Sunday, March 12, 2006

A TV Series is a Butterfly... or a Horse

Alex Epstein has a great screenwriting blog which I've recently started rereading. He had a post yesterday about which direction to go with a new series he has been developing for George Clooney. It caught my eye because—in this age of prolific cable channels to watch—choosing the right story and setting for an episodic series to decisively capture the attention of the market is extremely difficult.

Though intended as parody, there is more than one kernel of truth in the development assistant from Network pitching TV series concepts (boldface is mine):

These are those four outlines submitted by Universal for an hour series. The first one is set at a large Eastern law school, presumably Harvard. The series is irresistibly entitled "The New Lawyers." The running characters are a crusty-but-benign ex-Supreme Court justice, presumably Oliver Wendell Holmes by way of Dr. Zorba; there's a beautiful girl graduate student; and the local district attorney who is brilliant and sometimes cuts corners. The second one is called "The Amazon Squad." The running characters include a crusty-but-benign police lieutenant who's always getting heat from the commissioner; a hard-nosed, hard-drinking detective who thinks women belong in the kitchen; and the brilliant and beautiful young girl cop who's fighting the feminist battle on the force. Up next is another one of those investigative reporter shows. A crusty-but-benign managing editor who's always getting...

The dilemma about creating entertainment is your series can be either a horse or a butterfly. A horse is sturdy, it lasts a long time and gets you far, but everyone has a horse like yours, so there's no reason to look at your horse over anyone else's. Plus, horses are easy to get, which is why everyone has one. By contrast, your series could be a butterfly which by its nature might not last very long, but is incredibly beautiful and everyone wants to see it. Butterflies are also very rare and hard to find, which explains why everyone is compelled to look at them. To make really entertaining TV, you have to do something different that no one has ever seen before... you have to make a butterfly. But butterflies cost money and you'll fight an uphill battle to keep a butterfly alive long enough to get everyone to see it.

Anyway, here's Alex's post:
We're still trying to figure out if Untitled George Clooney Project is a soap, or if it has episodic A stories with soapy B stories. I don't really want to write a pure soap because you get boxed in by the plotlines, and because it would be hard to take advantage of the very rich territory we're mining for the show. So I've been spending the day coming up with springboards for episodic A stories. The problem is they are all over the place. A show like Grey's Anatomy, or any hospital, law or cop show, has stories that come in the door every episode. Very easy to find closure when people show up sick or injured, and by the end of the ep they've had a successful surgery or they're permanently impaired. Our territory doesn't have that kind of urgency. There is not an obvious immediate antagonist. So, do we manufacture urgency every week, à la, say, _________________, in a venue where the urgency is really more long term? Or do we focus on the quirky characters and their quirky issues, à la Northern Exposure? (No, we don't, we're trying to pitch a mainstream show.) Or something ever cleverer and subtler? And if so, what?

And here's my reply:
Seems to me that the most successful series are usually the most original in subject and tone. Lost and Desperate Housewives struck a chord because they were unlike anything else on TV at the time. Mainstream shows like ER and The Practice are formulaic... but have a new chance to reinvent themselves with each new funky case that walks in the door. The first two seasons of ER were some of the most hysterical—and gut-wrenching—TV I've ever seen. Same goes for Chicago Hope and Ally McBeal (except Ally wasn't so much gut-wrenching as nauseating watching Calista become more emaciated over time). The pattern seems to be that the most original stuff happens in the first 2 seasons and then it peters out and resorts to exploring soapy plotlines to keep from getting stale.

But I got off-track: what I meant to say was that choosing quirky introspective plotlines stands more of a chance of competing against mainstream formula settings nowadays. When I think of good drama and comedy, it's almost always the quirkiest stories that come to mind, even if they are nestled within a mainstream-type formulaic setting like in a hospital, law firm, police department, or Forensic department. The trick with a quirky or highly original series is, of course, keeping your producers from letting the show die before it finds its niche audience... which can then coax in a more mainstream audience—Star Trek being the most painful example, though Firefly comes in a close second.


xPatricklee said...

This is why you're our writer.

xPatricklee said...

Ross I would like sit down someday soon and pick your brain over some stories that are floating around.. especially one that we've been kicking around

Ross Pruden said...

You want to pick my brain? Um... ew!

Sure, I'm always interested in storysmithing. Of course, I'm busy doing your treatment for Fool's Gold but I can meet briefly sometime this week; how about Monday, same place as last meet?