Thursday, September 29, 2011

How to create a hit procedural!

Network development season is in full swing. Comedies are hot commodities this year but one staple that never seems to go out of style is procedural dramas. Fame and fortune and a spin-off with :MIAMI at the end of the title can be yours if you just follow my simple rules.

Your star must have some supernatural power. He or she can read minds, has an amazing photographic memory, can remember every lunch he/she ever had, is a math whiz, or the most common – can see Fairy Tale characters.

But with this gift must come a curse. They must be tortured emotionally. They must have a dark past. Their wife/sibling/child/imaginary friend has been killed and they’re still haunted by it.

They’re only helping the police solve crimes as a way to better get in touch with resolving the unsolved circumstances of their dark past. The killer is still out there!  But only week one and the season finale.  Otherwise, it's business as usual.  Solving crimes and tossing off zingers.

When we go home with the hero we see he’s lonely. He can’t really get close to anyone because he’s so damaged. He compensates for no social skills by possessing this wondrous ability to bend spoons with his mind.

The hero must have a code. Oh sure he may come off as a cynic or she a bitch but ultimately they’re the champion of the little people.

The hero must have a partner of the opposite sex who finds him/her infuriating but is totally dependent on him/her. The partner is always somewhat of an idiot. He enters the crime scene and every week comes to the wrong conclusion. Only our hero, with his snazzy power, is perceptive enough to surmise what is really going on. And if the partner wasn’t already dumb enough, he has to now argue with the hero. The hero ultimately turns out to be right.

The hero must be surrounded by an investigative team. They stand around, provide exposition, and chase bad guys. Having a superpower means you never have to run. This team should be young and attractive. And one member must somehow be “quirky”. Note: If it’s a CBS show at least one attractive team member must be a brunette.

Throw in some grizzly murders, a cool stylized squad room (who knew police stations looked like the penthouse restaurant in the Space Needle?), and toss in a former major TV star or two and you’ve got a five year run.

So get going. A cop who channels Columbo. A detective who can go forward in time five minutes. A forensic expert who can communicate with inanimate objects. A coroner who can break down the ingredients in food without having to refer to the packaging.  The possibilities are endless!

All I ask for in return is the following credit:

Based on a Tired Formula by Ken Levine  

Let’s all get rich!


James Dunn said...

Hi Ken.

I was wondering what you, or any of the commentors here for that matter, think of CBS and their completely original and not-at-all-done-recently-to-perfection idea of doing a modern day Sherlock Holmes?

Every time I've tried to express my feelings about it I can't seem to come up with any words. Just some sort of weird dying animal sound.

Dana King said...

This is exactly why I have not found a broadcast network cop show I can bear to watch for more than a few episodes since HOMICIDE went off the air. (JUSTIFIED (FX) and THE WIRE (HBO) are/were not broadcast network shows.)

Steve Bryant said...

Excellent, Ken! Spot on and very funny.

How about a police hostage negotiator who was a TV Shopping host who could sell anything to anyone? No one knows that he has had the power of super persuasion since he was a child. Living with this "power" has made him a virtual recluse, as he is guilty every time he uses it. Still, he got everything he wanted as a child and still has to care for his aging pony.

Plus, he was so persuasive when he was on TV that many people went bankrupt buying the things he was selling. This adds to his guilt and often makes him pause when he is about to use his power.

His team? Maybe the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders or the runners up from the Miss Universe Pageant. I haven't worked out the details of that yet, since neither have any quirky guys. Wait a minute, what if one of the Cheerleaders was transgendered? Yeah, that’s the ticket.

The title wrote itself: "Ice to the Eskimos" (Probably get a lot of press when the anti-defamation Native American people take us to court.)

In the pilot, the hero has to talk someone down from the top of the Empire State Building. He does this handily, even though he has a serious fear of heights. Plus, he manages to sell the jumper a complete wardrobe of Cubic Zirconium jewelry and a set of steak knives. (Merchandising tie-ins could be huge.)

How'd I do, coach?

Steve Bryant

sephim said...

There was already The Return Of The World's Greatest Detective (1976) with Larry Hagman.

It's getting so a show like Hill Street Blues couldn't exist today because it seems improbable that the police solve crimes by just doing their job.

januaryfire said...

Mirror James: If you're wondering about a modern take on Sherlock Holmes, look up the British show "Sherlock" starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Of course, it's BBC (I think) and was aired here on PBS, so you can assume a high level of quality and not the expected lowest common denominator cookie-cutter formula of CBS. "Sherlock" is available on Netflix last I checked.

Brian Phillips said...

"...grizzly murders"?

Wonderful post, but what do you have against bears?

WV: nisoamia. Honoria's sister.

Mac said...

A prop comedian who retrains as a forensic pathologist, but he can't let go of his old job?
When the family's brought in to identify the body, it's wearing 'Groucho Glasses.'

Anonymous said...

Becky Says
I have one:
It's about a Canadian-born immigrant who has the ability to solve any crime as long as the temeperature in the room is below freezing. The cold charges his brain so that he can spot the seemingly unimportant but critical clue at the crime scene/lab/walk-in freezer. His team is composed of the following: One goth or emo who specializes in technology and computers (all of which cost the same as an average city's entire police budget for a decade), a foreign science geek who is unbelievably gorgeous but can't get a date because he spent his puberty earning multiple docortates from Ivy League schools and one very good-looking, emotionally gifted girl who's job isn't that clearly defined but wears low cut tops, micro mini skirts and 6-inch stilettos to her 12-hour days.

Our hero is tortured because he lost his entire family in a blizzard when he was a baby (he was the lone survivor and that's how he developed his gift). We find out around the third or fourth episode that he may have family out there somewhere and spend the next five years getting red herrings as to the whereabouts of his brother who, of course, is a serial killer who uses snow to kill his victims.

His office doubles as a hockey rink and he does the play-by-play comentary in his off time. Every episode will end at a hockey game.

I'll see you at the Emmys!

Janet T said...

A forensic expert who can communicate with inanimate objects.

Can we call it

"If these walls could talk"?

Mike Botula said...

Do you think we're ready to bring back Charlie Chan?

Carol said...

Mirror James - CBS wants to do Sherlock? Seriously? Like based on the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock? Which was pretty much perfect television?

Joining you in the weird dying animal sounds.

(P.S. do the major studios in this country not understand that its dead easy to see British shows nowadays and we don't need pale imitations?)

RCP said...

"He compensates for no social skills by possessing this wondrous ability to bend spoons with his mind."

Been there.

Jonah D said...

Haha! You just described one of my favorite detective shows: Monk, including the "It's a blessing and a curse" line. So perceptive!

James Dunn said...

januaryfire: Thanks, I'm already aware of the BBC series and I loved it. For me Benedict Cumberbatch is right up there with Jeremy Brett. Of course, knowing this just makes any CBS attempt sound even worse.

Carol: Unfortunately, I'm very serious. Going by Steven Moffat's surprised reaction on twitter, it won't be based on the BBC Sherlock. Or at least not in any way that would require CBS to pay them for it.

Jon88 said...

Following up on your punch line: Did you happen to see the end credits on "Suburgatory" last night? They gave props to the person whose sole contribution appears to be having made up the title.

gottacook said...

Bring back the dramatic anthology series. You get a lot more storytelling freedom if you don't have to maintain ongoing characters. Viewers who thrive on serialization can watch such series and your show.

I am probably such a fan of anthologies because as an established Rod Serling fan in the early 1970s (age 14 or thereabouts) I would make a point of tuning in to Night Gallery on NBC. (Later I learned Serling and the producer had constant battles for script control, which explains the wildly variable output.) The longest teleplay they did was also one of the most memorable: "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" starring William Windom and written by Serling.* It was 40 minutes including breaks; an ironic short (starring Jack Cassidy) filled out the hour. Longer or shorter wouldn't have worked nearly as well, and no way could this story ever have been part of a series with continuing characters.

As for conventional police drama series, my favorite (post-Homicide) is the Canadian series DaVinci's Inquest (13 episodes a year, 1997-2004). Stories involve both the coroner's department and homicide police. Like many of the best police series, neat story resolutions are uncommon. Moreover, it's extremely well acted, shot, and directed.

*Emmy nominee for Outstanding Single Program (Drama or Comedy) in 1971.

Anonymous said...

Just curious: How close do you think "The Protector" is to your checklist?

jbryant said...

Becky: Unfortunately for your series idea, the title COLD CASE has already been used. :)

Breadbaker said...

Steve Bryant, call it "Ice to the Inuit" and you'll be fine.

James said...

@ Janet T -- awesome.

Tom Quigley said...

Mac said...

"A prop comedian who retrains as a forensic pathologist, but he can't let go of his old job?..."

I see a new career path for Carrot Top...

Anonymous said...

The hero also needs to live in a house worth millions of dollars, which no one questions.

There was a german detective series that was s hown in the UK years ago.
I only ever watched after going to the pub but all crimes seemed to involve topless women and listening to jazz music.

Brandon Startikoff said...

By Joe, I think Becky's on to something! Sorry, I mean ON something. Not that there's anything wrong with that!

Kenny, the M's rounded out the season just as they should have: 2 stinkin' hits and NO EFFEN runs, and it still took 2 hrs, 22 min. to "play" a 2-0 game, probably cuz Seattle changed pitchers every 20 min. That's what, 11 consec. seasons w/out a playoff appearance? Or is it tradition? Good to know they'll start next season in Japan. Maybe they'll stay there? They might be a fairly mediocre team in the Japanese league.

Keith said...

Your show also has to take place in that weird alternate universe where there are no unattractive (or even average-looking) people.

Anonymous said...

How can you say comedy is back? Not one of the new series is even remotley funny. There all, badly written, horribly cast and about pathetic people no one could cary anything about. And Two and a Half Men fits right in.

cadavra said...

Back in the early 60s, Warners made a string of swingin' detective shows in the wake of 77 Sunset Strip's huge success. And let's not forget all those westerns in the late 50s. There are always cycles, and this is simply another of them.

BTW, I would exempt CASTLE from this discussion, since most weeks it seems to be a sly parody of the genre.

Randy Johnson said...

Apparently I've missed something somewhere. i recognize every trait but the one you say is most common. Fairy tale characters?

Johnny Walker said...

So very true. Forgetting the "fantasy" procedurals, I was getting tired of the Law & Order and CSI craze back in 2002. When is someone going to lampoon these crazily sadistic and unrealistic shows? The last time the public became enamoured with "realistic" portrayals of tragedies we got the Zucker Brother's "Airplane!" to kill them off. I'm still waiting for the CSI equivalent.

Fun factoid: A season of the Law & Order franchise often has portrays more murders than Manhattan actually has in the same time period.

Another fun factoid: Currently topping the "What I want to be when I grow up" list for young teens is: CSI Officer. Are parents really letting their little ones watch this stuff? The last episode I saw, the killer was found because they found vaginal tissue on the gun he used to kill his victim: He'd raped her with the gun first. Nice.

I often wonder if the writers just have to try and come up with the most horrible things they can think of? How long before we get CSI/Human Centipede cross-over?

Johnny Walker said...

Quick exception: THE WIRE is quite simply the greatest TV show ever made, and (as a bonus) isn't actually a procedural at all. If you've ever felt your intelligence insulted by TV, then you've really got no reason not to watch it. This is genuinely TV for adults.

Top tips for enjoying it:

1. Start at the beginning (it's an exercise in "long form" TV -- each episode is not a stand-alone story where everything resets at the end).

2. Because of #1, it's more like a book than a traditional TV show. That means the first few "chapters" are just introducing the world and the characters. Give it time, like a good book, you will be rewarded.

3. The show was written to be as realistic as possible. This means that officers talk like real officers. Gang members talk like real gang members. It expects you to use your brain and keep up. Subtitles are your friend.

It really is the greatest show ever made. Better than The Sopranos, even. It's not a procedural, and it's not interested in "good guys" and "bad guys". It's just interested in exploring the situation and the people.

It's a huge thing over here in the UK, but like Bill Hicks before it, US audiences don't seem quite ready for it, despite the universally positive critical reviews its gotten.

I digress.

Anonymous said...

Becky Says
I forgot my title: In Cold Blood (I realize that there are already media with that title but this will be way more famous, trust me.

Anonymous said...

Of course the procedurals have quirks...if they don't, it's just a straight cop show that is BORING.

Unlike comedy shows, of course, that are always new and original. I watch about 40 shows a week, including PVRing; only two are sitcoms (HIMYM which I am frequently disapppointed by and Big Bang Theory which doesn't).


Ger Apeldoorn said...

What I lke about Person of Interest is that is actually is Batman as he is written in the comics these days.

Harold X said...

Just one week, for the hell of it, how about no falling back on ubiquitous surveillance cameras?

Do you think any of today's writers could deal with the challenge?

Kaleberg said...

This sounds like the formula Doyle used for his Sherlock Holmes stories, though Doyle was the one seeing fairy tale characters, not Holmes.

Matt Patton said...

A few random observations:

The Closer fulfills a few of the items in the Levine Formula, yet still manages to to remain a very good show because (a)the center of the show is an actual, you know, cop, and (b)pretty much everybody in her unit is "colorful," but in ways that seem to conform with reality (I've known some reasonably colorful people, even in my limited existence). Also, there has yet to be a talking-villain serial killer who keeps throwing arrogant challenges to the central character (Bones is particularly bad in this regard). One of these days, there will be a cop show where the evidence takes as long to process as it does in real life (sometimes it can take months), but maybe that's being too optimistic . . .

T Beck said...

Fame and fortune and a spin-off with :MIAMI at the end of the title can be yours if you just follow my simple rules.

Does that mean, in a few years we can expect Hawaii 5-0: Miami?