Monday, September 25, 2017

Writing a season of television using only the most time-tested tropes

A new fall season is upon us, and with it comes many new (and returning shows) that have to fill 22-24 episodes. It's a heavy chore and you can't help but notice that there are plenty of familiar tropes that shows rest on while finding their way. Plenty of these also bubble to the surface as the staff's energy might be spent enough for them to need an easy week to recharge.

As a public service not just to the viewer, but to those beleaguered writing staffs, I've complied a list of some of the most common ways these trope can be deployed throughout the first season. I came up with nineteen, so long as the show's a genre show that can take advantage of all of them. (In other words, some of these won't work on NCIS.)

With everything below, you could write almost an entire season of TV. I just don't promise it would be a GOOD season. And without further ado, an episode guide composed entirely of these tropes:

1. Pilot - You're in luck! This one's already done if you're a first season show! For later season shows, this is basically a reset ep. Standard case of the week, dressed up with explanations for character arrivals/departures, hairstyle changes, new sets, and foreshadowing the big plots of the season.

2. Do the Pilot Again - On a first year show, you're gonna be repeating the pilot dynamics for the first few eps, only with less money. If you have ANY kind of procedural element to your series, this is gonna be a case-of-the-week thing.

3. The Naked Time riff -This is mostly a convention of genre TV. The entire cast gets hit with a drug or a spell that removes inhibitions. I've named this one for a classic episode of Star Trek, which used this concept to get at the core of several characters. Most uses since then have been about getting the characters to act drunk and horny with each other. (TNG's "The Naked Now," Lois & Clark's "Pheromone, My Lovely," Buffy's "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.") So pick your poison - hint at buried depths to your characters, or get them mostly naked and send them to bone town.

4. Shady Character Loyalty Tested by Crooked Friend from the Past - You don't have a character with a shady, possibly illegal past? Get one! Every show needs at least one morally ambiguous player. This is the ep where you hit and their past sins while they get a chance to affirm to the team that they're on the side of angels now.

5. The Undercover episode - Your lead actors are getting bored of playing the same beats every week, so this week's caper has them assuming new identities to go undercover.

6. The Pre-Pilot Flashback - We all know how it started on your show, but what about before it started? If your characters knew each other in the pilot, what was their first meeting? Since most pilots are about a shake-up in a character's life that disrupts the status quo, what was the previous status quo? Frasier has one of the best ones of these, showing Frasier's earliest days in Seattle before his father moves in with him. Friends went to this well several times, most notably in "The One With the Prom Video." This Is Us did one of these last year too.

7. The Body Swap ep -There are few things more fun that watching one actor have to imitate another. It's another trick that helps alleviate actor boredom and gives the straight-up good guy get to play bad in most cases. (When you're in genre TV, these kind of personality-altering tricks are a regularly deployed tool. I think there was a season of Smallville with more episodes where someone acts out of character than ones when everyone was IN it.)

8. Bottle Show I: Interrogation - "Uh, guys... we spent a lot of money on the season premiere then really blew our wad on Episodes 3 and 6. Gonna have to be a cheap one just to to get us back on track. Whatta ya got?" Yep, you're gonna have to do the "bottle show," a cost saving episode that takes place 80%-90% in one location - preferably an existing set or a cheap/easily redressed set. Here's the good part - with the right actors and story, the interrogation show can be an intense pressure cooker of an ep that lets your best performers act their pants off. One character has something the other character wants, and it becomes a psychological chess match to get them to break. Two gold standards: Homicide's "Three Men and Adena" and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's "Duet."

9. The Fight Club - this is a less successful genre stable where your characters are captured and forced to fight in gladiator fight club-type settings. I'll never forget the season where Angel and Voyager both aired similar eps within weeks of each other and neither one was all that good. Last season, Supergirl did one, proving the trope is alive and well.

10. The Character-Driven Road Trip Episode - ER did this a lot, usually to good effect. Doug and Mark took a road trip to handle Doug's father's funeral and the story detoured into visiting Mark's family.The result illuminated a lot about the characters that wouldn't have been revealed within the confines of the ER. It also works as a fish-out-of-water way to throw different challenges at your characters.

11. Bottle Show II: Real-time in one location - Usually a hostage ep. It's a cousin to the interrogation bottle show, as you're still putting a few actors into one location for the duration. The extra wrinkles are the time pressure added, by real time. This is a pretty easy ep for genre and procedural alike. Comedy versions of this usually drop the jeopardy aspect and just tell a story in one space. Seinfeld's "The Chinese Restaurant" probably is the most notable, but there's also a Mad About You shot in real time about trying to sleep-train the baby. The dramatic version of this is not to be confused with....

12. The Die Hard episode - What makes this different from the Bottle Show version? You usually have a higher budget for stunts and gags. The previous version is designed to be fast and cheap to shoot while this is all about being an action episode. Sometimes it's a trade-off, "We get the action, but we're staying on-pattern by only shooting on a few sets."

13. The Evil Twin Ep - Like the body swap ep, it lets one of your actors stretch. (Note: if making ORPHAN BLACK, this is basically every episode.) The fun part of evil twin shows? You get to put your actor side-by-side with themselves, i.e. every actor's dream scene partner. Again, my favorite part of these is when the actor playing the evil twin has to play that character imitating their normal version of the character. This is where you separate the pikers from the pros. Tatiana Maslany could give a master class on this, as she's had episodes where, say, Allison has to pretend to be Cosima, forcing her to nail the nuances of how Allison would embody that imitation, not how Tatiana usually plays Cosima. She's usually good enough that even if we haven't been explicitly told about a switch, her performance has a small tell. Another great example of this fun: Williow having to pretend to be Vamp Willow in Buffy's "Dopplegangland."

14. The Alternate Timeline Ep - Another "out of character" concept favored by genre shows, but also finds its way into sitcoms. In genre, the change is usually the result of characters messing with history and needing to put it back (TNG's "Yesterday's Enterprise," Buffy's "The Wish.") while in comedy, it's more likely you'll get a dream/fantasy explanation, such as when Friends explored alternate histories for the gang

15. The Rashomon Ep - Something happens and each act of the show is another character's version of how events came together. I've seen versions that are just a Tarantino-esqe non-linear way of telling the story (though Quentin is really ripping off Kubrick's THE KILLING), but to be totally true to the concept, the action should be presented in subjective flashbacks that reveal how each narrator is coloring the story. (I maintain there will be no funnier example of this trope than The X-Files's "Bad Blood.")

16. A Day in the Life ep - For some series, this is baked into the premise. Most early ER episodes all take place in one day, though it was rare that the experience would be filtered through one character's POV. A good way to do this is to pick a second-tier character and follow them for the day. Not to be confused with...

17. The "Lower Decks" ep - Named for a 7th season TNG episode where the focus is on the lowest-level officers on the ship, giving us an outsider's perspective on what it would be like to work for our heroes. Crucial point here is that most of these characters are new, previously unestablished characters. Part of the thrill of this is that they don't know the main characters well and we're placed at something of a distance from them.

18. The Dream Sequence ep - Can your actors sing, but have no credible reason to do so on the show? Put it in a dream. Have you wondered what it would be like to take your workplace show and set it on a spaceship? Put it in a dream.

19. Bottle Show III: Therapy Ep - Then after you spent all that money on an episode that technically doesn't "count" in terms of the story, you'll need to save some with another bottle show. The therapy ep is a cousin to the interrogation episode, but with (slightly) less confrontation. Still, it has the same virtues, particularly being a dialogue-heavy actors' showcase that lets them emote rather than run around with gun, or play out the same old rhythms of the show.


  1. You're right on the money with this. I know because - for better or, more likely, for worse - over the years I've written all of these. Even in a so-called Golden Age some things don't change. >sigh<

  2. There's an episode of the original UK Coupling in the first season that was a total "Rashomon episode" and it's one of the funniest things I've ever seen. Have you seen the one I'm talking about, BSR?

  3. I've actually never seen EITHER version of COUPLING!

  4. This is demented and wonderful. I love it. I want to someday make this actual season and see how long it takes for people to catch on.