Thursday, April 12, 2012

How to Create a TV Show, Part 8: Why TV Loves Cops, Doctors and Lawyers

Earlier, I recommended that a spec pilot can go a little crazy, and explore strange new professions, but there are good reason why TV shows love cops, doctors and (to a lesser extent) lawyers.  It’s good to know what those reasons are so that you can know what problems you might face if you try to do something more ambitious.  

Here are some of the benefits of all three professions:
  • The stakes are high, because their decisions are matters of life and death.
  • Trouble walks in the door every day.  They don’t have to generate any business, because the phone is constantly ringing with someone who desperately needs their help.
  • They live in a world that brings rich and poor together.  Too much wealth and a show seems frivolous.  Too much poverty and it seems hopeless.
  • They have decision-making power in the field.  They aren’t just following orders.  They have to improvise.  This is why there was always a mole inside CTU on “24”.   You have to get to a point where the hero can’t call for back-up and has to handle it personally.   
  • Okay, but all of the above are also true for fire fighters, so how there aren’t more shows about them?  One big problem is that fire-fighting doesn’t really have any moral gray areas.  Fire is an obstacle, but it’s not a conflict.  Everyone agrees that the fire should be put out, so there’s nothing for your characters to debate. Cops, doctors and lawyers face much trickier decisions.
And here’s two more that are true for cops and doctors, but not so much for lawyers:
  • They engage in both physical and cerebral activity.  It’s boring to watch somebody sit and think.  You want to get them up and moving.  There’s a reason why everybody walked-and-talked on “The West Wing”: to hide the fact that nobody was doing any hands-on work!
  • This is huge and it might be hard to spot at first: they don’t make long–term commitments.  Danger comes in the door, they take care of it, and they send it right back out.  We get a new story every week.  One problem with a show like “The Philanthropist” is that real philanthropists can only help people by committing for the long term.  Watching a situation slowly improve over several years is booooooring.   
If you choose another profession without all these benefits, it might be an uphill battle.  A masterpiece like “Slings and Arrows” is all the more impressive when you realize that it had none of these advantages.  The worst that could happen was that a Shakespeare festival would fail!  Each play lasted a whole season, gradually coming together over time!  This is storytelling death... 

…And yet, we come to care deeply about these productions and their ups and downs, because the writing was just so damn good.  They made us care, even though we had no good reason to.  We forgot that the stakes were so low.  They made us share the characters’ long-term commitment to making these plays better, bit by bit. 

It’s always going to be a hell of a lot easier to get us to care about cops, doctors and lawyers, for all the reasons listed above, but a great writer can make us care about anything.  Are you sure you’re up to that challenge?


j.s. said...

This speaks to why there's never been a really great TV series about the actual real world work of espionage (though I still haven't seen THE SANDBAGGERS, which I know you recommend). Real spying is pretty subtle, largely not about breaking and entering covert ops style, not even so much about surveilling bad guys discretely, as it is about thinking and talking.

The new TINKER TAILOR film dealt with these problems about as well as you possibly could but there was a terrible show on AMC recently called RUBICON that made just about every mistake there is to make including scenes where we literally watch the protagonist sit and think silently. All the more strange because its creators claimed they were inspired by films like ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, another exceptional thriller about thinking and talking that finds a myriad of ways to successfully dramatize its largely cerebral and interior action.

Matt Bird said...

There are SO many impediments to doing a realistic spy show.

One of the biggest is that real spies tend to work in only one country and a strict firewall keeps them from knowing what their agency is doing in any other country. And yet, every spy show, they're off to a different corner of the world every week!

For the spy show I developed, I tried to keep things realistic and stick to one region, but now that I'm rewriting it, I'm saying screw it and jumping to different areas of the world, even thought I know that's not realistic.

Entertainment, sadly, must trump realism.

I love The Sandbaggers, but it's my *second-most* favorite spy show. My favorite remains Danger Man aka Secret Agent, which was all the more impressive, because Drake had no confidant, so there was a LOT of just watching him watch and think, but the audience is riveted, because *nobody* could watch and think as well as Patrick McGoohan.

j.s. said...

One of my hobbies is learning about this stuff, as much as I can from open sources. I'd say compartmenting is probably not as big a problem for realism as you think it is. Then and now there are any number of authentic spy jobs and real departments/divisions/commands with global authority and reach. Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence and the old SE division in the Cold War are just a few examples. So if your heroes are anyone but entry-level case officers, it shouldn't be that hard to believably send them anywhere you want. If your show is more serialized, all the better, as spying really is a long game.

Matt Bird said...

Alas, my characters were entry-level case officers. This gets back to my caveat that it's hard to do shows about rookies in any profession because they don't have enough independence or decision-making ability.

j.s. said...

Well, all hope is not lost. You could still contrive a plausible reason why their newness (or relative unknown-ness to all competing intelligence agencies and enemies of the state) could be an asset. At the height of the Cold War, several defectors gave away lists of c.o. true names/identities to our enemies, blowing untold number of covers and ops. Nowadays, I'd blame a Wikileaks-like entity for the breach. What better reason has there ever been for an untested soldier to step onto the front lines than the man in front of him falling?

Speaking of rookie shows, I can't wait to see Richard Price's NYPD rookie cop drama NYC 22.

Beth said...

Thanks Matt, this explains why there aren't more shows about librarians. #1 It's never a life or death situation (despite what the middle schooler or homeless person thinks) and #2 there's never any moral ambiguity with the facts (even insane psuedo-facts can't be argued with -- just laughed at). Although wasn't there a librarian character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

Matt Bird said...

Beth: There was indeed, and he was very heroic, but he was more of a mentor than a fighter.

Whenever anyone pitches me a show, I always respond the same way: there has to be someone out there opposed to what the heroes are doing. If you were going to do a library drama, it would have be set at a place like Lindisfarne, with savage hordes always trying to destroy it.

J.S.: Amongst other problems, rookie cop shows tend to have the opposite of the long-term commitment problem: their commitments are too short-term. If there's any follow-up to an incident, they have to hand it off to detectives, so it's hard to do a multi-beat story.

The only two successful shows I've seen about beat cops both had an ensemble that included beat cops AND detectives. In both cases, Hill Street Blues and The Shield, if the writers wanted to do a multi-beat storyline about the beat cops out on patrol, then they had to concoct a situation where the cops kept getting called back to the same domestic disturbance multiple times.

James Kennedy said...

On the other hand, I could easily see a great sitcom about librarians.

Matt Bird said...

STOP THE PRESSES! I've been listening to the episodes of the legendary Hitchcock-inspired radio show "Suspense" recently, and I just listened to this one about a mousy librarian (played by Myrna Loy!) who must solve the case once she realizes that the words for a ransom note were cut out of a copy of "Gone With the Wind". It's absolutely hilarious, especially the final lines. It must be heard to be believed: http://www.escape-suspense.com/2007/04/suspense_librar.html

Beth said...

Wow, cool!

Skyler White said...

I'd argue the stakes *are* high on Slings and Arrows. Oliver dies a terrible death right at the beginning as something of a level-set and Jeffery's sanity certainly teeters in the balance. Totally agree that the show is brilliant though (as is your book and now, I'm discovering, your blog!)