do not touch that dial

10/20/11

On Monday, we covered The Germ that makes writing TV so worthwhile and amazing, but just because you’ve got a good Germ doesn’t mean you’ve got a show worth spending six months (or years) crafting. The initial spark must lead you to a big overarching idea for a show that will continually make you feel… well, kinda turned on.

In other words, it has to pass The Smell Test of immediate interest. When you tell a family member the idea in fifteen words or less, not only do they have to be instantly piqued, you have to be convinced of it anew.

When I was 12, I spent the summer with my cousin Mark in Arcadia, California. Back then, the local station showed back-to-back episodes of the old Twilight Zone show in black & white every afternoon at 4, and we consumed it like starving mongrels. Even though the show was already ancient by then, our lives revolved around it; Mark hurried back from football practice, and I juggled around my office duties at the catering company just to make sure we could watch it together, eating homemade Mormon tortilla chips and green salsa.

Since then, I have always looked for THAT SHOW, the one that made you less depressed just knowing they were making more for you. The show that stacks up on your DVR when you go on vacation, allowing you to consume it like chocolate chip cookie dough upon your return.

The TV show that emanates from your Germ must have the possibility of becoming this very thing. It has to have an element to it so captivating – or a twist so alluring – that it damn near writes itself. And the Smell Test starts with the “pitch”, or that quick description you told your family member in 15 seconds (or the network exec in 20 minutes).

Lemme give you two examples. One of the shows we wrote and sold was this: “You know the Griffin & Sabine books, where a lonely artist gets a postcard from a woman who can see what he’s painting, even though she lives in the South Pacific and they’ve never met? Imagine that mixed with a paranoid political thriller using math, love and the ideas from The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, and you’re almost there.”

Or let’s go even simpler with our idea from the season before last: “Three detectives in New York City get an object delivered to them each week that doesn’t behave like it should.”

I mean, I’m sorry, I’m off to the races with both of those. If done right, I’m turned on.

Trying to determine what shows pass the test – and which don’t – is hard, because it’s mostly just a feeling. It’s like explaining why you think a certain woman is hot, regardless of her looks. When yesterday’s commenters answered why they watch TV, their reasons for watching one show or another may be called “entertainment” or “education” or “addiction to story arc”, but really, it all comes back to this: TV is not a crutch, it’s a crush.

If you – my smart audience, spread throughout the country – were to hear the crop of shows premiering on television this upcoming season, you would be able to predict their success rate with about 85% accuracy within the first 10 seconds of hearing the pitch. It would be as easy as rating a bunch of dudes as “hot or not”.

Not only that, but you’d even be able to peg certain shows as “successes you would never watch”, because you could see the inherent draw for others. I’ll go even further: I think you could easily pick the shows that will have a much-watched pilot followed by a plunge and quick extinction, as well as the ones that would be dead on arrival.

The problem is this: the longer you stay in this business, the less you’d be able to predict. Your perspective will gradually get out of whack, and you’ll start second-guessing yourself, followed by doubling down on false notions.

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This is why we don’t intend to stay here forever – and while we’re here, try to stay as innocent as possible. Again, I’m venturing into the land of the twee and precious, but I try to think of shows the way I thought of “The Twilight Zone”, the way I desperately heaved my way through the paper route so I could get home to watch “Mork and Mindy”, the way I loved those three guilty pleasure words: “Previously on ‘Alias’.”

Despite all I’ve seen, and all the gossip I know… despite the shows I loathe, and the demoralizing “inner circles” that cocoon around all the networks… I still love television like a kid. I have seen enough exciting things to know that the only real spiritual death you can have in this business is the same as anywhere else: to spend your life constructing something you would never enjoy.

0 thoughts on “do not touch that dial

  1. kevin from NC

    Thanks Ian,
    A nice way to start the day. I have always loved TV but am taking a bit of a break right now although I still have my DVR set for Fringe and whenever Madmen cranks back up. I will catch up once the time changes and the darkness creeps in even earlier than before.
    I agree on losing perspective after being in that work so long and second guessing yourself and the same could be said for many things after many years….relationships, businesses even jobs. Maybe you could create an xtcian focus group for your scripts.. we can bring the real world back to you but if for just a few moments. Have a great weekend. k

    Reply
  2. CM

    I’m glad you haven’t resorted to the pessimism so many feel about TV. TV can be great. But it takes a lot of effort to keep something fresh every week. There’s a reason the Simpsons has like 20 writers.
    I do hope that you and Tessa sell a series that is so wonderful that not only does it captivate audiences for years with its passion, uniqueness, and suspense, but it eventually lets do all the other projects you’d like to do.

    Reply
  3. Mom

    It might be interesting, Ian, to ask this august group of XTCIAN fans to name, say, three new shows they think will succeed, and three they are sure will be cancelled before the snow flies.
    I can start my lists with “Charlie’s Angels.” Awful. Unwatchable, and No. 1 on my bleahhhh meter.
    One that should make it, or I’m going to be very sad: “Prime suspect”. Maria Bello is no Helen Mirren (who starred in the UK version). But she IS a sublime Maria Bello. Love this show.
    Of course, legions of viewers will see these two shows with the opposite reaction.
    But it would be fun to see how accurate the great XTCIAN world is at predicting.

    Reply
  4. Ian

    Except that “Charlie’s Angels” is already cancelled, so you’re already right. I like “Prime Suspect” too, and Maria Bello is fantastic, but I think its having a hard time convincing people its just another police procedural like “Law & Order”. The new ads for it are going in the right direction, though.

    Reply

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