Thursday, April 07, 2011

How to create a hit network drama

Fame and riches can be yours! Procedural/action dramas are in and you too can create one if you just follow these very simple steps:

Always start with a couple. He must be boyishly handsome and she must be smoking hot. You can go “mature” but then one has to be an established television star, and the other has to be a J. Crew model. In rare cases you can go “both mature” (CSI: NEW YORK) but then one has to be a former movie star and the other has to be an established television star who’s had a lot of work done. A LOT of work done.

In the (many) scenes that the couple is together there must be equal parts forced banter and equal parts technical gobbledeegook that no one can understand.

You must have three or four attractive yet quirky support characters. Their primary function is comic relief, paperwork, and shameless exposition. Every other line should begin with, “Bingo! It seems our suspect has three priors for assault, two for armed robbery, and one for libel.”

Each week our “team” must solve a baffling murder case. Guy shot with 300 year old bullet. Girl freezes to death in the Mojave Desert. Beverly Hills housewife found dead at Ross For Less.

Their headquarters must be sleek, state-of-the-art, something out of THE JETSONS. There must be windows galore. I thought I had seen it all when patient rooms were all glass on HOUSE (people could just walk by as the nurse was changing your bedpan), but this week BODY OF PROOF went them one better. Dana Delaney (established television star so network approved) performed an autopsy in a glass enclosed room with floor to ceiling windows to the outside along one wall. Folks can just stroll by, eating that Snickers bar from the vending machine as the coroner lays out and tags Jane Doe’s entrails. I’m waiting to see this trend extend to a sperm bank. “Okay, Mr. Johnson, you just go into that glass cubicle and fill up this cup.”

It’s sometimes best if your team has its own name. That way you can make up its responsibilities. “We only solve murders that were committed between 1987 and 2003.” “We only solve murders of rich people who live on estates that are no less than 65 acres.” “We only solve bite wound crimes.” To avoid audiences saying, “No agencies like that exist” you’re encouraged to just make up a name and assume
characters in your show all know it. The Mentalist works for CBI – the California Bureau of Investigation. They have jurisdiction over… I dunno, police forces or sheriff’s departments. Just wing it. When your lead confronts a suspect and says, “Halt! CBI!”, he’s allowed to be terrified and not say, “CBI? What the fuck is that?” Recently on HAWAII FIVE-O, McGarrett wanted to question someone we were told was a tourist from the mainland. The guy seems him and is immediately wary. McGarret says, “Wanna talk to you. I’m from Five-O.” Hearing "Five-O" the guy flees. A tourist is supposed to know what “Five-O” means? On the show itself they established it was a name they JUST MADE UP. And now it’s so famous, visitors from Dubuque know it. So just pick three letters. Or one number and one letter.

If your series is set in a lab it must have $5,000,000,000 worth of equipment, even if the lab is at a community college. If it’s a police station they must have computer capability to track anyone, break into any city grid, and retrieve information at a second’s notice. There must be surveillance cameras everywhere – jungles included.

Very early on, uncover a suspect who appears to all the world to be the killer. He hated the victim, it was his knife in the guy’s chest, there’s surveillance video showing him do it, he just got out of prison for committing the exact same murder with the exact same M.O. twenty years ago, and when they pick him up he’s in bed with the victim’s wife, reading the life insurance policy while banging her.

Big twist that no one can see coming: He is not the killer.

Suspect number two is discovered. The team finds him hanging out in some public place. The second they identify themselves as Five-O or Ice-9 or WTF he takes off. You must now have your obligatory chase scene. If your star is a “mature” you are allowed to have one of the support goons go after him. Usually there are some shots volleyed. Very exciting. The perp is tackled, handcuffed, dragged into HQ, and it turns out he’s not the guy either. Don’t worry that people are going to say, “Then why did he run?” It’s the only action in the show. They not only buy it, they’ve come to expect it.

So now you’re back to square one. Everyone is baffled. Your star says, “I don’t know. There’s something we’re missing.” A co-worker will walk by and say something innocuous like, “Anyone see my coffee mug?” And a light bulb will go on over the star’s head. “Mug! That’s it!” He uses that fragment to solve the case and lead us to the real killer. Now this is important. You must set up this killer by showing him early and establishing him as the least likely person in the entire world to do such a thing.  He's mending butterfly wings.  That way, when it turns out to be him it’s this major surprise – the shock ending no one ever could have predicted.

How do you ultimately explain the baffling murders? Any way you want to. The frozen guy was dumped off by an ice cream truck. The 300 year old bullet was sold by Larry King, who originally bought it when it was new.

You're still not done though. You must have the scene where the stars report back to the widow/mother/brother that they got the killer. Closure has been achieved. The star is hugged. He smiles. It’s all worth it.

But is he happy? Oh no. The last scene should be a beauty shot of the hero heading home alone at night. He comforts others but he himself is very lonely. A John Mayer song plays. Very moody. The camera pulls back (big crane shot), and you’re out. Not a dry seat in the house.

That’s it. Follow those rules and we'll see you next May at the upfronts.  I want shared creator credit.

62 comments:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant!

I would love to read your dissection of "How to create a hit sitcom"

Anonymous said...

Ken, you've outdone yourself! Excellent, really excellent.

I remember the last straw for me was when we saw some show that has a whole team that go after missing persons...HIGH-TECH...looks like a cool, hip night club, with neon and dark all over their comman central. And here's the thing, their crack team goes after missing persons, before even 72 hours have gone.

Leslie said...

Wow. I've been forced to watch a lot of procedurals in my life (growing up it was my mom's favorite type of show) and yep - this is the plot for just about every single show. Oye

Michael Hagerty, Founder/Editor said...

I really think Dana Delaney is doing a helluva job replacing Jack Klugman on Quincy this season.

Reno said...

I can't stand these shows. Tried to watch Body of Proof, where Dana Delaney, a smart-ass ME, is so brilliant she can read minds, and the fuming cops simply scowl and stand around with their thumbs up "there." Sonja Sohnn (of "The Wire") is one of the cops. Terribly misused.

In the Forties, there was a show on CBS Radio Called "Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons." (Its theme song: "Someday I'll Find You.") The "kindly old investigator and his partner Mike Clancy" found them every week with only a phone and a car.

Years later, Bob & Ray parodied this with "Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons." Laugh, I thought I'd die.

Reno said...

I can't stand these shows. Tried to watch Body of Proof, where Dana Delaney, a smart-ass ME, is so brilliant she can read minds, and the fuming cops simply scowl and stand around with their thumbs up "there." Sonja Sohn (of "The Wire") is one of the cops. Terribly misused.

In the Forties, there was a show on CBS Radio Called "Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons." (Its theme song: "Someday I'll Find You.") The "kindly old investigator and his partner Mike Clancy" found them every week with only a phone and a car.

Years later, Bob & Ray parodied this with "Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons." Laugh, I thought I'd die.

John said...

I remember back in ye olden days, when The Rockford Files debuted, part of its charm was making fun of the hokey, cliched stereotypes that had developed over the first 15 years or so of TV detective/crime shows ... Which of course led to a glut of similar styled shows, where the leads weren't as straight-laced and were more 'hip', which eventually devolved into the copycat crap we've got now, where attitude and look trump plot continuity and logic every time.

Today's current crop of crime shows is as pompous and hackneyed in their own way as anything churned out in the late 1960s or early 70s, and the genre's really in need of its own show that makes fun of the current cliches.

wildwildwood said...

This has been forwarded to just about every television watching human I know! Hysterical - and so spot on! Was thinking so much of it while watching Body of Proof, which, while staring attractive, established mature television star Dana Delaney, is just so... Well everything you've said!

G Ray R said...

Why didn't you say Spoiler Alert? Now you have ruined all of my favorite crime dramas.

Actually my wife and do watch a 'few' of these as 'guilty pleasures', and we go through the same plot line you describe. We try to guess which person fits your description. And now you have ruined it for us. Not Really.
Great post

Janet T said...

Since when did being brilliant become an even exchange for having social skills? So many TV characters are such geniuses that everyone around them puts up with behavior that would get a 4 year old a time out (at minimum and often would get most adults jail time-) because I guess their brains are so stuffed full of knowledge there is no space for the niceties, like manners or laws?

Again, I say….The Killing on AMC- try it. I’ve only seen one episode, but it certainly does not follow the formula you laid out.

Mac said...

"How do you ultimately explain the baffling murders? Any way you want to."

'Tis true. I saw one episode where they had a "Mug!" moment, but how to link the suspect?
It turns out the victim was stabbed with a knife used for opening oysters, and whaddayaknow, the suspect's job is opening oysters.
Not only that, but he didn't think to clean the knife after stabbing someone to death with it, and all that subsequent oyster-opening didn't remove the streaks of blood that were visible to the naked eye, so no need to even put it under the microscope. But clearly nobody gave a shit as the show was over by then and everyone was just waiting to
hear The Who.

Nerdie McSweatervest said...

Heh. "Mr. Johnson."

Richard@Portugal said...

This type of TV shows are getting so predicting that more than half the times I guess the killer on Castle, CSI (I only watch Las Vegas), Body of Proof.

I mean... "They're wasting screen time on a very long interview with the victim's father while at the same time focusing more on the mother's grief? He's the killer."
Bingo!

Best regards,

William C Bonner said...

Just like Mahalo means "trash", I thought Fivo means "run".

Arkells said...

Funny.
For the record though, I think it's fairly well-established that "Five-Oh" is slang for the police.
Didn't you watch The Wire :)

RCP said...

"...Your star says, “I don’t know. There’s something we’re missing.” A co-worker will walk by and say something innocuous like, “Anyone see my coffee mug?” And a light bulb will go on over the star’s head. “Mug! That’s it!”

This makes me laugh because although it's in a somewhat different category, this always seemed to occur about 45 minutes in to "Murder, She Wrote."

Character: "You did it again, Joe. I tell you mayo, and you get me mustard."

Jessica Fletcher (at the next table): "Wait a minute!.....Two weeks ago when I had lunch with Stephen, I noticed that he spread mustard on his sandwich in a counterclockwise motion.....Now it all makes sense! Quick, where's a phone?"

Jen said...

You forgot the part where the killer turns out to be the guest-star with the most name recognition, thereby ensuring you as a viewer know it the moment you see his name in the opening credits.

Robert Allen York said...

This is what I like about "Castle," Lab results come much faster then in real life, but mostly it's pretty realistic. That's why it was so funny when the FBI took over a case and Dana Delany's team carted in a bunch of high tech, expensive, science fiction-y gear.

Naz said...

Body of Proof is suppose to take place in Philly but it actually takes place in Providence, Rhode Island. The "hospital" is actually the GTECH building in downtown Providence.

I know that Quincy would never perform an autopsy in a glass room. Which has me wondering who would do that anyway???

Anonymous said...

Damn! I don't know why you didn't mention NCIS, since your blog is a template of the show. Everything from the witty sexual tension between Zeva and Tony, the tatted-up lab tech Abby, the socially awkward computer nerd Tim, and the laconic widowed Jethro Lee Roy Gibbs (Mark Harmon) who retreats to his basement to work on his wooden boat and drink a beer while reflecting on the meaning of life.

Michael said...

The California Bureau of Investigation was a real agency within the CA Department of Justice, but was renamed the Bureau of Investigation & Intelligence (BII) at some point either in or after 2005.

BII website: http://ag.ca.gov/cbi/index.php

Here's a search query for anyone still curious: https://encrypted.google.com/search?hl=en&q=%22Martin%20Ryan%22%20%2B%20%22California%20Bureau%20of%20Investigation%22

Here is a 2005 directory of services for the CA DoJ, including the CBI: https://encrypted.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=3&ved=0CB0QFjAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fag.ca.gov%2Fpublications%2Fdirectory2005.pdf&ei=OeWdTfHcMc64tgexz6HSBA&usg=AFQjCNGm_koURUXuR2Qq27ekavNhz2Mt5A

Harry Hunsicker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harry Hunsicker said...

How do I nominate this blog post for an Emmy?

Deuce Bagelow said...

What it has to do with law enforcement is beyond me, but "Five-Oh" is a reference to Hawaii being the 50th state.

VP81955 said...

I get more satisfaction out of one radio episode of "Dragnet" (the TV version, either the original or 1960s revival, wasn't quite as good) than from entire seasons of some of these current procedurals.

wv: "improar" -- a club for loud stand-up comedians.

Mike Doran said...

Not that it matters, but ...

It's Dana Delany, without the second e.

Only one commenter got it right.

(And you all probably thought that he got it wrong.)

Really now, Ms. Delany is an Emmy winner (for China Beach), and is most likely the reason for Body of Proof's initial success.

Some respect is in order.
Or don't you agree?

Mike said...

I will always respect Dana Delany. She gave me very confusing feelings as a youngster watching China Beach.
(But not the typical ones -- it was more how could I be gay if I was so attracted to her? I later found out this was the 'gay dudes like fabulous women' gene kicking in early -- one of the few stereotypical characteristics I managed to pick up.) But I don't think one is respecting her any less by pointing out that her new show looks like it was written by a computer program that was programmed with the information that Mr. Levine has just provided.

(I'll also still respect Dana Delany because no matter what crap they gave her on Desperate Housewives -- and they gave her a lot of crap before I finally gave up on it -- she made it shine.)

Mark said...

Is House that show with the annoying British-y guy? Yeah, um, not really a fan.
m.

Anonymous said...

This couldn't be more accurate.

Jim S said...

Ken,

That plot theme is so 2007. For 2011, the head guy is a vampire.

Will said...

Don't forget that all the lab people immediately start working on the current case, like there were no crimes committed the previous days or weeks before. Then in real life you read how 6 months of rape kits were ruined because the refrigerator at the police lab broke down because it's 30 years old and there was never any money in the budget to get a new one.

Modwild said...

You really should have had a picture of Castle up there. Body of Proof hasn't gotten that easy to detect yet.

Castle is the worst, minus the techie gear, which can be found on Five-0 and BoP.

Loosehead said...

House, though not a police procedural, follows the same formula. Whenever the team think they have it - lupus or sarcoidosis (whatever the feck that is) seem to be favourite red herrings - I hit the play button on my Sky+ box to bring up the minutes since the beginning of the program. If it doesn't say "52 minutes", I know they're about to nearly kill the patient with a wrong diagnosis.

Matt Patton said...

My mother is dedicated to Bones, so I find myself watching it a lot, and they pulled the ultimate "out of nowhere" suspect on one of the TNT repeats the other night--a burglar who I could swear was never even SEEN until the last two minutes turned out to be the culprit. Mind you, I was out of the room for a phone call during the show, so maybe I missed him. Another annoying thing about that show is how the killer is almost always the poorest or most dorky character in the story. They've even resorted to The Butler Doing it--twice.

As for the labs that look as if they were rented from the estate of a Bond villain, it's just Hollywood tradition--secretaries that would have lived in cold-water walk-ups are showing living in apartments that senior executives would envy . . .

Anonymous said...

You can always spot the perp on NCSI, the moment he/she appears. They're always the least likely to be "the one" and don't have many scenes until the inevitable conclusion. CSI LA's "secret", stunningly decorated office has one outside parking space, usually occupied by a car only a drug dealer would drive. Must have a "secret" underground lot for the rest of the staff. Unless the cops were tipped off, they be raiding the place.

cshel said...

Ken -

Perfection. My favorite part:

"...when they pick him up he’s in bed with the victim’s wife, reading the life insurance policy while banging her."

te said...

You forgot the part where the killer turns out to be the guest-star with the most name recognition, thereby ensuring you as a viewer know it the moment you see his name in the opening credits.
Especially when the recognizable name doesn't have much screen time -- you know there'll be a big confrontation, confession and/or trial scene toward the end of the show.

A friend of mine calls this "guilt by casting." And it's a remarkably consistent thing.

bevo said...

@RCP: Quincy followed the same pattern as I recall.

I enjoyed this post but this effort was much better.

wv: tactic. Yup. It's an actual word.

James Blight said...

"That plot theme is so 2007. For 2011, the head guy is a vampire."

- Jim S

Unless you're talking Nick Knight / Forever Knight (1989 - 1996), or Angel (1999 - 2004).

steve said...

It's so damn true. Odd that so many of these clones keep getting picked up, whereas when you pitch something more original, Obvious McQuestionsuit will grill you about some minor similarity they imagine to some other work. "How is this different than [fill in the blank]". I have to wonder where Obvious McQuestionsuit was the day he should have been asking, "How is this different than Quincy?"

Buttermilk Sky said...

Don't forget the Nemesis, usually a serial killer with an IQ of 215 who was put away by the star, and who escapes during sweeps month to taunt and torment him/her. (Extra points if he killed a family member.)

L&O: SVU recently built a story around all those untested, decomposing rape kits, but I'm sure it's back to business as usual now. Like the instant DNA tests which in the real world would take several weeks.

Dana King said...

A reference to ice-9. Brilliant.

I'd be sad that no one else seemed to catch it, but so it goes.

Mark said...

"5-0" has now officially completed the circuit from TV show, to street slang for cop, and back to TV show using street slang for cop -- and if the Tourist from the Mainland was any kind of self-respecting thug, he would've tipped to the 5-0 reference immediately.

Or maybe he suddenly realized he was late for a lunch date.

Gnewa said...

I suppose that a rationalization can be made for the glass walls on HOUSE, in that House and his team deal only with cases in which people are dying of unknown ailments--the sort of cases in which the patients need to be under the constant supervision of doctors and nurses.

However, I suspect that the glass walls are there merely because the art director thought they looked cool. And there is no good reason for them on BODY OF PROOF.

Anonymous said...

I'd just like to comment on House having glass rooms for patients. I just assumed that since he always gets tough to diagnose patients that they're always in Intensive Care Units. I've only seen 2 ICUs and one had large glass windows and the other was completely glass so that the patients are always in full view of the staff.

Mike Schryver said...

5 or 6 years ago, I saw Bill Cosby do a really funny standup bit on Letterman about these shows. He talks about being in bed with his wife, who's watching one of these. Cosby is relieved that the show finally ends, but then another one comes on. And "It's the same show, just with different body parts."

Tom Quigley said...

Anything with Jeri Ryan in it is an automatic hit as far as I'm conncerned...

cadavra said...

For seven years, I've watched HOUSE, waiting for the patient-of-the-week to pipe up at 8:54, "Oh, by the way, I had sex with Keith Richards a couple of weeks ago. Is that important?"

Johnny Walker said...

Ugh. Makes me sick :(

Kirk Jusko said...

@Dana King--I missed the ice-9 reference when I first read this on Thursday, probably because I had other things I needed to do on the computer and so just skimmed the post. Thanks for pointing it out in you comment. Nice to know Ken is a Kilgore Trout fan.

Anonymous said...

Ken's post & TV tropes and idioms should liberate the would-be writer from the notion he is to prepare something novel or insightful. The eternal is exposed through popular genre fiction (be it procedural drama or relationship sitcom or whatever) in subtler, more sophisticated fashion than in explicitly "deep", "meaningful", character-driven drama.
Consistency and precision, done expertly over time reveals the wonderful, beautiful horror of our meaningless, progression-less existence. Supposedly higher forms peddle lies of transformation, transcendence, redemption and change rooted in the adolescent notion of special insight, talent, or emotion. Tell that shit to a priest.
Frasier and Law and Order, Good examples.

Oxy said...

Great post! And so true. Except, one time on the Mentalist, someone DID say "CBI, what's that?" I think Cho dealt with the question in his usual deadpan manner.

Anonymous said...

Also when they go after serial killers, they could save themselves SO MUCH time if they just staked out the hobby shops, scrapbooking stores.
Seriously, serial killers ALWAYS are the worlds best scrapbookers, other than cutting out the eyes in the photos of their beloved, they have fantastic handwriting, drawings (they are always excellent at that too) etc.
The few serial murderers that don't keep a scrapbook always have some intricate hobby...

Bertil Hatt said...

What would be more interesting is if you sorted out *why* all those shows are like that — and why some differ by one aspect: what it says about society, ethics, the perception of writers and producers, the studio or network dynamics, audience (anticipated) expectations, etc.

Anonymous said...

We were all laughing at "We only solve bite wound crimes," until someone said, "vampires." Fox just signed a check for the pilot and is talking about picking up 13 episodes. Help?

Matthew said...

RIP Richard Levinson

A Non-Emus said...

To people who don't get Ken's point about "5-0". It's a known reference in the real world because of the ORIGINAL SHOW. The show made it up and it became a slang term. In the fictional world of the new show, the original show never existed and therefore would not be a common term.

django said...

People still watch network television shows?

Anonymous said...

Agreed on whoever said this was NCIS's template. Felt weird to single out House.

Amir Talai said...

dont forget that although the lab has millions of dollars worth of equipment, one thing they DONT splurge on is lighting. Always better to examine a corpse in dim blue and moody red light.

Anonymous said...

and we STILL keep watching them

chuckcd said...

"Guy shot with 300 year old bullet. Girl freezes to death in the Mojave Desert. Beverly Hills housewife found dead at Ross For Less."

Didn't I see these done on "Monk"?