PrimeTime: Is It Possible To Create a TV Show That Mixes Genres?

Let’s get right to today’s email, which comes from Cody …

I’m working on a pilot right now and after reading your book (ok, only half so far), I was wondering about blending genres. Is it feasible to blend a procedural with an event drama? i.e. A cop show with three stories, two of them getting solved each episode, the other extending over the season/series.

Well, first of all, Cody — thank you so much for reading the book … I hope it helps and I see your pilot on TV soon!

It’s fine for your show to mix architectural styles, as long as you understand how and why it works.

Just to get everyone up to speed: in my book, Small Screen, Big Picture: A Writer’s Guide to the TV Business, I break TV dramas into four categories, or genres. These “genres” are more inclusive than traditional genres like “romance” or “science fiction”; I base these genres not on the kinds of stories the show tells, but on how the series, as a whole, is architected. The four categories are:

Procedurals

Procedurals are shows that derive their stories from a specific procedure, such as NCIS, House, or Criminal Minds. Each episode begins with the introduction of a problem, which our main characters must solve using their unique procedure. CSI uses forensics, The Practice used lawyers and the legal system, etc. Procedurals traditionally tell standalone stories — stories that have a complete beginning, middle, and end in each hour.

Soaps

Soaps are shows that derive story from the relationships of their characters, like 90210, All My Children, or Dynasty. As a result, stories are “serialized,” often stretching over many episodes, weeks, months, or even years.

Character-driven dramas

These shows fall somewhere in between soaps and hard procedurals, or standalone shows; they ask viewers to invest in the ongoing lives of their characters and relationships, but they also have some semblance of “standalone-ness.” Grey’s Anatomy, for instance, delves deep into the soapy lives of Meredith, McDreamy, Little Grey, Christina, etc., but each episode also has its own standalone medical “mystery,” or dilemma, for the characters to solve. (Each episode also begins and ends with Meredith’s voiceover, which helps it stand alone as well.)

Event dramas

Event dramas tend to be highly serialized shows, like soaps, where everything is building from or towards one specific event. (Although to be fair, that term was probably originally coined just as a marketing term; still, it’s how these shows work.) Everything on V, for example, happened because of one particular event: an alien invasion (as well as Threshold and Invasion — if anyone remembers those shows).

So in answer to your question, Cody …

Is it feasible to blend a procedural with an event drama? …

YES, ABSOLUTELY!

Many shows, like The Mentalist and The Good Wife, do this already — have an A-story and a B-story that begin and end in each episode, then another, larger story that spans an entire season (or more).

(However, I wouldn’t qualify these shows as event dramas, or even procedural/event drama hybrids, because their focus is still the weekly procedural story. They’re basically procedurals with some ongoing, serialized elements.)

The question you face, Cody, is determining the balance of standalone storylines versus serialized storylines, and how they fit together on an episode-to-episode basis.

Law & Order basically told one close-ended, standalone A-story each week; there were almost no serialized plots or elements.

CSI also tells one close-ended, standalone story each week … but it incorporates some continuous relationships and larger mysteries (Grissom’s romance with Sara, his loss of hearing, etc.). These rarely dominate an episode — they usually play as B-stories, C-stories, or runners.

 

Why are you reading this blog? Everything you need to know about TV-writing is in THIS SHOW!

Buffy the Vampire Slayer — the greatest show in television history (scientifically proven, so don’t argue it) — always kicked off each season introducing a “Big Bad,” a super-villain who trickled along in B or C-storylines until the last few episodes, which culminated in the final Buffy/villain battle. So while most of Buffy’s episodes were standalone with serialized elements, each season had a few episodes that were completely serialized. (Dexter works the same way.)

Other shows are “fauxcedurals” (a term created by In Plain Sight creator David Maples). These often have one main story, or mission, that stretches over an entire season … but each week, the characters accomplish a smaller, standalone mission. In the fourth season of Prison Break, for instance, Michael Scofield and Lincoln Burrows had to break into Scylla (which, I think, was some kind of top-secret super-computer — I can’t quite remember) … but each week, they went on a “mini-mission” to obtain a special tool or code to help with their larger goal. So each standalone episode was a step in a much larger story.

Lastly — while shows like 24 and Lost are highly and intentionally serialized, their episodes do usually have some element of standalone-ness: a close-ended mission, a clear character arc, etc. I had friends who worked on both of these shows, and they often talked about how their networks pressured even them to give their episodic stories some sense of beginning-middle-end.

Your mission, Cody, is to determine how your own show works … and to be able to articulate this, both in a verbal pitch and in the design of your pilot script.

Also, one final thought: aside from their architecture, many shows are also a mix of more “typical” genres. The X-Files and Fringe are basic procedurals, but they’re supernatural procedurals. 21 Jumpstreet mixed teen soaps with procedurals. No Ordinary Family was a superhero/adventure show mixed with a family drama. So if you can find a succinct and accurate way to describe your show as a blend of genres this way, that’s often helpful as well.

Thanks again for the question, Cody … and if you, or anyone else, has more questions, please Tweet me @chadgervich, email me at chad@chadgervich.com, or post your thoughts or questions in the Comments section below!

And one more thing — I hope to see you all at this weekend’s Screenwriting Expo here in Los Angeles! If you’ve never been to the Expo, it’s one of the world’s biggest screenwriting conferences, full of seminars, workshops, demonstrations, and parties … and it’s a great opportunity to rub elbows with producers, execs, and writers of all levels. I’ll be giving three seminars on Sunday, Sept. 18, so if you’re there, please come say hello! My seminars are:

  • 9:00 – 10:30 – TV Networking 101
  • 11:00 – 12:30 – 8 Ways to Ruin Your TV Pitch
  • 2:00 – 3:30 – Getting Real About Reality: How To Design and Sell the Next Hit Reality Show

Click HERE for the full schedule, and I hope to see you this weekend!

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2 thoughts on “PrimeTime: Is It Possible To Create a TV Show That Mixes Genres?

  1. Pingback: TV Writer Spotlight: The Genres of One-Hour Drama | LA Screenwriter

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