At the heart of a good original TV series idea is one big problematic situation. It somehow affects all the series regulars. And it leads to endless new stories. It’s not unique to particular characters, but is the over-arching reason for the series’ existence. It’s the hook, and the heart of the pitch.
When a series idea is lacking this — which is often the case with writers I work with or teach (and has been in my own ideas, too) — it has a hard time moving forward, no matter how many good problems and conflicts it has for individual characters.
But we certainly do need those, as well. We want to be able to draw stories from the characters’ compelling life problems/issues. Each week, they should face new challenges related to something about their situation that constantly bothers them, and how they don’t have the life they really wish they had. A lot of “stories” in a series also comes from the primary characters having multiple lines of conflict with each other, which are never fully resolved.
But in addition to those things, I suggest focusing on finding a compelling central difficulty that affects everyone on the show, and which can never really be solved (or else the series would end). This is really key to a sellable TV premise. In fact, to a large degree, it is the show’s premise.
If you have a show set at a workplace, for instance, with good character challenges and conflicts, but no one issue or problem that unifies things, and transcends the individual people — while affecting them all — then you don’t quite have what buyers are most interested in.
These are not easy to come up with, but the best overall problems create a kind of “hook” for the show that you could put in its logline — and use to sell the idea to potential readers of the pilot script.
This hook might not even need to mention individual characters. Ideally, when one hears it, they get what the show is basically about from week to week. Any specific character situations and conflicts beyond that are only icing on that cake.
This is maybe easiest on shows with life and death stakes. For instance:
A boy goes missing and his friends team up with a mysterious girl they meet with telekinetic powers, who seems to know something about a monstrous hidden world connected to theirs, where perhaps their friend will be found.
On this show — Netflix’s Stranger Things — the existence of that world is the main overall problem that affects all the characters. They also have lots of compelling individual conflicts and problems, but those are secondary. The monstrous world generates most of the stories on the show.
But this kind of thriller/horror series isn’t the only kind that needs such an overarching problem. Every genre does.
Consider the half-hour comedy The Office. On the surface, you could say it’s about a number of comedic characters with various problems and issues, who work at one of the world’s most boring jobs. But is that really what the show is about? I don’t think so. Beyond that, there is one big problem affecting all the characters, which is the true premise of the show. It’s the fact that they all work for Michael Scott (or David Brent, in the original UK version) — a boss who creates so many issues and difficulties that you could almost call him a “monster.”
Here are some other examples of loglines for shows from the last ten years, which capture that one problem that affects everybody on the show, and which is the show’s basic reason for being — creating most of the main stories from week to week:
A high school chemistry teacher with a wife and a son decides to team up with a former student to cook and sell meth. (Breaking Bad)
Members of several dynastic noble families vie for power, security and independence in a fictional fantasy realm. (Game of Thrones)
The strict gender roles of the early 1960’s affect all the employees of a top Madison Avenue advertising agency. (Mad Men)
A New York lawyer moves to West Covina, California to stalk her ex-boyfriend from her teen years, shaking up the lives of everyone she encounters. (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend)
When their patriarch goes to jail, the members of a spoiled family have to learn to survive without him — and the successful business that supported them. (Arrested Development)
A revolutionary startup threatens to shake up the status quo of Silicon Valley — if its founders can survive all the challenges to making it survive and thrive. (Silicon Valley)
Three households who are connected by blood each deal with unique challenges related to contemporary non-traditional families. (Modern Family)
Each of these shows is about something big and conceptual that affects everyone, and creates conflicts and problems in all of their lives. These are ongoing throughout the series, and really power the show from week to week. Mad Men is maybe the best example here of a show that would be pretty ho-hum if it didn’t have this one thing it was really “about.” Imagine it without that: a show set in the early 1960’s at an ad agency. What’s exciting about that? What’s really dramatic, interesting, relevant and challenging to all the characters — which elevates this into a TV series millions of people could emotionally connect with and be consistently entertained by? It’s what they explored regarding gender roles, which was behind most of the problems and stories on the show.
Even with procedural dramas about cops, lawyers or doctors, the new ideas that break through tend to have some unique twist on what we’ve seen before, usually in the form of an element that creates extra conflict and difficulties for everyone — whether it’s the misanthropic lead doctor on House, M.D., the supernatural/mysterious forces behind the crimes on The X-Files, or the idea of following a murder case through both the detectives and the prosecutors — which was the fresh approach (at the time) of the original Law & Order.
Coming up with original series ideas that can advance a career is not so different from writing features, in the sense that the idea is everything. I first learned this from my agents, when I was out pitching drama series a lot. They insisted that I needed that one big conceptual hook to make an idea stand out, and which will generate story after story, for a potentially endless number of episodes. It’s not necessarily easy to find, but when you have that, it makes everything else so much easier.
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.