Tuesday, December 28, 2010

How to sell a one-hour drama to FX or USA or A&E or whoever.

It's very simple.  I have discovered the basic cable one-hour formula.  Follow these steps and you premiere right after BURN NOTICE. 

Start with a handsome likable actor. Heavy on charm, athletic, has a dimple, and can deliver a joke without needing a stunt double. For background, he was in some branch of law enforcement. Cop, U.S. Marshall, CIA, secret service, security guard at Warner Brothers.

And we learn he’s a real rogue. Does things his own way. Often gets in trouble with his superiors. He’s just incorrigible. But he’s the best cop/Marshall/CIA agent/gate guard at Warners that has ever been. Lightening fast draw, sharp shooter, explosives expert, Mensa candidate. He’s absolutely fearless but super cool. He drinks beer. He sleeps with any woman he’s assigned to protect.

As the pilot begins his rogue-ness gets him in trouble. He’s fired or reassigned. If fired, he’s trying to get his job back. If reassigned, he’s sent to the most fish-out-of-water locale you can find. Let's say he's from Chicago. Ship him off to the Everglades.

If possible, set the show in some sun drenched city. Miami, San Diego. Great excuse to show hot girls in bikinis, bright beauty shots, and easier to duplicate when you shoot in San Pedro, California.

Also, try to set him in a town where he has ties. Give him a hot ex-wife or ex-girlfriend that he still sort of loves and still sort of loves him. They broke up because of his rogue-ness or some fault that he has that every woman in America would ignore in two seconds to snare a prize like this.

He has a dark past that he needs to work through… when it’s convenient. Former lover died.  Former partner died.  Steve McQueen died.

For good measure, throw in an eccentric parent (preferably one who was hot and starred in a show his or herself in the 80s).

He also has to have a partner who’s either crazier than he is, or the total opposite. Someone has to say, “You’re going to get us KILLED!” at least once an episode.

It’s very important that your hero have a moral code. He only kills bad guys. He has a soft spot for innocent downtrodden saps who are in trouble. Yes, he’s tough but he’s empathetic, and don’t you dare make a big deal of thanking him. He’s adorably shy.

In addition to solving crimes, and dodging ten thousand stray bullets an episode, there’s always a larger story arc. Some secret to uncover, or an elusive nemesis he needs to catch… when it’s convenient.

Throw in some action sequences, chase scenes, explosions (at least for the pilot), and there has to be a helicopter in at least one scene (I have no idea why but you do). Then mix in some "character" scenes so we see the hero is sensitive as well as strong. 

Give the show a snappy title that’s no more than two words. JUSTIFIED, TERRIERS, THE GLADES, BURN NOTICE. And you’re good to go.

Best of luck. Give me shared creator credit when you sell your show. And you better hurry. Other writers have figured out this formula too. And John Corbett is not going to be out there forever.


Quaison said...

I was just saying the other day that Terriers should have cast a hottie for the lead...instead they hired an actual "actor" who brought shades of gray to the characterization. What were they thinking? Mmm. "Smell my finger"...that was a great scene. Damn the Nielsen's and their power. Me and the other 3 people watching Terriers are completely bummed. (Ken, I know you probably didn't dig that scene, because I also remember you didn't like "Tell Me You Love Me" either.)

But, yep, you're right on the money here. It's a formula that sells to both women and men, and that's why it's so popular.

Byron said...

You left out "HUMAN TARGET"

Tracy said...

I realize it is not on basic cable but you've just described the exact premise for the Hawaii 5-0 reboot... only Alex O'Loughlin is neither charming, nor can he deliver a joke without needing a stunt double.

Anonymous said...

Haha this totally made my day

Thanks Ken

T.J. said...

I think you're selling Terriers and Justified a little short, although they are simply well-done versions of the same premise. Further variations: Castle (writer), White Collar (criminal), Covert Affairs (FEMALE CIA agent, so very original), Royal Pains (doctor). My wife loves these shows. I loved Terriers and enjoy Justified, but am totally sick of the others. I've stuck with Burn Notice out of habit, but am about ready to quit it. Nothing of substance happens in most of these shows; just reset at the end of every episode. No stakes, so no real drama.

Jason said...

One Justified is enough.

tb said...


bevo said...

Wait a minute. Are you telling me there is a formula for television shows? In Hollywood? Creative capital of the world? How could they possible make money by producing derivative entertainment?

What's next? Every reality show is (A) fake and (B) has the exact same six roles regardless of format?

Every comedy ever shown in 1994 through 1996 required at least four but no more than six attractive white people doing nothing much except hanging out and living in apartments they could not possibly afford?

Every drama ever shown in 1998 to 2000 required some process for the audience to follow and had to contain at least four but no more than six people of various ethnicities? Attractiveness was understood but never stated.

I am really fucking shocked by today's post. I had no idea.

That said, I really enjoyed Terriers and Justified. The rest could be cancelled now and I would not lose sleep. However, the SOB who cancelled Terriers needs to be whacked with a snow shovel.

By Ken Levine said...

Let me just say that I liked TERRIERS a lot and love JUSTIFIED. More on JUSTIFIED tomorrow when I unveil my Best & Worst of 2010.

justcorbly said...

Conan Doyle had much of this down to an art with Holmes and Watson. He didn't give Holmes a secret past, but he did give him a great enemy: Moritarty.

The duo were, I suspect, the first in the "hero and a buddy" detective/mystery/adventure format.

TV just makes things shinier, sexier, and noisier.

Dana King said...

I was about to say something about how JUSTIFIED and TERRIERS were getting the shaft, but I'll wait. Ken's earned that much.

I should make this clear, though: if I have to draw my weapon, I'll shoot to kill.

Ken Misch said...

I love 'Burn Notice,' even though I watched a lot of it in my youth when it was called "The Rockford Files."

For the record, Bruce Campbell rules.

Gary Ray, cold war warrior said...

Damn, you just went through my list of favorite shows. Am I that easily entertained? Every TV show seems to be copied from another. Even ... sitcoms.

I watch em cause they are like mystery novels. I know the formula, but I like the people and even the writing. Shame on me.

Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention my favorite show, Human Target. Jackie Earle Haley steals the show. And I dont think he has any dimples.

Big Clyde said...

...and if it's a woman in the lead role, we have to see her in her downtime, relaxing with her pensive thoughts in a Pottery Barn-furnished apartment. She'll be drinking some tea while the Sarah McLaughlin soundtrack plays. (Alias, Covert Affairs, Chase)

Ben K. said...

Actually, there's one more important element in this formula: The show itself has to have a sense of humor. If they were all just straight-up action and badassery, these would be kind of boring. But there's an element of self-satire and jokiness the writers bring -- to the lead character, the sidekick and/or the situations they get into -- that makes the best of these worth watching.

Stu said...

fair enough, but with regards to burn notice, he wasn't exactly rogue to begin with. he was burned by someone, but i don't get the sense it was because he went 'off the grid' or whatever. everything else rings true though.

just sayin.

Mick Kelleher said...

Reminds me of a funny recent sketch on SNL: it was a game show called WHAT IS BURN NOTICE?

You are welcome said...


chipkeyes said...

Anyone else think TERRIERS might have made it with a snappier title? I saw promos that confused me yet didn't make me very curious, then happened to see a semi-positive review, checked it out and was hooked. But if I hadn't read that one review...

Art Fuller said...

Ken, You have indeed unlocked the secret code. That does seem to be the general pattern. It will be interesting to see how long these networks continue to ride out this formula.

John said...

Universal and Quinn Martin lived off the earlier versions of this formula for the better part of 20 years (of course, Mr. Martin would occasionally cast someone like William Conrad as the star of his shows, back in a time when "hunky" might have a slightly different meaning).

William M said...

Ken this is for your "Friday Questions":

Is my dream about YOU last night prophetic?

My dream: Somehow you advertise renting a room in your house. I visit your home.
Daytime. Enter front door. Hear voice (you?) talking on telephone in another room.
I go down a hallway. Enter empty room. I walk to the backdoor that opens onto the backyard.
I look out on your backyard. It is an ASTONISHINGLY RICH VISTA. 300 feet wide & long. Pond or pool in the middle. Long green lawn. Trees line the property line, with traffic beyond the trees. Absolutely quiet and breath taking...Hollywood-type expansive lawn.
Suddenly, a young child on a bike rides down a path near this back room.
I turn back into the room, and walk to the front door. You(I guess, although I see no face) are standing at the end of the hallway, looking at me puzzled.
I mutter soemthing like "I'm ------(My name) and I sent you a letter..."
The dream ends right there.

Background. I'm a Baby Boomer-aged guy, who's not yet achieved notable success as a Yoga teacher. I've never visited LA, though I've dreamed of moving there and dating actresses. I don't know what you look like, though I do read your blog a few times a week.

Ken, my question:
Does this dream of you, Hollywood vistas, and "rooms for rent", mean that I should chase my Hollywood dreams?

te said...

In addition to solving crimes, and dodging ten thousand stray bullets an episode, there’s always a larger story arc. Some secret to uncover, or an elusive nemesis he needs to catch… when it’s convenient.

A friend who's a screenwriter points out that this is a convenient device when writers fall short on story ideas -- bring back the person who killed the hero's wife, the mass murderer who's showed up in several other episodes stikes again, and so on.

OK, I understand it. But why can't the Mentalist suss out where Red John is hiding?

Anonymous said...

Ugh - Hawaii Five-0 - how did they manage to screw that up? Seemed like a no-brainer, until they hired the most uncharismatic surfboard of a star, and outsourced the scripts to Canada.

Anonymous said...

Wow. And to think that things are so radically different on the broadcast networks, where, of course, their scripted shows follow no formulas at all. (That's right folks. Pay no attention to NCIS and its clones, CSI and it clones, or Law & Order and its clones -- their identical formulas are just figment of your imagination.)

At least, the cable show formulas are well executed and FUN to watch. And hey, they're also SCRIPTED, right? Not just filmed footage of a couple of dudes chasing stupid ghosts and other paranormal ephemera, or watching some scruffneck chase down pests.

For the record I LOVED Terriers, but also enjoy the formulaic dramas at USA/A&E/FX. I am a little worried that Burn Notice seems to be on the verge of jumping the shark (I blame that Jesse guy).

A_Homer said...

According to this, Rockford Files was only halfway there, so I guess it would never get made today.

Lou H. said...

Doesn't matter to me whether the show is derivative or whether the show is in its tenth season doing the same thing - if the writing entertains me, I'll watch it.