Writers are unfortunately often perceived to be at the bottom of the food chain in the feature world. But in the world of TV, it’s a very different story. TV Writers are some of Hollywood’s best-paid and most respected professionals. But the odds of breaking in (or back in) to that coveted writer’s room seem to be worse than lottery odds.
As many aspiring TV writers know, a solid writing portfolio should contain two to three “speculative” screenplays (i.e.: no one paid you to write them) for highly-rated and/or critically-acclaimed shows currently on the air. The shows you select to invest three to twelve weeks of your writing time and energy should be shows you love and can write passionately and authentically. From a practical stand-point, its also important that they be “sophomore” shows (i.e.: that have made the cut to be renewed for season two) or they can have an even longer track record but its then important that they promise at least a couple more years longevity because the second that show is cancelled, the shelf life to your sample expires.
The point of having these scripts in your inventory are to prove your ability to capture the voices of and emulate the pacing and tone of other people’s creations because that’s the job you’ll (if you’re lucky) be interviewing for. For legal reasons, its unlikely you’ll be read by or for the show you select (at least with the spec you wrote for their show) but you should carefully select a series that resonates with your sensibilities and nails the brand you’re trying to market so your unique voice can shine in its best environment.
To that end, knowing what shows are spec-worthy is a critical step in getting you that much closer to an agent or manager – or empowering the one you have to land you that life-changing job.
What Show Should I Spec?
Jen Grisanti is one of the few professionals striving to help unique voices break in to TV Land. Having worked on over fifteen prime-time shows including 90210, Melrose Place, Charmed, Medium, Numbers, NCIS, The 4400 and Girlfriends, she was herself mentored by Aaron Spelling and now gives back through NBC Writer’s on the Verge and CBS’ Diversity Program. She’s a good one to ask. Only you can figure out the right show for you to spec, but Jen gives some great advice on this question. These are the shows she recommends you select from:
Good Series to Spec for the 2011 Staffing Season
- Mad Men
- Breaking Bad
- True Blood
- The Walking Dead
- The Good Wife
- Criminal Minds
- The Closer
- The Mentalist
- White Collar
- CSI: NY
- Big Bang Theory
- Modern Family
- 30 Rock
- Cougar Town
- How I Met Your Mother
- Two and a Half Men
- Nurse Jackie
- United States of Tara
Jen recommends that you study the shows (her workbooks have great breakdowns of most of these show’s pilots and award-winning episodes).
HOT TIP: The Tracking Board is a great resource for TV research and study and they are offering a 15% discount to readers of this blog: http://www.tracking-board.com/promo/?pppcode=15off.
Do you seem to prefer multi-camera, three camera, single camera? Are your favorite shows network or cable? Which episodes are your favorites? Why?
Jen explains that the delineation between a comedy writer and a drama writer have recently blurred. There is a lot of humor in modern dramas. The procedural with comedy, such as The Closer or The Mentalist, is a new breed.
Pay attention to the show’s structure, Jen advises. Is it serialized? Or close-ended? Some shows like White Collar (and Supernatural) have an episode goal but never lose sight of the overarching series dilemma. Three-camera sitcoms are all about the joke.
Two of the most important tools available to television writers are irony (the twist in the logline/story goals) and subtext (what is said versus what is felt). And the all-critical “All is Lost Moment” is a prime opportunity, especially for aspiring writers, to reveal your unique voice as you highlight the character’s point of view.
Rounding out your inventory with a feature, a one act play or even an original pilot are increasingly acceptable options but an excellent spec script is critical.