There's a mantra being repeated by the creators and stars of fall's new TV dramas: ''It's. Not. A. Procedural.'' Though viewers love their Law & Orders and CSIs impersonal, plot-driven crime franchises Hollywood execs now seem to be going against their better ratings judgment to get attention and critical respect.
''Bones is not CSI: Washington, D.C.,'' announces Hart Hanson, creator of the Fox series about forensics experts aiding the FBI. ''It's like we took what CSI does and smushed it with West Wing.'' Jeff Davis, creator of Criminal Minds (a CBS series about FBI profilers), considers his show a ''suspense thriller. Suspense is built on characters we have to care about them to fear for them.'' Actors agree. ''I love watching procedurals,'' says Bones star Emily Deschanel. But given the plight of, say, L&O's Elisabeth Rohm, who learned in her final scene that her character was actually a lesbian (''I knew what L&O was when I took the job,'' reassures Rohm), Deschanel points out that ''We don't know what's going on with the characters. As an actor, that's hard.''
One cautionary tale: Last season, CSI: NY gave Gary Sinise inner pain to gnaw on and wound up a franchise-low 21st in the ratings. What did CSI creator Anthony Zuiker learn? ''It's fine to have splashes of character, but people are in love with the procedure and the science.''
So which way to go crime or character development? Here's some free advice from Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry, who knows from both: ''As long as someone does a procedural that's fresh and inventive, people will find it.'' It's a little long for a mantra, but we've heard worse.