Unresolved Sexual Tension: Secret Weapon of the CBS Crime Drama

In addition to my day job, I teach a class at NYU on the Television Industry. Each class, in addition to a specific lesson plan, the students and I usually touch on the top shows of the week -- what they watch, what America watches; the overlaps and the disparities.

Each week, as we go over the week's most watched shows, at least one student asks: "Who the hell watches NCIS, anyway?"

NCIS, now in its 9th season, just celebrated its 200th episode as the most watched TV show of the week. Not one of my students, aged 18-21, has ever seen an episode. CBS currently has 11 dramas in primetime that, despite regularly and overwhelmingly winning their time slots are watched by relatively few of us in the Media Elite Bubbles of New York and Los Angeles.

CSI, CSI NY, CSI Miami, NCIS, NCIS Los Angeles, Criminal Minds, Person of Interest, The Mentalist, Unforgettable, Hawaii Five-0 and Blue Bloods -- are all legitimate hit shows that I bet few reading this post have seen. Yet, they all are consistently in the Top 25 non sports TV shows every week -- most after many seasons on the air. (CSI is in its 12th season, CSI: Miami its 10th, Criminal Minds its 7th, NCIS its 9th). The question, then, is: Who is watching these shows, and WHY?

WHO: It is a gross oversimplification to say that these shows appeal only to older people. Ok, yes, the shows do draw older audiences than most popular and buzz-worthy cable and Broadcast shows such as American Idol, Parks & Rec or New Girl. But despite an average age of 57, NCIS often draws a larger total audience than Idol, while Criminal Minds, CSI and The Mentalist regularly draw more of the "coveted 18-49 demo" than Family Guy, The Simpsons and The Bachelor. And although CBS is second to FOX for the season in Adults 18-49, on the strength of these shows, CBS is ahead of all other networks in total viewers by at least 30%. In short, A LOT of people watch these shows.

WHY: It is an imprudent generalization to say these shows work because they are 'Crime' shows. Ok, yes, they are all crime shows. However, if crime were the only qualification for large audiences, then Prime Suspect, The Finder and even poor Chuck would be hits. In fact, other than on CBS, there are few crime shows working on broadcast TV right now -- even the venerable SVU has hit hard times. While there is no question that the "self-contained-crime-drama" format is a big part of why these shows are ratings machines, it is not the ONLY reason. Like a TV version of Moneyball, there is something more to the CBS Crime Drama Magic, and I believe I have cracked the code.

My theory can be summed up in three words: UNRESOLVED SEXUAL TENSION.

The hypothesis has its roots in a throw-away comment over breakfast with a friend the other day. She works at a website that tracks data on every show on TV. I was paying the check, when she said, almost in passing; "Did you know that Cote de Pablo is one of the most searched names in TV?" To which I replied, "Who?"

Cote de Pablo is a supporting actress on NCIS. She plays Ziva David, a former Mossad agent who joined the NCIS Unit in the show's second season. In addition to being a kick-ass agent, Ziva is engaged in one of the most successful passive-aggressive flirtations in TV history with agent Tony DiNozzo, played by Michael Weatherly. Yet, the writers have steadfastly avoided the typical "will-they-won't-they" plot lines that have been the center of -- and death of -- many, many TV shows. Oh, the tension is there alright -- in the air of almost every episode, in the very DNA of the series -- but it never truly takes center stage, and never even remotely seems close to resolution.

NCIS is the most pronounced example of the Unresolved Sexual Tension (UST) dynamic. However, upon closer inspection, CBS seems to employ the device in every one of its top rated crime dramas. Yes, the 'Will-They-Won't-They' device (WTWT) is as old as TV itself. However, the CBS variant is most definitely NOT cut from the classic Sam-and-Diane, Maddie-and-Dave, Rachel-and-Ross, Mulder-and-Scully mold. Unlike each of these -- which all ended with consummation -- the CBS dramas never allow the subjects to invade the other's... space. There are no lingering stares or shared moments -- just witty banter and a shared interest in getting the bad guys. Ziva and Tony are the epitome of this relationship; and one of the key reasons NCIS is stronger than ever, despite having an incredibly limiting premise. Who could imagine that there would be 200-plus hours worth of plot at a crime scene investigation unit for the Navy? Really? And yet...

NCIS: LA has Blye (Daniela Ruah) and Deeks (Eric Christian Olsen). All three CSIs have central male-female duos that are remarkably close, yet not too close. Person of Interest is brewing an intriguing non-relationship-relationship in Carter (Taraji P. Henson) and Reese (Jim Caviezel). Unforgettable has the raciest coupling -- exes Carrie (Poppy Montgomery) and Al (Dylan Walsh) now work together on cases, but the writers gave Carrie a near supernatural condition that allows her to remember everything, something that would make it impossible for any woman to reunite with her ex. The Mentalist has perhaps my favorite pairing of the group in Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) and Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney), who fans refer to as Jisbon. Their UST is pretty thick, and threatens to test the limits of the CBS mold. But my bet is that the writers will leave unresolved, choosing series longevity over copulation.

This particular strain of hetero interplay is a twist on the classic trope. It's a cunning mix of Will-They-Won't-They (WTWT), Like-Brother-and-Sister (LBaS) and We're-Just-Friends (WJF), with a dash of Platonic-Life-Partners (PLP); and two shots of Unresolved-Sexual-Tension (UST) -- all poured over a classic Procedural Crime Drama Format (PCDF).

Expressed as a formula:


This hormonal brew allows each show to be shallow enough to appeal to a broad audience, yet engaging enough to keep them coming back, week after week after week after week after week. Mock if you want -- and if recent postings are a gauge, many of you will -- but you simply cannot argue with the success. These shows have aired a collective 1270 episodes and are among the most watched (in some cases THE most watched) series on TV right now. In fact, CBS has six dramas in the Top 25 Most-Watched Shows of the 2011-2012 season; no other network has even one.

And, having watched almost all of them -- either for this piece, or in the course of my normal life -- I must admit; for whatever reason, they are incredibly entertaining. Life-changing? No. Groundbreaking? No. The best of what TV does? No. But, with these shows, CBS has done something truly remarkable. By introducing Unresolved Sexual Tension into the traditional Holmes-Watson Bromance -- while still managing to still keep it all safely platonic -- they have breathed new life into the staid Procedural Crime Drama Format and found a way to extend the shelf life of many seemingly unremarkable series far longer than could be expected on another platform. They have created series that punch far above their weight, and, in the process, they have created an unparalleled stranglehold on the Broadcast Drama.

So, to those of you plotting out your next Procedural Pilot Script, I give you this:


An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that 'Criminal Minds' is in its 8th season.