Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Anatomy of a TV spec - Don't Trust the B--- in Apt 23 - Part II

Picking up from yesterday, I had decided to do a spec episode of Don't Trust the B---- In Apartment 23 as my submission to the WB Writers Workshop.  Now I just had to come up with a plot.

From the moment the series began, I had great affinity for James.  I could probably write for his character forever.  I love writing blowhards, but I really enjoy writing for blowhards who are completely obvious to their own assholery.  Lock me in a room for a week, and I can probably come back with a season's worth of James stories.  So it came as no shock that I quickly had a James story that felt very much in the spirit of the show.

The show's pilot made it clear that unlike some celebrities who run from the thing that made them famous, James milks Dawson's Creek for all it's worth.  Or at least he does when it results in him bedding women who grew up with crushes on Dawson.  It was pretty well-established on the show that James gets a lot of action by trading on that nostalgia.  But there's a flaw in relying too much on that association.  I'll let James explain...


James enters. Strides over to counter.

Enough about your problems, my turn.

You just got here!

I got complacent. I should have seen it coming.

Go on...

A blind spot in my demographic appeal. “Creek” nostalgia locked up
the 25-39 demo, DWTS made me the number three sexual fantasy of the
40-plus crowd and my one-man “Curious George” show is planting
the seeds for the next generation of Beekers.

A guy tries to nudge in.

Hey, can I just order a--

James turns with a dramatic flourish, pushing the guy away without even seeming to notice him.

In doing so, I neglected the current 14-19 demographic. Do you
know what that will do to my sex life in a few years?

You’d have to sleep with women your own age?

Exactly! I have to fix this.

Basically, James flies into a panic when he meets a hot 18 year-old who's completely ignorant of Dawson's Creek.  So his goal for the episode is to find a way to stay relevant to the next generation.  In and of itself, that's not a particularly unique problem, but the way James process and deals with the problem is entirely in keeping with his character.

I knew I was on the right track when everyone I told this plot to - including an actor who appeared on the series - responded with, "Oh I can TOTALLY see James doing that!"

But James is just a supporting character on the series.  He might have his own B-story in every ep, but at that point in the show it was never the A-story unless it involved Chloe or June.  Plus, the goal of a TV spec is to show how well you can mimic the actual series.  For that reason, it's a bad idea to center your TV spec on guest characters or supporting characters.  The stars of your show are the ones who need to drive the story.  I had to come up with a plot for Chloe and June and it needed to work with James's storyline.

During one brainstorming session I reflected back on my attempt to write a Revenge spec and it made me realize that both Chloe and Emily Thorne could be considered sociopaths and masterminds.  It led me to the notion that I could have Chloe Revenge-ing someone.  I went through a couple versions of what this could be, but I kept hitting the same stumbling block.

The problem is June.  Having Chloe pull a Revenge takedown presented an opportunity to fill in some of her past, but it left June with nothing to do but be the tag-along wagging her finger in disapproval at every mad scheme Chloe set up.  The real challenge of writing June is to not make her a killjoy.  She's bright and perky, but that quickly gets boring - especially when it feels like she's stomping on Chloe's fun.

Eventually it became clear to me that the only way June getting in Chloe's way was going to work would be if the story came from June and Chloe's scheme kept threatening whatever June was trying to accomplish.  Several episodes in the first season had played with this dynamic and after I started writing, the second season went back to this well with a fair amount of frequency.  I was a little disappointed that I was falling into a well-established pattern on the show, but after exploring a number of other avenues, I understood why alternate structures were not natural fits for the show.

Shifting the focus to June made a number of things fall into place.  The idea became that June would encounter several people who wronged her in her past and Chloe would take it upon herself to extract an Emily Thorne-like poetic vengeance on them, all while June attempts to abort this scheme she never wanted in the first place.

Because I wanted James's story to intersect with June's, I couldn't send the girls to a high school or college reunion.  June's past had to come to her, so I decided that some of June's old sorority friends would come to town for a wedding.  Since they needed to be evil, it made sense to me that they would make June a member of the wedding party so as to take advantage of her hyper-responsibility in planning everything.

Basically, they wanted a stooge to do all the grunt work - which I revealed was the dynamic in college. Through flashbacks I piled on some other Mean Girls-ish crap.  Fortunately, some of my friends are frenemies with some horrible harpies.  Every now and then these viral entities have snuck into our social group, wreaked havoc and eventually been expunged.

What I'm getting at is - between my female friends sorority experiences and a lot of ex-girlfriends of friends, I had more than enough to work with here.  Having known plenty of "users" over the years, this stuff practically wrote itself.

Eventually what emerged is that a cousin of the bride-to-be would be eighteen and totally perplexed that all of the other bridesmaids freak out at the discovery that June is friends with "Dawson."  James is so shaken by this that he passes up several easy lays in order to try woo the eighteen year-old, seeing her as the litmus test for his future demographic appeal.  This worked out neatly because while June leads the bachelorettes on a night of wild clubbing, I could always cut away to the underage cousin (barred from the debauchery) as she dealt with James.

Chloe's role in the story would be that she seemingly fits in with the Mean Girls, only to be a Trojan Horse that takes them down from within.  I had a few reversals written into this, and was rather dismayed when a couple episodes from later in the second season would pretty much play the same card.  On the other hand, it meant that I was writing them in-character.

I also came up with a C-story that involved the creeper neighbor Eli and I was actually pretty proud of using him in a way that both was true to his character and was an angle that was completely unexplored by the series.  I had a lot of balls in the air, but they all seemed to be crossing into each other's orbits in the right way.

After a few drafts, my biggest problem still was June.  While she'd probably be the wacky friend on any other show - on THIS show, June is the straight man.  Somebody's gotta be the killjoy of the group just to give the party animals someone to push against.  In practical terms, this meant that all of the good lines kept ending up in James, Chloe or even Eli's mouth.  Getting June to be funny within the parameters of this episode and still be "June" was probably my biggest challenge.

In the end, I was pretty happy with what I wrote, though it definitely was a much harder needle to thread than any original project I'd taken on.  It's really hard to nail the voice of a show while demonstrating that you're not just a really good imitator - that you're bringing something of yourself to the table.

This is why I still very much believe that it's best to put your energy into original pilots and screenplays.  The only avenue where a spec episode will really do you some good are with these sorts of fellowships and workshops.  They can be great ways to break in, don't get me wrong. but hopefully what comes across in this post is just how many moving parts there are in your typical TV spec.

And now - since Apt 23 was canceled, I get to go through this all over again with a new show if I intend to apply next year!


  1. Again, thanks for this. It was good to see your mental approach of attacking this type of script and everything a writer has to keep in mind when drafting and plotting it out. It was more fun for me to read since I was a fan of that show.

    I posted this question in Part One yesterday - is being intimidated by the writing on a particular show is a legit reason to avoid doing a spec on that series or should one just get over it.

    For instance, I have experience in the news and P.R. business and could relate experiences I've had(and news events of a year ago) to an episode of The Newsroom. But - I can't match Aaron Sorkin's work. I feel stupid even thinking about it!

    As a result, I keep thinking that, even though the script wouldn't be as good, I'm better off writing The Neighbors where a thin plot, dumb idea, and jokes that aren't that funny may not seem out of place.

    1. I'd say you need to examine your own talent level and decide if it's just nerves holding you back or if you really are punching above your weight. I can't really answer that question for you - only you can.

      I can tell you that it's a bad idea to spec a show you think is dumb just because you assume it would be easy. It's never a winning strategy to have open contempt for something you're working on. Your passion will need to come through in your sample, so if you're writing a show you don't care about, there's going to be little life to the story.

      It would probably be very easy to write a spec of SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER that was just as bad as what they put on the air. But then again, who's going to want to read it? Better still, if you're great at apeing the quality of a weak or even terrible show, how is that script going to do you any good?

      But if THE NEIGHBORS is your favorite show and you revel in writing that kind of "dumb" humor, it might be a fantastic idea to challenge yourself by writing within those confines. If you're only doing it because you think any idiot could write that spec, then you've got a problem.

  2. I had a question about your post from yesterday. You said you learned you are not advancing in the WB Writers' Workshop, how do you know that? I apologize for my ignorance, I submitted to that contest for the first time this year and was under the impression they notified people at the end of September, as per their website. I have read on other blogs that they make their decisions at the end of August, which is confusing. What if you have not heard anything by this point, either a rejection or a phone call to advance to the semi-finals?

    1. Some people were notified last week via email that they weren't advancing. I think September is the public announcement of those moving on.

  3. Good for you for giving it a shot, though. Writing a spec script is hard, because you're entering a created world and fitting in with it. It can be rewarding, but it's an entirely different mind set than writing original work.

    So many people don't even try -- you went for it. Sorry you didn't advance, but fingers crossed that the work put in will translate to another project.