Tuesday, September 3, 2013

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

A couple days ago, I learned that I was not among the applicants still in contention for the WB Writers Workshop, so I extend my condolences to all of those who join me in that pool, and my congratulations to those still advancing.

This last year was the first year I actually had my act together enough to submit on time.  In the past, the thing that always gave me trouble was the requirement to submit a spec episode of an existing show.  Over the years I've put the majority of my focus into feature specs, though I have written four spec pilots.  In terms of spec episodes, my portfolio amounts to an episode of SVU that I wrote a full decade ago.  (Considering it was one of my first specs, it's a pretty decent piece of writing, built on a concept that probably could still work on the series today - but it's not something I'd ever consider as representative of where I am now as a writer.)

Spec pilots are hard enough to pull off.  The script has to introduce an entire world, provide the engine for future installments and establish all of the characters firmly enough that one can imagine seven years of stories coming from them.  There are pilots that make it to air that STILL struggle with this.

And guess what? Writing a spec episode of an existing series is even harder.  At least as far as I'm concerned.

First, you have to pick a show to spec.  You shouldn't pick a first year show (because there's a huge risk it will be canceled, rendering your spec useless) and once a show has been a hit for a year or so, the market seems to be deluged with specs for that series.  I'm pretty sure there was a point where 90% of aspiring TV writers had The Office specs.  For this reason, it's a good idea not to spec something that's in its fourth season or later.  Not only is it on the verge of being passe, but it's also likely that a lot of other people have picked that series as well.

So late last year, I sat down and strategized which show to spec.  With most of my favorite shows aging or ending (including 30 Rock, The Office, and Modern Family) selecting a show I felt passionate about quickly brought me to a narrow field.  It was between Revenge and Don't Trust the B---- In Apartment 23, both of which kicked off their second seasons last fall.

I had a really great story for Revenge's Emily Thorne, one which would have dealt directly with the ethically murky master plan she's undertaking.  It would have been a "takedown" episode, but one that sprang from character rather than being motivated only by clever plot twists.  The only problem? figuring out what to give the rest of the supporting cast to do, as their actions are always dependent on their place in the larger seasonal arc.  Without that relevance, too many of their scenes threatened to play as filler.

That lead me to put Revenge aside and focus on Apt 23.  What I loved about the show is that it was edgier than most other shows.  The characters are less likable than your average sitcom and prone to the sort of snarky, brutal quips that I enjoy employing in my writing.  Chloe - played by Krysten Ritter - is pretty much a sociopathic party girl capable of setting up a master plan and making everyone around her run through it like rats in a maze.  Had the show lasted a few more seasons, I almost think that TV Tropes would have to have renamed both the Xanatos Gambit and the Batman Gambit after Chloe.

So she's smart, she's bitchy, she has no morals, and she's capable of anything. I can work with this girl.

Apt 23's secret weapon is James Van Der Beek, playing a very self-absorbed version of himself.  What I liked about James is though he's a version of the typical Hollywood asshole, he's sort of a naive version of such.  He genuinely doesn't realize he's being an ass (as opposed to Entourage's Ari Gold, who knows he's a tyrant and revels in it.)  James legitimately hasn't reached the stage of psychological development where he's realized the world doesn't revolve around him.

Some of the best "James" stories have played off the fact that he exists in his own celebrity bubble where the world works for him in a certain way. There's a lot of humor to be mined when something threatens that bubble and we get a whiff of just how unprepared James is to survive in the real world.  An early season two episode revealed that James loves turning down the rest of the Dawson's Creek cast each year when a reunion is proposed.  Quickly, we learned that the letter James gets every year comes not from the Creek cast, but from Chloe.

Chloe's roommate June - who's every bit as sweet and ethical as Chloe is bitter and mean - initially thinks that this is one of Chloe's horrible pranks, with James as the victim.  From what we've seen of Chloe in the past, it's not out of character for her to play a long-con with the intent of crushing the victim in the end.  But as it turns out, Chloe cares about James and has been sending those letters every year to feed his ego.  She knows it gives him a boost to think he's got that kind of power over his former co-stars.

My point here is that the character dynamics are pretty clearly drawn.  June's the goody-goody; Chloe can be pure evil, except when it comes to James, and even then, we're never 100% sure she isn't playing him; and James lives on his own planet and is doing his best not to adapt to the real world.

There's a lot of natural conflict in that triangle, so I saw potential for a story.  The fact that the tone of the series fit my comedy style was a bonus.  Now I just had to come up with a storyline.

And that's where we'll pick things up tomorrow in Part II.

You can download the spec episode here.

1 comment:

  1. Yet another reason why I like this blog...

    I really liked Apt. 23 and sad to see it go.

    While I'm looking forward to see where you are going with this tomorrow, it was interesting to see you say you think creating a pilot is easier than writing a spec for an existing show. While I've thought the same thing, based on the prospective writers I've interacted with, it appeared I was in the minority on that.

    My mental block is that the shows I really like are well written. That's what made me like them in the first place. When I start to think of possibilities or even start drafting something, I keep thinking it's not nearly as good as something that would air.

    How do you get over that?