures still being established. During a close-up of House walking with his cane, Foreman asks House why he isn't wearing a white coat and House replies, "Because I don't want them to know I'm a doctor." Later, the patient asks House why he uses the cane. The episode also features Foreman's inaugural break-and-enter of a patient's home (in later episodes, Foreman and Cameron are regularly dispatched to patients' houses -- something I always thought was extraordinarily out of a doctor's call of duty) and the revelation that House hired Cameron for her looks and Chase for his father's connections.

Sometimes I watch a procedural, even though it isn't particularly interesting (case in point, Numbers, a show that Channel Ten laughably claims "gets better with every episode!" -- the early ones must have been really bad), merely for the comfort in the procedure. In the Crider, Glenn Dyer is always puzzling over why viewers continue to tune in to repeats of shows: I think they do it because of this comfort.

But a really good procedural, like a really good improviser, maintains the tension between the expected and unexpected. Just as key changes drive a solo forward, the characters' reactions to new developments in the puzzles they must solve and the courtroom dances they must perform ("Objection! Hearsay!" "I'll allow it") provide the drama and enjoyment. Just as audiences thrill to an improvised melodic line that could hit a bum note at any instant, we enjoy the possibility that this time, the case will not be solved, the protagonists will make a fatal error, the villain will get away. But we always have the comfort of knowing how the song will end.

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