The Cure for the Common Procedural Drama | NSFHW

Idris Elba as John Luther from BBC's Luther, Mireille Enos as Sarah Linden from AMC's The Killing, and Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin from BBC/Sundance's Top of the Lake

Not Safe for Homework is a bi-monthly pop culture column from someone who spends far too much time on Netflix. If you’re looking for film and TV recommendations, look no further. But be warned: once you get hooked, your homework is collateral.

The backbone of basic cable is the procedural drama — two seemingly unrelated cases that the detectives solve after the second-to-last commercial break with unerring predictability. They’re good for turning your brain off but not much else. If you love a good mystery but are tired of the trite tropes of network TV, check out some of my recommendations. I’ve already scoured the dregs of Netflix so you don’t have to play detective.

If you’re looking for something darker, try TOP OF THE LAKE

Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin in season one of BBC and Sundance's Top of the Lake.
Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin in season one of BBC and Sundance’s Top of the Lake.

Lead by Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, who won a Golden Globe for her role in the project, this critically acclaimed miniseries from New Zealand delivers disturbing and real without holding back. Following a Child Protective Services detective who returns to her hometown to deal with the case of a pregnant 12-year-old who attempted suicide, the narrative creeps through the dark underbelly of the town’s secrets. In contrast, a group of middle-aged women lead by Holly Hunter as their pseudo-cult leader live at the opposite end of the lake in a place called Paradise.  These two worlds meet when the pregnant child goes missing. The unusual collides with the uncomfortably familiar as Moss’ character falls deeper into the darkness of her past.

Oscar-winning director Jane Campion proves a true auteur. She approaches the series from a film-making perspective, with an incredible precision and a respect for silence that is incredibly rare for television. Where the medium has never truly been considered an art form, Campion proves that it can be when treated as such. The tone builds starts heavy and only gets heavier, so keep some baby panda videos open in another tab for a breather or you’ll be in rough shape by the time you come out of it.

overall run time: under six hours
rotten tomatoes: 93%
can be found on: Netflix


If you’re looking for something more complex, try LUTHER

Idris Elba as Detective Chief Inspector John Luther in season one of BBC's Luther.
Idris Elba as Detective Chief Inspector John Luther in season one of BBC’s Luther.

Whereas many detective shows tend to idealize law enforcement as a physical manifestation of absolute justice, protagonist Detective Chief Inspector John Luther (Idris Elba) is often at odds with the proper procedures of police work, struggling with the grey area between what’s right and what’s legal. Haunted by the brilliant psychopath Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), Luther wades further and further into the shadows as the people he trusts turn against him. The interplay between characters and Elba’s incredible talent make the show a treat to watch, even when the suspense dials up the tension from mystery to thriller.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Luther is that, while it generally follows the pattern of one major case per episode, the cases themselves are intriguing, surprising and some of the most creative in the genre. The seasons are also no more than six episodes each, which makes it perfect for weekend binge-watching. However, be careful about watching at night in a dark room, because things tend to go from run-of-the-mill dark to pure nightmare-fuel.

overall run time: under six hours
rotten tomatoes: 93% averaged across three seasons
can be found on: Netflix


If you’re looking for something full of twists, try THE KILLING

Mireille Enos as Detective Sarah Linden in season three of AMC's The Killing.
Mireille Enos as Detective Sarah Linden in season three of AMC’s The Killing.

For someone truly trying to shuck the predictable formula of the procedural drama, The Killing might be just your fix. As opposed to each case being solved at the end of the episode, The Killing initially revolves around just one case: that of the murdered teenage Rosie Larsen. On her last day before moving out-of-state, Detective Linden (Mireille Enos) is drawn into the case with the quirky, newly-transferred Detective Holder (Joel Kinnaman), but each clue leads to another until Linden is obsessed with catching the killer. The breadth of the narrative allows the show to follow Rosie’s family and other seemingly unrelated groups of characters as they make their way on and off of the detectives’ suspect list.

This re-interpretation of a popular Danish series miraculously survived Americanization to develop its own life amongst the murky, damp backdrop of Seattle. Despite being cancelled by AMC after the third season, Netflix tuned in to the popularity of the show online and picked up the show for a shorter fourth season to tie up loose ends. The format of the show is perfectly suited for streaming addiction — each episode makes you want to watch another until it’s 3 A.M. and you can feel the Seattle rain on your face. While The Killing gets a bit more complicated as it goes on, it’s a series that grabs you early on. By the time it’s gotten messy, you’ll be too invested to let go.

overall run time: under six hours
rotten tomatoes: 100% for season one with a drop-off for later seasons
can be found on: Netflix

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