What’s the key thing to focus on when developing a TV series idea?
The answer is simple: the characters. Specifically, a web of entertaining-to-watch characters who have conflicted relationships with each other.
Ideally, you would also have a big, intriguing, problematic set of circumstances that affects everyone, and provides a marketable “hook” for the show (so it’s not just “a show set at workplace x”).
That’s what would be in the logline for the series, or a very quick pitch.
But once you get past that, every show lives or dies with the series regulars who the audience is supposed to connect with and enjoy watching. And ultimately, it’s about the problems and conflicts those people have, which lead to stories each week.
The one partial exception to this can come with certain procedural dramas which have a big “case of the week,” involving heroic work to solve crimes, heal patients, defeat zombies, etc. But even on most of those, the second layer of the show is about the web of characters and relationships.
I was inspired recently by a podcast with Modern Family co-creator and co-showrunner Steve Levitan (Episode 139 of manager/producer Barry Katz’s “Industry Standard”), where he laid out a technique for developing series ideas. He was talking about comedy especially, but I think his process works just as well with dramas. (And probably wouldn’t hurt with features, either.)
What he recommends is that you take any two characters on your show, and think through what each of their basic life situations are. Who are they? What is their personality, their problems, and their place in the world?
I would add that it helps to think about the one key issue they have, meaning the one thing they most want in life, and from other people, that they can never quite have. You’re looking for something which kind of obsesses them, and which comes up in virtually all their interpersonal interactions, and leads to ongoing, eternal, entertaining-to-watch conflicts with others. (Like Michael Scott wanting to be seen as a beloved father father figure on The Office, or Lady Edith Crawley wanting to escape being the also-ran sister on Downton Abbey.) These unquenchable, central life issues for your characters are what drive stories for them every episode. And it’s best if they’re not connected to single external events, but are more about a hole or need in their basic psyche. (So “wants to be taken seriously” is a lot better than “wants to climb Mt. Everest.”)
Levitan used the example of Cheers, with the washed up ex-athlete who runs a bar and is kind of charming but shallow — a ladies man with no real meaning to his life. To which you add an overeducated, elitist young woman who kind of looks down on such people, but who just got dumped by her hoity fiancee, and is stuck waitressing there.
You see that that each character is very specific, easy to imagine, and it sounds like they could be entertaining to watch, in their interactions with others.
Then comes the key thing. Levitan says to draw a line between those two characters you’ve come up with. That line represents the dynamic between those two characters. And that line is your show.
Successful series are primarily about interpersonal conflicts for the series regulars, and their relationships with each other. So you look for what happens when two characters interact. What’s fun about watching it? How does it have the potential to lead to problems, for one or both people? How does it poke at their basic life issues, and that hole in their psyche? (The way sophisticated psychiatrist Frasier Crane’s cop father who lives with him pokes at his lust for respect from sophisticated people, in the Cheers spinoff Frasier.)
Doing this takes some work. And probably some brainstorming. But Levitan’s advice is not to stop until you have something really solid. Something that crackles. A dynamic you would want to watch. One that’s relatable and emotional, for both parties. Where you’re kind of excited about the pairing of those two people, and the kinds of scenes and stories that could be derived from that.
Once you’re solid with that, then choose another pair of characters. And do the same thing.
When you’re finished, every single character should have a vibrant dynamic with every other character. Added together, these dynamics feel like “a show.” They have the potential for endless strong comedy, and/or high drama.
And that’s what they did with Modern Family, arguably the quintessential successful comedy series of our time.
Think about how much devotion that took! That show started with ten series regulars. Granted, some of them don’t interact with certain others all that often, but the creators took the time to come up with an entertaining and intriguing dynamic that each could have, with each of the others.
This forces you to get very specific with your characters, and to think somewhat in terms of “types.” (Including, for comedies, classic comedic types.) But ideally, they also emerge as unique individuals who you haven’t quite seen on television before, in this exact form.
They might’ve started with the Phil and Claire Dunphy clan. Imagining that there will be three kids: two girls and a boy. How do you make each one distinct and entertaining, with the potential to have a strong dynamic with each of the others?
Well, “opposites” is a good way to start. Like they did with Cheers. or The Odd Couple. So… how about a smart nerdy daughter and a pretty fun-loving daughter? Obvious potential for conflict and comedy there.Then you’ve got the patriarch and his much younger, beautiful wife. She has a son. And that son has a very specific and entertaining relationship with both his mother and his stepfather. And if you put that son, Manny, together with the pretty Dunphy daughter, at least in the early going of the show, you had another fun dynamic: Manny has an unrequited crush on her. And if you put Phil Dunphy with his father-in-law, you have something else: a man trying to impress a guy who will never respect him. Put Phil with the patriarch’s young wife, and you have nervous lust. Put that wife with Claire, and you have a prickly competitive conflict, where the daughter can’t accept her father’s new wife, who wants nothing more than this family to love her. Etc. Etc.
Another thing this method of developing a series idea points to is the need for all the characters to have constant reasons to interact, not just with one or two other people, but with everyone else in this larger “web of conflict” Series generally aren’t about a single main character like a feature film. They’re about an ensemble of people who constantly have to deal with each other — who generally either work together, live together, or constantly hang out. You need this central location or reason they’re all constantly bouncing off each other, because to have enough good stories to power season after season of episodes, you need to have a lot of interpersonal material to explore. Also, most series have several stories per episode, each with a different “main character.” Ideally your show has lots of potential characters who could “get stories,” and who have compelling dynamics with many other series regulars, as well as a reason why they are always around all of them.
At the end of the day, this entertaining web of conflict is the foundation of virtually every high quality series idea. Developing it to a place that feels really solid before writing a word of a pilot (or even pitching the idea to anyone) is, to my mind, time and energy well spent.
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.