What Really Makes a TV Series “Work?”

by Diana Black

Why does one series succeed and another, with all the same hopes, dreams, and good intentions, fail?Miss-Phryne-Fisher

There are many reasons, of course, starting with the oft-quoted adage, “Nobody knows anything” when it comes to what’s going to grab audiences, and ending with “What a stinkeroo!” which probably is said much more often even though nobody seems to want to step up and claim authorship.

Today, just for the hell of it, let’s head ‘down under’ and explore the fates of two Aussie dramas – Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (Debra Cox and Fiona Eagger, 2012 -2015) and The Dr. Blake Mysteries (George Adams, 2013–).

If we run a ‘Compare’ (similarities) versus a ‘Contrast’ (differences) on these productions, there’s of course a lot that’s similar and yet in other ways, they’re worlds apart.

Why bother, I hear you ask? What’s in it for us as writers? Well, a lot actually – if we’re willing to wear two ‘hats’ simultaneously, that of the viewer and of the script analyst.(Drives my ‘significant other’ nuts…same in your household, huh?) Placate you S.O. with a bowl of popcorn – but none for you because you’ll be too busy juggling hats and writing furiously to eat.

As emerging TVwriters, we really, really need to do this exercise often if we’re to become better writers. You’ll be ever so pleased you paid attention and did your homework in that expensive screenwriting class(es) – because it’s all there in these two shows – you’ll be ticking boxes all over the place – or not….

Dr. BlakeOkay, let’s compare. Both shows belong to the ‘crime/mystery-solving’ genre, they’re period pieces (anything older than 30 years), set in Australia and both ‘procedurals’ with the protagonists determined to solve the fresh, new murder mystery at hand, which they invariably do.

In each episode and as each Series progresses, humor is juxtaposed against a backdrop of mystery, violence and an exploration of the protagonist’s character and into their troubled past. Both use diagetic and non-diagetic sound and from a technical standpoint, shot in HD – 720 p.

So how are they different? While the list is extensive, most of the items are things we’d have little-to-no control over unless we had an ‘in’ with the Showrunner/Producer.

The screen aesthetic of Miss Fisher v Dr. Blake – sumptuous v austere – almost bleak – the lighting – light and soft v dark, bordering on ‘noir’; coloration – pinks and creams v dark blues, black and gray; the musical score – light and energetic for the most part v dark and dramatic – is something the writer can only look on at (just like the viewer, no?)

But what of the aspects we as writers usually do (or should) have control over? Character is foremost and secondarily, plot.

Miss Fisher (Essie Davis) is a glamorous, drop-dead gorgeous private dick who ‘takes charge’ – brilliantly, and without so much as a grimy smudge on her beautiful costume or flawless make-up. Dripping genuine charm, warmth and compassion, she’s highly seductive. Her intelligence and sharp eye for detail makes everyone else, even her ‘foil’ – the handsome and complex detective (Nathan Page), grossly inferior. The undercurrent of humor is playful and lightly done.

Then there’s Dr. Blake (Craig McLachlan). He’s a plain yet sincere man, ‘damaged goods’ from the ‘get-go’, struggling to rise above his post-war addiction and personal loss while attempting to fill his extremely popular father’s role as the local doctor and part-time Police Surgeon. He does so in an efficient, sensible and lack-luster manner. That sense of humor mentioned earlier – it seems obvious and forced. Indeed, the characterization in this series borders on one-dimensional with the character traits for many of the leading roles somewhat hackneyed and obvious.

While the standard narrative arc of bringing criminals to justice ensues in both series, it’s the dialogue and action and the effect on the pace that provides us with a ‘cautionary tale’. To be fair, this fundamental difference is more apparent in earlier episodes.

In Miss Fisher…thanks to economical dialogue rich with sub-text and action, it gaily trips along with the energy and verve of a ‘Charleston’.

For Dr. Blake… its dead slow to the point that yes, go get yourself that bucket of popcorn, you’ll have plenty of time to munch and take notes. The dialogue early in the series lacks subtext and then later, when they’ve obviously copped flack over this issue, its ‘loaded’ with sub-text to the point of being obvious; same for the action – overdone. This in turn, compromises the actors who are doing their best but burdened as they are – their performance comes across as ‘forced’.

Writers, be kind to your potential cast – give them a break and don’t weigh them down with heavy, cumbersome actions, dialogue or an imbalance or lack of subtext…please! Think about what goes down on that page – you’re responsible for it.

Oh, speaking of success. Miss Fisher is off the air in Australia but a massive hit on Netflix and the pirate downloading sites. Dr. Blake – well, he’s going strong in Aussieland and on the UK’s ITV Network (home of a dozen other mysteries done in the show’s style, actually) – yet all but invisible internationally.

Maybe nobody really knows anything after all.


Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer and formerly a member of Larry Brody’s Master Class.

Web Series: MONICA

In case y’all needed proof that web series can be terrific even without broadcast – or cable – budgets (and notes)!

Created by Doron Max Hagay and Lily Marotta
Written and Directed by Doron Max Hagay
Starring Lily Marotta
Featuring Erin Markey

For more monicatheminiseries.com
And facebook.com/monicatheminiseries

Getting Started as a TV Writer

Earl Pomerantz calls himself “a regular person” who “thinks about things and then writes about them.” But his work as a writer on Cheers, Becker, Major Dad, Amazing Stories, The Cosby Show et al show him to be the kind of special dude new writers can – and should – turn to as they enter the Biz:

Getting_Started
by Earl Pomerantz

I never wrote mean. I never wrote sexy. I never put characters in humiliating situations. And I never wrote dumb. And I still got a thirty-year career and a pretty nice house.

Visitors to my blog have repeatedly asked me to talk about my writing experiences on shows they enjoyed like Taxi, for which I wrote nine episodes. I hesitate to comply, because the half-hour comedy terrain has been so radically altered that I seriously question the relevance of my experiences with what’s happening in comedy today.

There’s a lot of comedy on television I love; I just couldn’t write it. I love Extras, though the lead character endures humiliation after humiliation, like a man who has a tub of soup showered unceremoniously over his head every thirty seconds of his life. The show can be literally painful to watch. And yet, it still makes me laugh.

I enjoy Curb Your Enthusiasm, a show in which Larry David, or at least the character Larry David, behaves abominably on a regular basis. My wife calls the show a cringedy. You laugh, but you cringe at the same time. It’s a funny thing. In old show business, a comedian would reveal only the best side of his personality on his show, while remaining a despicable human being offstage. I’ve met Larry David; he’s thoughtful and polite. It’s only on his show that he’s despicable. This reversal of a show biz tradition – now it’s “Nice offstage, horrible onstage” – is a telling reflection on the expanding parameters of current comedy.

Polite doesn’t cut it anymore. That’s your parents’ comedy, or maybe your grandparents’. To keep audiences onboard, the comedy envelope continues to be pushed further and further to the extremes. I’m referring to cable comedy. Network comedy has virtually disappeared.

Network comedy is dying, because commercial limitations – Rule Number One: “Offend No One” – prohibit comedy from venturing to those necessary extremes. The advertisers won’t allow writers to go there. Even the most successful comedy on the air, Two and a Half Men– which is basically The Odd Couple with sleepovers – handles sexual situations with an obligatory obliqueness, compared to, say, how sex is dealt with on Entourage. Cable comedies are censorship-free, or censorship-lite; network comedy creativity is defeated by the paralyzing dread of “getting letters.” That’s why the two systems are different, and why one is flourishing while the other’s in the tank….

Read it all at Earl’s Just Thinking blog

Peggy Bechko’s World: The Hero’s Worthy Goal

bighero
by Peggy Becko

Taking time out to put something simple and basic out there for the writers who join us here – readers too who enjoy getting a peek into the writer’s world and just what goes into a good read. What a writer wrestles with to come up with that eyeball-grabbing story that keeps a reader up half the night because the book just can’t be put down.

Subject?

It’s plainly written above. It’s very basic. Is the goal that’s been set for the hero of the story a worth y goal. And by that I mean,  there are lots of things a hero can strive to achieve. BUT choosing the right one, the one with the right outside motivation, can be tricky and can require a lot of thought on the part of the writer. Is it a big enough goal? Is it a goal that is worthy of the hero?

It sounds pretty direct, but without thinking about it, deep down, the reader is automatically asking questions while the story unfolds.  Does that goal  set for the hero fulfill a basic human need? Safety and security? Love? Belonging? Physiological? Some fulfillment of self-esteem?

Why are we all looking for that element? Well, it reminds readers of their own goals and desires, then draws them into the story to find out whether the hero does attain his goals and desires, and if so, how.

Another question regarding that worthy goal is, is it logical and attainable? Really, if one is wrapped up in a story, there is little worse than the exclamation, “that doesn’t make sense!” or seeing through a paper-thin plot and knowing deep down that this guy couldn’t really accomplish that goal no matter how willingly the reader dives into the pool of suspended disbelief.  If that happens the writer has lost the reader. Not good.

The next test is does the hero have an emotional attachment to the goal? Is he or she passionate about achieving whatever it is whether it is saving the life of a puppy, preventing a bank robbery or curing cancer? The protagonist absolutely must be passionate; must have a soul-deep motivation for plunging into whatever circumstance follows. If the attitude is a wimpy, it’ll be nice if I can achieve it, then the reader follows the same path, doesn’t care and gives up on the story.

Related to the emotional attachment is the question, what happens if the Hero doesn’t succeed? What’s at stake?  Does the world explode? Is a child’s life at stake? Will an evil force succeed? Will a ship sink at sea? If he doesn’t get back in time to donate a kidney will his wife die?

There has to be a powerful motivating factor and hit has to be real to the reader. It puts a lot of pressure on the writer.  See, readers, see what you do to all those slaving writers out there?

And at the same time, readers motivate writers to always improve, to come up with the next fascinating, exciting, dramatic, love-filled tale of adventure, success, mourning or joy.


Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. Learn more about her HERE. Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle. And, while you’re at it, visit the Planet of the Eggs Facebook page

6 Great Ways to Brainstorm Ideas

TV and film writing are collaborative. Some writers find working with others onerous, to say the least. Others welcome the chance to develop projects within a group because…brainstorming!

YouTube Preview Image

from VM Measures

Curing Your Creative Block

We’ve tried this. (Well, LB’s tried it.) And it works!

sand-sculptureby Herbert Lui

So making songs now that I know aren’t going to be heard by anybody else, it is an interesting thing. Because I think you have to do that now as an artist. I really do.

—Donald Glover, Grantland interview

You might feel your work has gotten less creative over the past few months (or years). You might feel discouraged. Perhaps money turned a fun hobby into a chore. Maybe you’re completely creatively blocked, or haven’t felt inspired in a while. Or maybe you’re just bored.

If any of this happens to you, I want to suggest a simple exercise: Every week, set aside a few good hours to create something just for yourself. By good hours, I mean do it first thing if you’re a morning person. If you’re a night owl, do it at night.

For me, the magic moments and connections happen when I’m just writing in a journal (usually by pen), or when I’m reading a book I’d selected out of curiosity. I realize that this might sound like a waste of time. Why would you want to produce something that no one will use?

Here’s why it’s valuable:

When you’re creating for someone else—a client, a huge group of users, or for critics—your success is determined externally. And as management wiz Peter Drucker says, “Wherever there is success, there has to be failure.”

When you’re creating something just for yourself, you neutralize any possibility of failure. And what seemed so difficult becomes easy again.

Donald Glover, well-known for his TV work and his music, talks about how he makes things that he never intends to show the public.

Similarly, so does musician Hudson Mohawke: “When myself and Lunice did the TNGHT project, it was not even intended for release.”…

Read it all at Quartz