Showrunners! How to Make Me Care About Your Serialized Drama
Sunday, December 14, 2008 | Author: Mad Typist
From over at Televisionary (one of my new must-read-daily sites) comes a description of an intriguing new show from ABC called Flash Forward. Here's a brief description of the show:
What is Flash Forward about? In a nutshell, it's the chaos that ensues after everyone on the planet blacks out for two minutes and seventeen seconds. But that's not entirely true. First, about 40 million or so poor souls don't survive the global event; airplanes fall from the sky, cars collide, people fall down stairs, drown, etc. as they lose consciousness during whatever they're doing at that moment. Second, the effect isn't so much a blackout but a Lost-appropriate flash forward in time as each of the survivors experiences a snippet from their own future during that time loss. And not just any moment, but a very specific moment five months from then: 8 pm on April 20th, 2010.

Why do each of them witness that specific moment? That's one of the script's central mysteries, along with what caused the worldwide blackout, whether it was a natural event like an earthquake or whether it was a man-made, terrorist-style attack, and whether the future can be altered.
So far, so good. If you visit the link above, you'll get a semi-spoilery list of details about the pilot episode. It's got an interesting cast - Joseph Fiennes (a.k.a "the lesser Fiennes brother"), Sonya Walger (a.k.a "Penny, Desmond's true love, from Lost) , and John Cho (Harold, from Harold & Kumar). The pilot has some "Holy crap!" moments built in, and it seems like it could be a fascnating series.

However, the show like this requires a commitment from a viewer. It demands that you watch each and every episode, that you pay attention to clues doled out over the course of a season, in order to get the full impact of the storyline. And for this reason, I'm hesitant to get too excited about this show. I've already stopped watching Lost, Heroes and the Sarah Connor Chronicles, and though I'm watching Fringe, I don't think I care much one way or the other if it gets canceled after this season. Now, mind you - I'm a big fan of serial dramas when done right. I've loved (among others) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, so I'm definitely the type of audience the networks want to target.

Here are some tips for showrunners who want to win my love for their serial drama:

Give me memorable characters with clear motivation. Within five minutes of meeting our two protagonists in the X-files, we instantly knew who they were, and what their motivation was. Mulder was the eccentric believer, Scully the scientifically-minded skeptic. Mulder had a focused quest (finding his sister) and a more open ended quest (proving all sorts of supernatural and extraterrestial things really existed) that fueled him and drove him forward. Scully's motivation was also clear: keep your job by fucking Mulder's groove up and playing the wet blanket to make the FBI bosses happy. Okay, great, you've got my attention and I understand why they're doing what they do. Contrast that with Fringe, the X-files' would-be successor, where after 10 full episodes, I still have no idea what the main character's motivation is. Why is Olivia there? What drives her, aside from some weird dreams about her maybe-dead boyfriend? What's special about her that makes Lance Reddick's character trust her to head up an investigation into The Pattern?

Know your end game. Do you know why the X-files imploded in their last few seasons? Because it was pretty freaking obvious after awhile that Chris Carter was just making shit up as he went along. If your show is going to have Big Questions as a part of its dramatic tension, then you'd better have your Big Answers ready to go when you start writing. While I've stopped watching Heroes, it's first season was pretty darn good. They had two major point plots (Save the Cheerleader, and Stopping the Exploding Man) that drove the first and second halves of the season. Every episode was dedicated to moving the characters into place so that those two plot events could take place. That meant a tightly plotted, fairly compelling first season. In the description above of Flash Forward, it's clear there's going to be some big questions about why the flash forward happened, what's going to be the fate of each individual in the main plot and so on. The showrunners better damn well know that up front. The most important thing driving the plot must be the explanation behind the flash forward - is it man-made, supernatural in nature, or something else? The Why and the How are key points that the showrunners need to know in advance to make the individual plotlines make sense.

The most extreme example of this would be the case of Babylon 5, where creator J. Michael Straczynski had an inspiration for a story that would go exactly 5 seasons - and he wrote the entire plot out (the major points anyway) in advance. There were lines of dialogue in season 1 that were written specifically because they were going to significant in season 5.

Respect continuity. Because serial dramas rely on multiple episode arcs, and each episode should (ideally) build on the ones that came before, it is critical that a show respect continuity. Nothing infuriates fans more than a lack of continuity. For example, the Sarah Connor Chronicles is responsible not only for "rules" and timelines they've established in their own show, they also must be accountable to the first 2 Terminator movies. After making such a huge deal about how only organic material could be transported through time (a rule that was established to answer the whole "Why not just send them back with crazy lazer guns?" question), the show commited a huge continuity error by showing a metal Terminator skull being sent back in time in an early episode of the show. It was at that moment that I, doing my best impression of an Iraqi journalist, threw my shoe at the TV.

This is particularly important when it comes to shows with a sci-fi or fantasy element. Once you establish particular "rules" for how things work in your fictional universe, it's paramount that you follow those rules. Nothing frustrates me more than thinking to myself, "Do these people even WATCH their own show?!"

Keep the cast size manageable. In long term serial dramas, particularly of the nature described for Fast Forward, there's a tendency to want to cram as many people as possible into the story. This can be a major mistake. One of the main complaints about Heroes is that the show just kept adding more and more characters to the mix, many of which were not well received. Lost started out with an intriguing premise - 47 castaways stranded on a mysterious island. We'd start by focusing on a dozen of so main characters, with the promise of other characters perhaps emerging as major players in future seasons. Well, that was fine, until they decided to add 8 more characters from the back of the plane, and then they decided to staff and stock a whole other population of Others, and THEN they decided that there would be another half dozen or so characters off the Island that were going to get back stories. So those other 32 castaways are still there, but only as set dressing, milling aimlessly in the background but never really engaging in the main plot, even if it's something that might really affect their lives.

Give me characters I can get behind. All those other points can be overlooked (hey, we all have a continuity error or two here or there), if you give me characters I can get invested in. I'm not saying they have to be "good guys" - Vic Mackey from The Shield, Glenn Close's Patty Hewes from Damages, and the great Tony Soprano are just a few examples of bad guys you can't help but root for. Ultimately I gave up on Lost, Heroes, Sarah Connor and others because I just didn't like the characters. I loathe (LOATHE!) Jack from Lost, along with 50% of the other castaways. The same holds true for Heroes - I just hated most of the characters, who were either too whiny (Peter), stupid (Mohinder, the lame twins from South America), or otherwise bland and uninteresting (Nikki and her 2 other incarnations, Micah). The Sarah Connor Chronicles made the mistake of thinking that portraying the future savior of mankind as a whiny petulant teenager would be compelling for the audience. Look, no one watches a show set in the Terminator universe because they want to see the riveting tale of how a boy navigates the perils of high school dating.

Look, you're asking your audience to spend around 22-24 hours per year with these fictional people. It's important that they ENJOY that time with them, because they like watching them. Having your audience spending most of their time screaming "Shut the hell up, [character x]!" is a sure way to get your ratings to plummet.
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