The Rise of the Design Procedural: Why Rogers and Cantwell Didn’t Want to Write Another Show About Police or Doctors
This is an excerpt from Deena Denaro’s larger thesis portfolio titled “The Rise of the Design Procedural: Exploring Design’s Narrative Agency in Serial Television.” It is a part of the Class of 2020’s graduate thesis presentation “Statements from Isolation.”
Is that a fish tank?
A distressed Texas twang is punctuated by the well-timed bell of an elevator, “1.3 million dollars (ding!) in twenty days and you just, you just understand?!?” As the doors open Lee Pace’s character, the charismatic project leader Joe McMillan is justifying his R&D expenditures to Senior VP of their fictional company John Bosworth, (played by Toby Huss). Then Bosworth catches the bizarre site: a motherboard submerged in a fish tank full of mineral oil. McMillan explains that it’s an improvised cooling device designed to enable computer chips to run above the speeds they were designed to.
This opening sequence from the fourth episode of AMC’s Halt & Catch Fire, a period drama about the personal computing revolution is a master class in expository dialogue and this strangely specific detail is not just a literal life hack, but it’s a functional prop which aids the exposition conveyed in this scene. With one bizarre visual we understand that “designing the future” is not only expensive but also complicated and sometimes messy. The scene, enhanced by two eye-rolling computer nerds and a treasure chest air filter thrown into the tank underscores the dorky sense of office humor circa 1980 and transports us into this particular world, the active setting of what I call a “Design Procedural.”
In the fall of 2019, I began to formulate a theory that the design procedural is an emerging new sub-genre on serial television. But first let’s get down to basics: what is a procedural? A procedural television drama is one that focuses on the technical aspects of a practice or profession. Episodes typically have a self-contained plot where the problem or conflict is introduced and resolved within the same episode. This stand-alone format does not require the viewer to have seen previous episodes. The police, legal and medical professions are typically featured in procedural dramas like Bosch or How to Get Away with Murder but shows like The West Wing, and The Newsroom (both created by Aaron Sorkin) expand the subject matter covered by procedurals.
The Television will be Revolutionized!
Writing at the forefront of the changing nature of television in 2007, Amanda Lotz’s book The Television Will Be Revolutionized outlines how the technological transition from network broadcasting to streaming-video-on-demand (SVOD) platforms have changed consumption patterns. As distribution and scheduling evolved in the “post-network” era, broadcasting gave way to “narrowcasting,” audiences became increasingly fragmented, and ratings have become inconsequential. Today the key factor in determining whether a television show is successful is no longer high ratings measured on the date that a show airs but rather how many people view the series through to the season finale. This shift in ratings and metrics allowed Dr. Lotz to coin the term “Phenomenal Television” as a predecessor to the term “Prestige Drama” commonly used today.
Lotz proposes that despite the changes in the post-network era, phenomenal television retains the cultural importance of earlier “prime time” programming. These types of programs achieved “water-cooler status” in that they sparked discussion in our everyday lives because of “their ability to break through the cluttered media landscape while still percolating under the radar of mainstream society.” Today a prestige drama is one that has high production values and the ability to create critical engagement and online fan theorizing. These act as a calling card to attract viewers to the series over time, as opposed to all at once.
But in addition to technological changes, there are cultural changes influencing television. Our transition from an industrial society to a data-driven one has changed the nature of our employment from manual labor to knowledge work. This shift means that television is slowly moving from police, legal, and medical procedurals to office procedurals like the Aaron Sorkin shows mentioned previously. However, because conflict (a necessary element for a good drama) is more prevalent in the creative process, these office dramas usually end up being what I call “Design Procedurals.”
So what exactly is a design procedural? It’s a term I developed to describe a television series that depicts a behind-the-scenes look at the process of design or innovation. Much more than gorgeous costumes and stylish backdrops, design shows up as an active character where the technical procedures interact with dramatic aspects of a series to create character-driven conflict. Typically a design procedural focuses on the production of design, rather than its consumption (think Amazon Studio’s series The Collection about a Parisian fashion house as opposed to HBO’s Sex and the City), but shows like Westworld can offer poignant commentary on both.
In a series of reviews for Time magazine television critic James Poniewozik offers speculative support for the proliferation of the design procedural. In 2014, Mr. Poniewozik declared Halt And Catch Fire (HACF) “refreshing for showing that the simple drive to create a thing of your own can power a story.” In another article, he called for “more dramas about the magic and pain associated in trying to build and dream.” At the time that HACF creators Christopher C. Rogers and Chris Cantwell were pitching the series, television executives were also ready for this change. Coming off the recent failures of the conspiracy thriller Rubicon and the moody, character-driven detective procedural The Killing, Executive Vice President of Programming for AMC Studios, Ben Davis recalled: “We were really interested in trying to tap into that world — into the spirit of innovation, and the tech world specifically.”
Weird and Specific
When Cantwell and Rogers first decided to write together they initially discussed telling a story with the theme of “men under pressure.” However, because they saw stories about doctors or police officers as a well-trod territory in television, they took inspiration from quirky office dramas like Glengarry Glen Ross. While speaking with Christopher C. Rogers he told me
If you look at Glengarry Glen Ross, those guys are selling real estate parcels, and there was just something weird and specific about that. So when we landed on this kind of an early tech boom, we felt like there was an opportunity there to use the [specific] language and make people surprised that they enjoyed spending time in this world that could be seen from the outside as dry or nerdy or inaccessible.… That’s the transporting quality of television; to take you someplace you didn’t think you’d want to go.
It was important to Rogers and Cantwell that the show is set in an environment “that had bearing on our modern lives, but at the same time felt unexplored.” Based on the professional experiences of Chris Cantwell’s father, the world they ultimately chose for exploration in HACF was the Texas of the early 1980s known as the “Silicon Prairie.” Often seen as the backwaters of this early computer boom, there was actually a lot of below-the-radar innovation happening there, which struck a chord for Rogers and Cantwell. The pair were intrigued by these obscure figures and settings of the tech industry, while Davis loved the idea that it approached the world through the eyes of the lesser-known players instead of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.
But the setting and characters are not the only innovative element in HACF. The computer industry’s transition from the hardware to software also led the writing duo to uncharted territory both on-screen and in the writer’s room. From Bewitched to Blackish and Melrose Place to Mad Men the profession of advertising has been television’s go-to framework, acting as a device that reflects the fears, needs, and desires that make us human. Now computers (i.e. hardware and software design), and by extension, design itself is becoming television’s answer to advertising. And the genius of HACF is that it chronicles what Poniewozik argues is “a time when computer software was moving from becoming mainly a tool to run calculations and solve problems to being a means for externalizing the self.” Poniewozik further argues that “philosophically, HACF is doing precisely what Mad Men did: it’s showing how work, and the products of that work, express character.”
Over the course of our chat, Rogers tells me an industry joke about medical procedurals, saying that “on ER and shows like that, they used to write the interpersonal stuff and then write ‘medical, medical, medical’, and have the consultants fill this in later. This isn’t a shot at ER, but, I didn’t want us to be that kind of writers’ room, because I thought the computer engineering stuff was fascinating when I learned it, I was excited and I thought, ‘Well, could this show make other people feel at home in this world?’”
The journey’s the same.
The design world is a natural choice for television drama because the emotional journey of design is similar to the emotional journey of a character. Rogers agreed, telling me that he felt the design process mirrored the creative process of screenwriting.
I think there’s an increasing desire to take people into design-type spaces because I think it mirrors the character story, too. Whether we’re Cameron [the rebellious coder] and Donna [the do-it-all-mom climbing the corporate ladder] or we’re Gordon [the pragmatic engineer] and Joe [the visionary entrepreneur], I think the process of putting yourself out there and making a creative thing is the same in the design space as it is in the writing space. And so to the extent that we could identify with those things personally, I think that show reflected that.
But it’s not just a hyper-stylised portrayal of design that engages us, it’s the magic and pain of building one’s dream that we identify with and keeps us coming back week after week. Rogers points out
Design is also the football we’re constantly pulling out from under Charlie Brown. The characters are always succeeding only to then see that there’s the other thing that’s succeeded more. So design is some stand-in for perfection or fulfillment or actualization for these people, and therefore it’s this unattainable goal. It’s like “we did it or it doesn’t matter.” It’s their validation. That’s where they’re all chasing. And I feel like we break that into increments, little things people figure out: the two-sided motherboard, the flat screen, being the first one to the internet in later seasons.
In the first season especially, design is both the weapon of HACF’s characters and their Achilles’ heel. The idea is that they were smarter and more nimble than IBM but that at the end of the season, they realized that even as they were fighting with “Big Blue,” there was a whole other kind of game being played by Apple they weren’t even aware of.
Overall, the success of HACF comes from the ability with the show’s creators to empathize with their characters.
“We were able to kind of successfully map the idea of creativity in a technical space onto creativity in a writing space…. In a sense, HACF can be viewed as a show about the creative process of working with partners and the struggles of collaboration. There are huge parts of the story that are intensely personal, reflecting my relationship with Chris Cantwell.
Another point to support the rise of design dramas is the notion of internal versus external forces. In a design drama it’s the power of persuasion, not the threat of violence or a gun that drives or resolves the conflict. Rogers said, “We made this point really early on that Halt was going to be a show with no guns, that the stakes were going to be really personal and that it was going to have to be about people convincing other people to do things or, forcing people to do other things without external drivers like weapons.”
The idea of trying to convince people to change the way they think or act without using external forces is a timely practice for this polarized post-truth era, not just here in America but the world over. Rogers points out that when the conflict is purely internal it leads writers to make better choices in the writers’ room instead of opting for the shortcut that a threat of force or danger imposes. “It keeps you honest. When you put something external in a scene like that, it ends the need for you to really play it out. The most interesting things begin at the point where both characters could still win in the scene versus ending the scene before that can happen.”
Are the bits & bytes enough?
Considering that a 2016 reboot of MacGyver, the show that actually spawned a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary meaning “to make or repair (an object) in an improvised or inventive way, making use of whatever items are at hand” has failed to capture a new audience, is the framework of a design procedural enough to carry a show? When AMC chose Jonathan Lisco as the showrunner for HACF, he wasn’t convinced that he was the best person for the job. At that point, he wasn’t yet a technophile and wondered if there was “enough stakes in the bits and the bytes,” saying the subject matter did not “dramatically blow your hair back.” But when Lisco met with AMC he was given free rein to create those stakes and make the show more character-driven. This along with Rogers and Cantwell’s knowledge and enthusiasm was what sold him on the project.
Rogers himself talks about using the procedural aspect as a framework, but not ultimately as content.
In our early talks about the show we thought it was going to be much more like “Component of the Week.” What we were doing was taking a season and building a computer. This week might be about the case, and the next week might be about the flat screen. And this week might be about the chip, with the two-sided motherboard.
But then we asked… “well what does this show do that other shows don’t?” And the answer was that it tries to combine tech and design with this idea that people who create things are putting themselves into the things they create. This is one of the biggest pieces of the show. We’re gonna go inside these machines, talk about how the brains of these people work, and how the brains of these people kind of end up imprinting on the finished product.
So while the procedural aspect was initially a huge part of developing HACF, it didn’t end up like this, which most critics think was for the better. Rogers reflects “for us, both personally and what you see on screen, it has been the story of learning to listen to your show and let it become what it wants to be, not what you thought it was going to be.”
This sparked a small crisis in my research. It made me momentarily wonder if my thesis was perhaps barking up the wrong tree. Now that I’ve done a full nine months arguing the idea that design procedurals can be a refreshing new genre, I suddenly realized that procedurals are often criticized for being formulaic, are usually less character-driven than serialized shows, and generally produce less engagement than a prestige drama. Was I completely wrong?
The answer lay in fuzzy semantics and was already evident in my earliest framework: using drama and procedural interchangeably, when in fact they are polar opposites.
In today’s streaming landscape dramas are usually “serial,” which means that its plot is continuous, unfolding episode-by-episode in sequential order. In a serial drama, the main story arcs span entire seasons or even the full length of the series. While as mentioned before, procedurals are traditionally episodic where the central story is resolved within the same episode. Part of the genius of Mad Men was that the series mixed both episodic and serial conventions combining the satisfaction of episodic closure with the depth of serial accumulation.
Similar to Gordon Clark, the computer engineer in HACF who reconnects with his repressed intellect after a previous commercial failure, the answer has been stored in deep memory all along, just waiting to be accessed. In a rousing scene where lead sales executive Joe McMillan attempts to recruit Gordon for his clandestine project to reverse engineer IBM’s personal computer, Joe inspiringly quotes Gordon’s own theories back to him and then contextualizes it by saying “Computers aren’t the thing! They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” Whether episodic or serial, it’s usually character-driven stories that create the most compelling television. This is especially true if, like Gordon, a protagonist is an “Everyman” construct, in which a mild-mannered character is thrust into extraordinary circumstances. This allows the audience to imagine themselves in the same scenario as a character without having to possess the same knowledge, skills, or abilities in order to succeed in the challenge outlined in the story. While design procedures can offer the framework for this conflict, it’s the choices a character makes under pressure, not procedure, that drive a narrative. And so I’ve come to conclude:
Design isn’t the story. It’s the story that gets us to the story!