William & Mary

Q&A with Caldwell: A new cop-show formula

The College’s writer-in-residence, Ian Caldwell, writer for "The Evidence,” a television series scheduled to premier on ABC in March, talks about coming up with and selling a new-formula production in Hollywood.


Q: How did you identify the classic cop-show formula?

Caldwell: We watched hundreds of hours of cop shows, good and bad, from “Murder She Wrote” and “Matlock” to “Law & Order” and “CSI.” We did it partly because we like cop shows and partly to develop our understanding of how to structure a mystery story. The hardest part is mastering the delivery of information. You have to ensure that the story is mysterious without making it silly or uninteresting, and it has to continue to be mysterious for the entire duration while somehow seeming progressively “less” mysterious as the investigator figures it out. Say too little, and the audience gets bored; say too much, and the audience figures it out before the protagonist.

Q: Why does “The Evidence” represent a new formula?

Cast of The Evidence

Caldwell: The idea behind “The Evidence” is that, by showing viewers the five key pieces of evidence in a murder investigation at the very beginning of the episode, before the investigators themselves start the case, we as writers are able to create a new relationship with the viewer. The viewer starts to piece together the case even before the action begins, and we can manipulate those expectations in a way traditional cop shows can’t, because while the audience knows a piece of evidence is coming, there are no guarantees in what context it will appear, or what significance it will have. By decontextualizing the evidence, in other words, and titillating the viewer with a mini-chronology of the crime at the beginning of the episode, we can play a cat-and-mouse game that exists entirely above the heads of the fictional characters in the show. I can’t say definitively that it’s a new formula; in fact, I suspect there’s nothing new under the sun. But I do think it’s innovative relative to the current marketplace of ideas. And as NBC used to say about its reruns, if you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.

Q: Does “Hollywood” want a new formula?

Caldwell: The major networks “think” they want a new formula. But only in situations of utter desperation do they resort to a fearless implementation of a great idea. When a network is in the ratings cellar, it’ll often try new things: ABC’s gamble with “Lost” is a perfect example. The network was struggling and took a big risk on a very expensive, very different kind of pilot episode. It’s now one of the most popular shows, not just in America but globally. Then ABC and NBC got a little lazy and tried to reproduce the success of “Lost” this season with a few new shows that rehashed a similar formula, and viewers weren’t interested. In the case of a cop show, we found that our creative agenda didn’t always fit in the niche the network had created for us. They didn’t want us to reinvent the formula as much as I wanted us to. And as someone who likes to control the creative process from soup to nuts, I didn’t like the amount of compromise involved.

Photo: Cast of "The Evidence.” Courtesy ABC.