Scott Caan discovers culture’s secret machinery

Producing TV that’s fresh and interesting is a challenge.

The moment we, the audience, gets a whiff of formula, we’re gone.

What’s an actor to do?  If he’s Scott Caan, there’s not one problem but three.

First, he’s got a part in a police procedural.  If there is something that is over-formed and formulaic it’s the police procedural, that great work horse of American television.  (I’m guessing that between them the Law and Order and CSI series produced maybe 10% of prime time.)  We know this formula inside out.

Second, Caan is playing a familiar character (Danno).  Third, he’s playing this character on a once famous show (Hawaii Five-O).  So Caan is trebly bound: familiar character, familiar show, familiar form.  Caan had virtually no degrees of freedom. His hands were tied. He was virtually obliged to "phone it in."

Caan found a way out of this artistic captivity.  As he told Entertainment Weekly,

The last thing I wanted to end up being was a cliche.  I wanted to be fresh and different, so I actually based my character on a criminal

Hey presto. You play "criminal" and when this gets strained through "cop," something magical happens.  We the audience can’t see "criminal" any longer. But "cop" looks a little like something we haven’t seen before.  This cop zigs when we expect him to zag.  Who knows what he’s going to do next.

It’s a clever tactic.  It would be interesting to know if this is something Caan devised or whether it is a traditional tactic in the actor’s skill set.

Let’s assume the former and call this the Caanian culturematic, a way to make popular culture that does not feel like predictable culture.


McCracken, Grant. 2009.  Culturematic: a device for making culture in two easy steps.  This Blog Sits At The Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  September 21.  here.

Rice, Lynette.  2010.  Scott Caan: Fall TV’s new action star.  Entertainment Weekly. November 5. here.

2 thoughts on “Scott Caan discovers culture’s secret machinery

  1. Lauren

    Interesting piece on the value of starting from the opposite of what’s expected (whether it’s an performance or an idea). But one thing that doesn’t ring true is the idea that formulaic equals audience erosion. For the week ending November 7th, ‘Criminal Minds’ was the top scripted show amongst total viewers. There is more than a ‘whiff’ of formula there. Procedurals are still king – perhaps not fresh, but definitely popular.

    1. Grant Post author

      Lauren, point well taken, some of the procedurals are extremely procedural, but I think we can see them working hard to enliven the formula, making them a little less procedural. You know that moment, when you can see something coming a long way off and the sense of weariness that ensues. I think this is why The Good Guys failed. It was formulaic to a fault, it was predictable. Thanks for your comment.

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