Concept shows were among the greatest television achievements in the last decade, establishing huge and loyal followings that lasted for years. Lost, 24, and Prison Break were the tops in the list of shows that were driven by a concept first and foremost, populated by a recurring cast of characters, whose plot lines were suspenseful but secondary to the central premise of the shows.
Each of these concept action-dramas chose a “cinematic” style so that each episode played like a short movie with a cliffhanger ending. Compare this cinematic, concept-oriented style to more traditional dramas like House, M.D., or CSI, where the action follows a set pattern with every episode and each episode ends with a clean resolution.
Though CSI has been wildly popular, it does not play like a movie. It plays like a television show – a good one by most accounts.
In the traditional television police drama (CSI, Law & Order), each episode follows a single repeated formula. A crime is discovered. The police are called in. A working hypothesis is formulated. Witnesses and suspects are questioned. You know the rest because…these shows are also known as “procedural dramas”.
The procedure is always the same. And it is the predictability of these shows that can make them so easy to follow, so ironically comforting (ironic because these are shows about murder and violent crime, yet we feel comfortable and whole when the gavel bangs at the end).
Contrasting the predictability of procedural police and medical dramas are the concept shows of the 2000’s.
In 24, Kiefer Sutherland plays Jack Bauer, a super-patriotic killing machine who manages to get into the middle of terrorist crises year after year, defusing them and leaving bodies in his path. There is a degree of predictability to 24 too, but it is not a formulaic or episodic predictability.
Though we know that in the end the terrorists will lose and Jack Bauer will win, in any given episode anything can happen.
Similarly in Prison Break, the audience knows from the get go that there will be a prison break. It’s in the title. We also know they will make it, because the prisoners are presented as the “good guys”.
However, we don’t know how they are going to pull it off.
For both 24 and Prison Break the question for each season was always “how will they do it this time?” as opposed to the police procedural dramas where we ask a very different kind of question. “What will they plug into the formula this time?”
Here we see the primary characteristic of a concept show. The premise of 24 is of utmost importance. It is only the premise that structures the show. Beyond the inevitable terrorist plot, there was nothing guaranteed about a season of 24. Only the concept was certain; only the broadest strokes of subject matter.