Created By: jthayne on July 13, 2013 Last Edited By: 69BookWorM69 on June 4, 2016
Troped

One Case at a Time

A case starts and is solved within one episode.

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In real crime solving, a case can sometimes take months or years to wrap up. Yet in TV drama, a case is opened a closed within days — never more time than can be shown in a single a episode. Further — and this is what this trope is about — the protagonist is only ever investigating one case at a time. While real detectives likely have several concurrent cases, in TV drama detectives are rarely shown to investigate more than one crime at a time. The detectives will focus every waking moment/work hour on that one case until it gets solved, and will never shelve it — even for a few hours — to investigate some other crime in the meantime. If a detective character is shown or said to be working on a different case, it will nearly always be connected and hold a vital clue to the main case. Otherwise, in shows that have A plots and B plots, the B plots are usually something related to the detective character's personal life rather than the case-of-the-week.

One big reason for this is the Law of Conservation of Detail. In other words, we only see the detective on that particular case because that's what the story is about, so this apparent single-mindedness is only apparent. We don't see every toilet break, meal, or sleep cycle (presumably the detective continues to meet their bodily needs unless otherwise specified). The audience will hear that the sleuth went to see someone later the same day or the next morning or whatever, and this may be visually indicated with editing cuts, a shot of the new location, and/or a music cue that suggests the passage of time.

It's also true that Cop Shows and detective fiction lend themselves to the Stand Alone Episode structure; each episode/novel/short story is about a particular case, and most of the participants are often never heard from again once the case is solved. This is supported by real-life methods of organization such as the case file (for an individual crime event or victim) and the courtroom trial (of a particular culprit for one or more discrete crimes).

From the creators' point of view, it is easier to attract new viewers if those newcomers don't have to be up to speed on a multi-episode Story Arc. This desire to attract and grow an audience used to weigh more heavily than considerations of realism. Thus, a string of one-offs was standard for cop and detective dramas until the advent of Hill Street Blues in the 1980s. Since that show had success with audiences and critics, shows with multiple plot lines in each installment and multi-episode story arcs have become much more common, and shows with this structure somewhat less so.

As this is an Omnipresent Trope, No Examples, Please.
Community Feedback Replies: 26
  • July 14, 2013
    Arivne
    Live Action TV
    • Adam Twelve. The cases involve situations that Officers Reed and Malloy encounter while patrolling the streets of Los Angeles.
    • Cagney And Lacey. The protagonists are police detectives who are assigned specific cases to work on by their boss.
    • Chips. Much like Adam Twelve, the cases are crimes that Ponch and Jon run into on California's streets and highways.
    • Columbo. The title character is a homicide lieutenant investigating and solving murders.
    • Dragnet. Joe Friday and his partner demonstrate correct police procedure as they solve crimes in Los Angeles. For some odd reason they switch from department to department each week, which police detectives don't normally do.
    • McCloud. A law officer from Taos, New Mexico is transferred to New York and solves crimes using his rural knowledge and wisdom.

    Should this involve private investigators too?
  • July 14, 2013
    OlafMerchant
    Live Action TV

    Name suggestion: Crime Case Of The Week, which would emphasize the apparent brevity of the cases in the show.
  • July 14, 2013
    DAN004
    Anime And Manga
    • Detective Conan - though sometimes it would take 2 episodes when it's a particularly hard case.

    Western Animation
  • July 14, 2013
    paycheckgurl
    • Psych usually has one case the titular Private Detective agency and the police are working on. Justified because the smaller Private cases Shawn takes usually don't pay out well or take much time for Shawn to solve with his abilities, if the police called Shawn and Gus in it's because they want a case solved quickly, and because the police *are* implied to work on other cases in the background, they just don't have main character Shawn to speed up the process so there's no point in focusing on it.

    • In Bones the title character takes one case at a time. Usually it takes the entire forensics team plus a rotating intern to find the evidence they need. Occasionally they'll subvert it by having the team work on some historical forensics project at the same time, but those instances are few and far between.

    It seems like there's too much Zero Context Example on this page...
  • July 14, 2013
    Paradisesnake
    This is pretty much an Omnipresent Trope what it comes to Cop Shows, Detective Drama and the like, so it would be more useful to list aversions that actual examples... otherwise this will just end up being a list of crime shows.
  • July 14, 2013
    shaduf
    Possibly adding to this, if a character is shown or said to be working on a different case, it will nearly always be connected and hold a vital clue to the main case.
  • July 14, 2013
    Koveras
    • In the Judge Dee novels, it's three cases per novel that may be interlocked with each other but are otherwise perfectly self-contained (which follows the old Chinese detective mystery tradition). In shorter stories, it's always single self-contained cases.
  • July 15, 2013
    Arivne
    ^^^^ @Tropers/paycheckgurl re: Zero Context Examples. Good point. I tried to expand my examples a bit.

    The description should probably mention that this used to be standard for cop shows, but that more modern shows can have cases that stretch out over an arc of episodes or even an entire season.
  • July 15, 2013
    69BookWorM69
    ^ i second that.

    @ shaduf That's also a good point. The last Maisie Dobbs book I read had two seemingly unrelated cases of hers that turned out to be very much related. i believe it was called Leaving Everything Once Loved.

    Another big reason for this is the Law Of Conservation Of Detail. In other words, we only see the detective on that particular case because that what the story is about; we don't see every toilet break, meal, or sleep cycle (presumably the detective continues to meet their bodily needs unless otherwise specified); we simply hear that the sleuth went to see someone later the same day or the next morning or whatever. I mention this because the rest of their lives is often implied; I seem to recall that some of Columbo's entrances show him sleepy/unshaven/in search of coffee/carrying a hard-boiled egg. There may be a case for this as a subtrope of LOCOD.
  • July 15, 2013
    jthayne
    My dissertation calls, my procrastination must end. As this is a yet-undocumented, prevalent trope, I hoping someone else will incorporate these suggestions into the body of the article. As of now, up for grabs.
  • July 15, 2013
    69BookWorM69
    ^ OK, I've revamped the description. Please tell me what you think.

    As far as examples goes, I'm tempted to add a "no examples please" line, just because of the sheer omnipresence of this trope. What say you?
  • July 16, 2013
    jthayne
    I agree with the no examples please line.
  • July 17, 2013
    69BookWorM69
    Right, I've added that. How's the description? Hats, anyone?
  • July 18, 2013
    Arivne
    I agree with No Examples Please as well.
  • July 18, 2013
    foxley
    Sounds like Mystery Of The Week.
  • July 18, 2013
    m8e
    I think we can launch this with examples and if we get too many straight examples we could then limit it to playing with. (Examples like: This show normaly have one case per episode and they are only seen working on that, but it's subverted in this three-parter where they have to juggle four unrelated cases at the same time.)
  • July 18, 2013
    jthayne
    Foxley, this is true — there does seem to be a similarity. I think what I hope to highlight here is the improbability of this trope actually working in real life (real detectives simply don't work that way), thus making it an artifact of serial TV. It's great, it's fine, but it's thoroughly an artifact of fiction. The "Mystery of the Week" trope doesn't really include the insights of the first and second paragraphs in the above description (such as, for example the conversation of detail that plays into this). I wonder if the two should be combined?
  • July 21, 2013
    69BookWorM69
    ^ Mystery Of The Week seems to specifically apply to episodic television shows, so I wonder if this might be a kind of supertrope. In other words, different forms of mystery fiction (short stories and novels) also behave this way, though not necessarily for all the same reasons. At the very least, it's a "see also" situation.

    I'm also not sure how far the "need to easily attract new viewers" bit applies to print media, since it's usually easier to go back to the first book in a series than to find earlier episodes (especially before they're released on DVD or otherwise available). I also think that general audience tolerance (or even demand) for more complicated stroylines, whether in the name of realism or simply for added interest, has made this trope less ubiquitous than in the past. Thus, I cannot say if MOTW needs to go to the repair shop, or if it simply needs to be cited as a subtrope or a "see also" entry on this one.
  • June 4, 2014
    AccidentalTroper
    This YKTTW has been abandoned for nearly a year, but I came across it when I was looking for a trope to describe the fact that detectives/cops/etc seem to only ever work on a single case at one time, as opposed to real life, where an average detective will have X-number of open cases on his desk at any given time.

    The problem is that this trope overlaps hard with Mystery Of The Week, but it's not quite the same trope. Mystery Of The Week is a show format whereas One Case At A Time is a trope about storytelling. In fact, the One Case At A Time trope can even be used in shows that are not normally mysteries in an Out Of Genre Experience episode.

    Basically, One Case At A Time, as a trope, stipulates that when a detective is working on a case, everything that happens to him will have some bearing on the case. This is, of course, because of The Law Of Conservation Of Detail, but sometimes shows take it to extremes (such as having seemingly random events from the detective's personal life ending up being part of the mystery as well).

    The tl;dr version: If a cop is investigating a murder, and he finds another dead body, there will be a connection between the two victims, no matter how unlikely.
  • June 4, 2014
    bitemytail
    Medical in nature, but House follows this as well.

    House's team only ever has one patient.
  • June 6, 2014
    AccidentalTroper
    I would consider shows where two teams each follow their own case to be this same trope, so it's really "One Case (or Two Cases) at a Time (but never more than 2)".

    ...since you need an A plot and a B plot.
  • June 6, 2014
    captainsandwich
    should toilet break be a pot hole to Nobody Poops?
  • June 4, 2016
    Morgenthaler
    Throwing in another hat. Launch plz!
  • June 3, 2016
    DAN004
    ^ with or without examples?
  • June 4, 2016
    Morgenthaler
    ^ It's already been deemed an omnipresent trope, so none. Unless we want a list of aversions (there's precedence for that with other tropes, but I don't think it's strictly required).
  • June 4, 2016
    Gamermaster
    Averted once in Ace Attorney. Case 1 of Dual Destinies takes place during Case 4. Every other case in the series happens one at a time (if somewhat Anachronic).
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