As cancellations, renewals and pickups have been rolling in over the past little while, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what new shows may be in my wheelhouse, whether any previous good fits have been taken off the air, and basically getting a sense of where my place lies in the current TV world. With one of the shows that utterly owns my soul (Warehouse 13) on the bubble, I’ve been a little worried if it’s an outlier or the beginning of the end of my window. (Based on the number of genre pilots that were picked up, I’m thinking outlier.) That got me thinking about what exactly makes a show fit my sensibilities, what the common threads are in my favorite shows and my spec pilots — the better to spot any promising new pickups.
One of my career coach’s exercises determined that the primary descriptors of my personality are offbeat, curious, and earnest, so I wondered if I could do something similar for my work and the shows I find myself drawn to most strongly. Of course there are certain tropes/character types I’m very fond of, but for this exercise I focused on broader elements. To my surprise, it was incredibly easy to figure out the pattern — I’ve identified nine key elements, and everything I watch or write possesses at least five of them. These are in no particular order, except for #1, which is so fundamental to my nature (there’s that earnestness!) it’s almost always a dealbreaker.
- Inherently hopeful. This doesn’t mean sunshine, flowers and rainbows — I maintain that Pretty Little Liars is hopeful because no matter what happens, the girls believe they can and will find out what happened to Ali. (See also Grimm‘s Scooby Gang of do-gooders.)
- Strong lead female character. Even on shows with male protagonists, there’s at least one badass lady, whether she’s an apothecary or a hacker or a nosy high school student.
- Found families. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve nearly always preferred stories (or subplots) about groups of friends, classmates or coworkers to a focus on nuclear families. (Heroes was the one major outlier here.)
- SF/Fantasy/Supernatural elements. As far as I’m concerned, the joy of fiction is being able to do whatever you damn well please as long as the story has internal logic. Witches? Werewolves? Telekinesis? Teleportation? Yes, thank you, I’ll have another.
- Strong sense of place. I love feeling grounded in wherever the show is set, be it Portland or Rosewood or Univille.
- Mystery. Not necessarily straight-up detective work, but a definite “puzzle” element.
- Teen/young adult characters. I love a good coming-of-age story, and even the transitions my adult characters go through tend to map more closely to coming-of-age stories than other types of life changes.
- A romance I can root for. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, this involves one character I really identify with plus another character I personally find appealing. (Currently, the one in 100 is Rosalee and Monroe, who’s not my type whatsoever, on Grimm.)
- Sense of humor. A relentlessly dour tone will usually turn me off a show really fast.
Here’s how my top four current favorites stack up:
Warehouse 13: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9
Pretty Little Liars: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8
Grimm: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9
Arrow: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 (I’d add #7 but Thea hasn’t been around much lately)
And my spec pilots:
Between the Lines (dramedy): 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 9
Bonaventure Underground (teen mystery): 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7
Kismet Kate (superhero): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9
untitled witch project (light supernatural): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9
Obviously these aren’t the only things that grab my attention in a TV show or that make me want to write a particular story — there’s a lot more to “voice” or “brand” than that. On the spectrum of “Gaaaahhh! Pigeonholing is evil! The Man is stifling my creativity!” to “Find your niche and stick with it”, I fall right in the middle — I’m a big believer in knowing your strengths but also leaving room to grow. But these nine elements are my foundation, and are probably as close as I’ll ever get to having an actual formula. And if any of you ever catch me recycling smaller specifics too much, just swat me on the knuckles with a rolled-up script. I’ll get the hint.