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April 6, 2023

What Makes a Great TV Show?

If you're a screenwriter, it's likely that you've attempted to write a TV pilot or perhaps a spec script for an existing show. Like us, you may have pondered what maeks a great TV show.

In this article, we will discuss the primary characteristics of exceptional TV shows and how you can apply these best practices to your own writing.

The cast of characters

Undeniably, the most crucial component of a successful TV show is the development of a captivating cast of characters who offer opportunities for engaging drama and encourage viewers to analyze their choices.

Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series looking perplexed about an issue.
Dumbledore from Harry Potter makes for an interesting character because he has a complex inner life that is gradually revealed over the series

Some may be surprised that character takes precedence over premise, but upon reflection, this makes sense. The premises of Breaking Bad, Deep Space Nine, and Succession are intriguing, but not sufficient to sustain long-running shows.

The key to enlivening a premise lies in the cast of characters. These individuals will be familiar to audiences over extended periods, so they must be as fascinating as possible.

To achieve this, strive for innovation and dynamism. Each character should possess unique traits, a psychologically complex inner life, a set of intricate moral compulsions, and a strong personality that interacts or conflicts with other cast members in compelling ways.

The role of a character varies depending on the type of show, but generally, audiences want to connect with them as deeply as possible, perhaps even growing to love them. This requires making characters flawed and profoundly human.

Moreover, engaging characters become the basis for potential episodes. The most exceptional TV episodes typically center around the perspective of a character, delving deeper into their psychology.

A compelling premise that generates stories

Before developing your captivating cast of characters, you will need an equally compelling premise for your TV show.

In general, it is advisable to distill your chosen premise into a single sentence with a hook that attracts potential readers. This may be challenging, especially if your show revolves around a complex world, but if you cannot hook readers within a sentence or two, you may need to rework your show's central premise.

Ideally, your show's hook should be a question that prompts viewers to envision the variety of stories they might watch. Consequently, the premise should resemble an open question. For instance, The Walking Dead's central premise is the zombie apocalypse, allowing viewers to imagine the types of stories the show will explore.

There is a subtle distinction between a serialized TV premise and an episodic TV premise. Serialized TV shows, such as Breaking Bad, Yellowjackets, or The Last of Us, typically follow a single story across multiple episodes. In contrast, episodic TV shows, like Star Trek: The Next Generation, House M.D., or Poker Face, generally allow for standalone episodes.

Hugh Laurie in House as the main character, in close up.
Hugh Laurie as House in the eponymous show

A serialized TV premise can focus more on a single story, but when writing an episodic show, it is crucial to have a robust "story engine," which gauges how your central premise can perpetually generate new storylines.

Tone, format, and target audience

TV caters to viewers of all ages, and each demographic has distinct preferences. The audience for a prestigious HBO drama may not be the same as those who exclusively watch reality TV.

As a result, ensure that your TV show idea satisfies the desires of your target audience. This is not too difficult to determine. Watch the types of TV shows your script would complement, identify what audiences enjoy about those shows, and aim to evoke a similar feeling in your own script.

Consistency of quality

Nothing elevates a TV show more than consistent high quality. Though this may extend beyond writing a pilot script, it is worth considering as you progress.

While every TV show experiences highs and lows in its content, those that withstand the test of time consistently produce high-quality episodes over extended periods. Numerous recent examples demonstrate how a show's legacy can be irreparably damaged by a decline in quality towards the end.

Consistency is vital because TV serves as a form of comfort. Tuning in to a show should assure viewers that their time will not be wasted. Therefore, maintaining high quality at all times should be a top priority.

A stellar pilot and a memorable finale

While consistency of quality is a long-term goal, you can certainly focus on perfecting the pilot script. The pilot and the finale are arguably the most critical episodes

The pilot is essential because it serves as the hook for new viewers. It introduces the characters, the show's world, the plot, the main themes, and presents a self-contained story, while also indicating what the rest of the series will resemble.

This is a challenging task, but that's why it's so crucial for the pilot to succeed. If a new viewer watches the pilot and dislikes it, they may assume that the rest of the series will be similar and choose not to continue watching. To avoid this, a stellar pilot is key.

Likewise, the finale plays a significant role in solidifying a show's legacy. Wrapping up countless hours of storytelling and tying up loose ends is no easy feat, but a well-executed finale has the potential to be incredibly powerful – or, if done poorly, incredibly damaging.

What makes a great TV show? Storytelling

A TV show is a massive undertaking in storytelling. While it can be incredibly exciting and engaging, it also presents a formidable challenge to manage.

Ensuring that you master these key concepts, particularly crafting a compelling cast of characters and writing a stellar pilot, will maximize your chances for success.

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What Makes a Great TV Show?
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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