What draws you to a television show or movie? That’s a question we frequently ask our friends while developing projects. What did you like – or dislike – about Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or Weeds? What makes you a Game of Thrones fan and averse to NCIS or Community?
Thinking over these questions ourselves, we at Script Chix sat down with our favorite television shows, and tried to decipher what draws us to them. Of course, everyone wants to watch media with – at the very least – compelling characters, great storylines, and a conclusion that keeps you thinking about the film or show for years to come – whether it’s an arguably brilliant Breaking Bad, MASH, or The Wire ending, or a frustrating Sopranos-like ending, or a convoluted Dexter, Lost, or Seinfeld sign-off.
Having sat with our own projects and analyzed our likes and dislikes, we came to some specific conclusions about what compels our interest in specific programming.
I hate Breaking Bad. And The Wire. Later seasons of Dexter bore me to no end. Game of Thrones is ridiculous, but I can – barely – stomach it.
On the other hand… I love The West Wing. I love Borgen My So-Called Life and My Mad Fat Diary. Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5 can entertain me for hours! And don’t start me on Damages, The Hour, Lip Service, The Good Wife, Nashville, Twin Peaks, Forbrydelsen, The Bletchley Circle, Upstairs Downstairs (the original), Luther (series 1 and 3), or Broen/Bron, because, quite frankly, we’ll be here for weeks.
What unifying factor draws all those shows together – and separates them from others? Women with agency. Female characters who have some control over their decisions, over the course of events in their lives. That’s it. They don’t have to talk to each other, and the show doesn’t have to be blatantly feminist (see: Banshee, Sons of Anarchy, Spartacus), but they do need to have some control over their own destinies, and, ideally, over the A plot of the show. They need to be multi-dimensional, complex, real characters.
This agency will compel me to watch even devastatingly bad television, like The L Word, or shows I can’t stand, like Orange Is the New Black. My dislike of the former comes from the ridiculously poor writing, while my dislike of the latter stems from the lack of stakes for its lead – a comedy disguised as a drama. Forever frustrating. But: they both have women with agency, so I continue to watch.
There are some shows that I love and hate that I fully agree with Miranda. Damages, Twin Peaks, Sons of Anarchy, Luther, and My So-Called Life fall in the love category. However, I love Breaking Bad, Dexter, and enjoy Game of Thrones (though this one took me awhile to get into). My range is a bit broader -other shows I love include Nip/ Tuck, Mad Men, Revenge, Downton Abbey, Daria, Sherlock, Twilight Zone, Arrested Development, 24, and Pretty Little Liars.
I too, like women with agency, but I tend to also connect with male characters in a way Miranda doesn’t. The shows I tend to gravitate towards have more to do with outliers; the misfits and the pictures of perfection. Going a step further down this rabbit hole, I like when these outliers are humanized as they are forced to confront their worst fears. The infallible are penetrated.
For example, I recently got caught up on Sherlock – spoilers ahead – and I found that Seasons 1-2 were good, but I didn’t love them. They were more procedural – Sherlock did his thing and solved the cases. The episodes focused more on the plot than the depth of the characters.
Season 3 allowed for more character exploration – Sherlock having to confront his worst fear – feeling normal human emotions. i.e. – Excitement over the homecoming he dreamed of when revealing to Dr. Watson he was still alive or trying to figure out what his relationship with Dr. Watson will be once he marries Mary. Sherlock, the highly functioning sociopath, finally felt a bond with someone and explored the feelings that come with human attachment. This is when I started to love the show.
Dexter, Mad Men, Nip/ Tuck, Revenge, Arrested Development, and Downton Abbey all explore what happens when, what seems like perfect people to the outside world, are forced to confront their worst fears and deal with the emotions that come with it.
Daria and Pretty Little Liars also explore this theme in different ways. The character of Daria is similar to Sherlock in that, despite being highly intelligent, she doesn’t quite know how to cope with the world around her. Where she differs from Sherlock (besides the fact she is a girl in high school) is that she is extra sensitive, so she intentionally blocks the world out, thus allowing no room for human connection and the pain associated with it.
As the seasons progress, we see the hard exterior break down – her friendship with Jane, helping out Quinn or her parents, finding a boyfriend (and stealing her BFF’s boyfriend at that!) and ultimately dealing with heartbreak. Everything she worked so hard to close herself off to ultimately weeded their way through the cracks and forced her to tear that wall down to confront her worst fear and its emotions.
The Pretty Little Liars have their worlds’ shattered when their friend goes missing and is presumed dead. Their perfect suburban lives are destroyed as the ghost of their friend constantly haunts them. They must confront every demon in their lives that they have tried to suppress. As for the Twilight Zone, while these are stand-alone stories, it still fits this mold – confronting one’s own fears. Facing fears, the loss of perfection, and feeling those emotions – it’s what humanizes these characters.
Find Your Strengths
When talking with a friend about what draws her to shows – love triangles! – Sandra and I realized that she had managed to incorporate a number of love triangles into her own original TV pilot. Those elements were some of the strongest passages in an already great script.
Why? Because her own appreciation for those types of plot set-ups was ingrained in her mind from pre-existing viewing habits. She was then able to come up with a unique setting that allowed for a compelling and original love triangle.
Write What You Know
When people say, “write what you know,” that doesn’t mean “write a script about a struggling screenwriter.” It does, however, mean to make use of your pre-existing knowledge, talent, and inclinations.
If you’re personally a huge fan of legal thrillers, it might behoove you to steer away from writing a ton of teen coming-of-age scripts, until you’re more competent with your skills in general. Testing your voice out with familiar genres/tropes can be invaluable to up-and-coming writers, and will likely serve you well when expanding to more complex plots, characters, and genres.
Find Your Voice
Finally, this exercise – examining what draws you to specific media – can help you find your own voice as a writer. We have heard some of the backlash against things like “strong female characters” or “sappy rom-coms.” That said, we genuinely believe there is a space for all types of stories, characters, and concepts in Hollywood.
We always say: concept matters less than execution.
Honing in on what you like can only help solidify that concept (the easy part) so you can be free to polish your technique as a writer.
Miranda & Sandra
Miranda Sajdak is a writer/producer currently living in Los Angeles. She has been assisting and doing coverage for a number of years for producers of films ranging from indie hits like Drive to studio features including Final Destination, American Pie, and the recent Seth Green vehicle Sexy Evil Genius, as well as television shows China, IL, Huge and My So-Called Life. She co-wrote/produced/directed the short Snapshot with Huge creator Savannah Dooley, which premiered at Outfest in 2010. She recently joined with producer and writing partner Sandra Leviton to co-found the company Script Chix, which provides coverage and networking opportunities to writers. She enjoys hard-hitting dramas, dry comedies, and ’90s legal thrillers, as well as anything with a complex female lead.
Sandra is a Los Angeles based writer/ producer. Along with writing and producing partner, Miranda Sajdak, they founded Script Chix, a script & book coverage and networking events company. Prior to starting Under The Stairs, Sandra spent five years working in Current Programming at FX, working on over over 20 original series including The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Louie, and Justified. Previously, she worked in TV Lit at the Paradigm Talent and Literary Agency and as a production coordinator. Typically drawn to the strange and unusual, she enjoys traveling to haunted locations and Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museums.