the hippocratic boast


This week’s entry for WRITER MONDAY: Why Some TV Shows Fail Before They Start

I’m going to try and stick with my original idea about making Monday a day to discuss the cooler aspects of writing, because, well, that’s how we provide bacon for our table, and I’m the only one who might use enough unnecessary profanity to make it interesting.

Something vaguely historic happened in TV a couple of weeks ago: a show called “Do No Harm” was reported to have the “lowest rated in-season premiere ever of any scripted show on the any of the Big Four networks.” Full disclosure: I’m not only friendly with the show’s creator, but also some of the higher-up execs that made the show possible.

I’ve made a concerted effort not to discuss our work lives on the blog for obvious reasons, and I can state that all the folks involved here are awesome, unfailingly nice, and have great track records. But it’s worth looking at how “Do No Harm” had a big problem before it was ever broadcast.

Lots of industry insiders talk about “lead-ins”, or the show that comes before the show. When we were kids, “All in the Family” was the established lead-in for “M*A*S*H” on Saturday night, which was also the perfect lead-in for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”. Then came “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Carol Burnett”. Totally perfect programming.

I’ll also add ABC’s Tuesday night line-up in the late 70s just to pique y’all’s collective memory:

8pm “Happy Days”

8:30 “Laverne and Shirley”

9pm “Three’s Company”

9:30 “Soap”

10pm “Family”

Get it? Now forget it, because that had nothing to do with “Do No Harm”, and in fact, the whole concept of a “lead-in” will soon seem as antiquated as haberdasheries and nightsoil collectors. Other proscribed DNH’s failure to an unknown lead, but many huge TV shows had totally unknown actors.

No, I’m going to go against my usual prissy intellectualism and ask that you go further into your reptilian hindbrain, to that unconscious part of yourself that makes snap decisions a million times a day based on instinct and fairy dust. The kind of decisions you don’t even know you’re making, and if asked, you’d respond, “oh, um, I dunno, it just seemed right.”

This is the world, in some ways, where I live. Given that there are so many different ways to be distracted or entertained, the ideas we come up with have to have that instant, ineffable appeal. Three or four seconds into the description of our projects, I want any normal TV or movie lover to reach effortlessly into their childlike love of their favorite shows and say “oh, I’d totally want to have 2 or 3 of those waiting for me on the DVR.”

If we find ourselves working on something that seems nice and clever, but doesn’t have that “eyes-slightly-widening” factor at first breath, I know it’s done for. We’ll still get paid to write it, but that’s a quirk of the inefficiency of the process. Tessa and I both know when we’re really on to something, as well as when we’re not.

And herein lay the problem with “Do No Harm”. Here’s the poster for the show, emblazoned on many buses and billboards across Southern California:


In an instant, there’s slight confusion (is the person on his hands the same person as him?) along with a sense of lunacy at a hospital. If you guess, correctly, that it’s about a surgeon with a Jekyll and Hyde multiple personality, you see the inherent pickle and outcome of every episode.

In that split second, you have decided not to watch it, no matter how good it is. There is nothing about the concept, even without the poster, that engages that childlike sense of wonder, and makes you excited for the next one. It’s something of an immediate bummer.

I’m not saying every show has to have an undeniable hook; after all, “ER” was a show about a Chicago emergency room, “Friends” was a show about friends, and “Seinfeld” was a show about four people obsessing over the picayune. Word of mouth can overcome a “bummer” concept, if it’s on cable and allowed time to grow (“Dexter”, “Breaking Bad”).

But some ideas just hit you the wrong way. In many respects, it’s not that far from Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis in Blink, where he talks about “thin-slicing” a judgment from very little information. While “Blink” has not aged well in many fields, it’s dead-on here, since you’ve got one chance to entice a network TV viewer, and if you’re explaining, you’re losing.

My caveat is this: the person making the snap judgment has to love the thing being judged. Only the people who know the feeling of being excited about a show, or looking forward to a movie as a kid – that’s who you want. Tessa and I may have our flaws, we may have odd tastes and prefer complications to tidy bows, but we love stories, and we usually know within 3 microseconds if you will too.


8 thoughts on “the hippocratic boast

  1. GFWD

    When you write a show, do you write for the particular network, or do you write the show and then try to shop it or tailor it? For example, was MODERN FAMILY written for ABC or just picked up by ABC?
    Is it harder to write for or get picked up by cable networks? It sounds like cable allows shows to breathe and get their footing, instead of making a snap judgment after only two episodes. If that’s the case, why wouldn’t more folks want to write for them?
    Also, how many shows are filmed or shot before a show gets on the air and where do the ones that never get seen go?
    Do writers write the entire season or just a few episodes and then make it up as they go once a show gets going?
    For the scripts that you’ve written, do you get the same amount of money whether it’s put on the air or not? What’s the longest wait time between when a TV show script is picked up and then put on the air?

  2. killian

    “and if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” Perfect. Goes for art, sometimes, too, although being brought up on Leonard Bersntein’s Young People’s Guide did me a lot of good. . .

  3. kent

    I wonder about a show like “Party Down.”
    “Struggling Actors Work Catering Jobs, Hilarity Ensues” doesn’t sound like a great pitch.
    And yet that show made it two seasons. I think it would have been great if it went 3 and completed the story arc a little better, but you can’t always get what you want.
    The parts of “Party Down” that made it so memorable — great writing, a great cast, good direction, good pacing — none of those fit in a fortune cookie.
    Point being the elevator pitch is the least attractive part of “Party Down.”

  4. Jennifer M

    I watch “Do No Harm” because I love dual-nature shows, even though they tend to get canceled after one or two seasons. I was a huge fan of Jason Isaac’s “Awake” and of both the BBC and American versions of “Life on Mars.” “Do No Harm” seems most like Christian Slater’s old show, “My Own Worst Enemy.” I agree that the marketing behind “Do No Harm” sucked. That twice the man line doesn’t tell us enough about the show. Please don’t tell me it’s getting canceled because it’s a fun show to watch. I think everything about it is working, and the writers are doing a phenomenal job of keeping us guessing and providing answers into Jason’s/Ian’s lives. Here’s the synopsis from “A brilliant neurosurgeon who has to battle his own alter-ego so that he can live a normal life.” The wording is awkward, but it’s a much better elevator pitch than “He’s twice the man you think he is.” I’m looking forward to the rest of the season and I hope it finds an audience and doesn’t get canceled.

  5. Jennifer M

    Well, hell, it’s been canceled. That’s a shame. Tell your friends I thought their show was great fun, and I’m looking forward to their next endeavor.
    Kent: “Party Down” season 3? Yes, please.

  6. david wood

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