Writing for Television


Daniel P. Calvisi is a writing coach and former Story Analyst for Twentieth Century Fox and Miramax Films. His latest book, Story Maps: TV Drama: The Structure of the One-Hour Television Pilot, follows his earlier Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay, Story Maps: 12 Great Screenplays, and Story Maps: The Films of Christopher Nolan (co-authored with William Robert Rich). A graduate of the Film and Television program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, he co-created the Story Maps Screenwriting Podcast, and has taught screenwriting at The New School in New York.

Story Maps, TV Drama, by Daniel CalvisiStory Maps: TV Drama: The Structure of the One-Hour Television Pilot offers novice and professional writers a Basic Story Map and Full Story Map for constructing a pilot for an original drama series. The Basic Story Map provides a structural foundation for the script, comprising its essential dramatic elements including the world of the story, the traits, goals, and arcs of the protagonist, the theme, and the compelling (or central) crisis.

The Full Story Map incorporates the Basic Story Map, fleshes out the storylines (labeled A, B, C, and so on) intertwined in the pilot, and breaks down the myriad plot points of the pilot’s 4-6-act structure in a beat sheet. The book concludes with applications of the Full Story Map to a range of pilots for successful shows in recent years.

Here, Calvisi elaborates on some points in his book, and reflects on the biggest mistake new writers of drama pilots make, as well as his take on what prompted and will follow the current golden age of television and “peak TV.”

You distinguish between a premise pilot and a third episode pilot, and suggest that a premise pilot may be a natural choice when you’re setting up a whole new world, as in The Walking Dead. Can you give examples of other shows with premise pilots and third episode pilots, and advice on choosing an approach?

Daniel P. Calvisi

Daniel P. Calvisi

Game of Thrones would definitely be a premise pilot. It’s actually one of the slower and least active pilots of any of the big shows of recent memory, and definitely of the shows that I beat out in my book. That’s one of the biggest, most sprawling worlds ever in television, so I think they knew that the story was going to go on for many, many episodes. So, they started it slow.

For something that’s a genre show, like The Walking Dead, or Game of Thrones, it may be more advantageous to do a premise pilot. But from talking to people in the industry, a lot of them say they prefer the third episode pilot, because they immediately know what the show is.

Let’s say it’s The X-Files. Even though The X-Files had sci-fi and fantasy woven in, generally the structure was: There’s a new case each week, and they solve the case by the end of the episode. So if you have one of those shows, like Fringe, you want to have a third episode pilot where they’re going to introduce a new case and solve a case by the end of the episode.

Something like Scandal, too, for example—she’s a fixer, and you probably want her to fix someone’s problem in that pilot episode, which is what happened. Yet you’re also introducing other threads that are going to continue, probably linked to character; so, you’re introducing characters who have goals and obstacles standing in the way of those goals, so we’re going to still want to follow their stories.

Premise pilots are done less these days, I think for a number of reasons. One of the big reasons is, like I said, the industry wants to know exactly what this show is when they read your pilot, especially since you’re a newbie—they don’t know who you are, you don’t have a track record, and they assume that that transfers to the audience.

So, the audience looking at commercials for new shows in the fall, for example—if they see a cop show, they know immediately that cop shows are usually procedurals, and they kind of know what that is. Detectives in New York—boom, I know what that is. Or something like Grimm, which I’m not that familiar with, but I can see that it plays with fairytale archetypes.

When you’re first hearing about an episode, when you’re tuning into the pilot on TV for the first two minutes, and when you’re submitting your pilot, the audience wants to know what that show is, what the engine of the show is, and what they’re going to be in store for. In that first teaser, they want to get some idea of what this show’s going to be.

David Giuntoli as Nick Burkhardt in Grimm. Photo by NBC/Scott Green/NBC - © 2016 NBCUniversal Media, LLC

David Giuntoli as Nick Burkhardt in Grimm. Photo by NBC/Scott Green/NBC – © 2016 NBCUniversal Media, LLC

How would you classify a pilot like Breaking Bad’s, that spends significant time setting up the protagonist’s world, but also starts in the middle of the action?

I would call it a third episode pilot, because, as I show in my book, it uses the exact same structure as most of the episodes after that, for the whole run. From that opening flash forward, they throw us right into the action.

Now, it’s tricky because you have such a huge setup to establish, which is: Chemistry teacher finds out he has cancer, and decides to make meth in order to raise money so he can pay his cancer bills. And that’s a big dramatic engine that you need to set up. So in that way it’s a premise pilot, but if I had to choose, I would say third episode pilot, because it uses the same structure as pretty much every episode after that.

One of the big things is they would always open with a flash forward, and then you would eventually catch up to that moment in the episode, which is a really dynamic way to suck in the audience.

It’s important to focus on when and how to get to the action, regardless of whether the resulting pilot could be classified as premise or third episode.

Yes, start the pilot’s A story, i.e. the storyline that takes up the most screen time, typically the protagonist’s central pursuit, and establish the compelling crisis as early as possible. It doesn’t have to be established in the first two pages, but a reader or producer or network executive will love it if you do set it up that early, so that’s always good.

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad

A protagonist will undergo multiple arcs, within a pilot, over a season, and over a series. You also mention that a show should aim for 100 episodes, to reach syndication. To what extent should writers flesh out these arcs before they can write an effective pilot?

This question is one that I get a lot, which is, “How much should you have defined of the character arcs ahead of time?” I think it’s best if you have a couple of full arcs in your pilot for a couple characters, at the least your protagonist. And then you should have an idea of your protagonist’s arc in the first season. Beyond that, it’s really up to you.

It’s great, if you’re in a meeting, to say, “I have the first four seasons arced out.” In the first season of Mad Men, the only person’s who’s going to find out that Don Draper is Dick Whitman is Pete Campbell, for example. And, Don’s wife will find out about his affair by the end of the season. Then in the second season, he’s going to have a new mistress, and something else is going to happen. Then in the third season, he’ll have a new mistress, and so on.

So, it’s good to have that in mind, but you don’t have to have a complete outline of the basic arcs of every episode for the first season, second season, third season, et cetera. Make sure the pilot is ironclad, and make sure you have some ideas of where you’re going to go, but you don’t have to have every single episode mapped out.

In fact, they don’t want you to have every episode broken down, like in a treatment or mini-bible, where you often give ideas for episodes in the first season. They don’t want you to have ideas for fifteen episodes, because they want to be able to develop with you. They want to be able to have some input, and bring in a director and other writers, and they want you to be open to directions for the series.

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men

You note that the theme in the Scandal pilot shifts from truth-seeking to the cost of true love, and that subthemes follow different characters and storylines. Can you elaborate on how themes and characters’ goals should be developed together to keep the show both interesting and coherent?

I think it’s great to have one overarching meta-theme for a series, like Mad Men’s is the pursuit of happiness in an increasingly chaotic world. That informed that the show was set in the sixties, or maybe Matthew Weiner wanted it to be set in the sixties and that informed the theme, because it was such a changing time period; that decade was so tumultuous. Within that, you have subthemes like identity and artifice and façade, and feminism and racism, and all of these types of things.

So, I think it’s a good idea to have the meta-theme, and then to have your goals generate from theme in the pilot if you can. For example, in Scandal, the subplot with the President not only has to do with true love, it also has to do with public persona versus private persona, and the pursuit of truth over whatever else, e.g., security, or keeping other people happy. So, the goals are interwoven with the theme. I don’t think you should have too many themes and too many things going on in your pilot. Ideally you would have one strong, what I call controlling, theme, and then your protagonist’s internal and external goals are both related to that theme.

But it may be a little more complex. In something like Game of Thrones, you’re going to have more themes because you have these three settings that are very different, and very different characters. The meta-theme in Game of Thrones is still there, which is the pursuit of power and the collateral damage that ensues when you play this political game regardless of people’s lives or happiness—so, the fallout from political struggle and war. 

But yes, theme can’t be overstated, and I think you should have an idea of a meta-theme for your story. If someone says, “Why this show, now? Why is it relevant, why are you telling this story, why should people watch?” You should have an answer to that question, and it should probably be related to theme.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones. © 2016 HBO

How much should you be guided by your theme compared to your characters?

I think if your whole point is just to prove a point or a theory, then A, it should probably be a feature, a closed story, or B, maybe you’re trying to be too preachy with it, and you need to pull back and let your characters inform your story. It’s open-ended story-telling, and this is going to go on for a long time—you want to explore a theme, you don’t want to prove it, and stop. It just has to go on for longer—you’re going to be exploring that theme for many, many episodes.

With respect to the compelling or central crisis, some argue a two-choice dilemma is more engaging than just a problem. 

I think it’s great if you can have your character have an impossible choice, which is usually that they have two options and they both suck. I wouldn’t worry about how to characterize that, whether it’s a dilemma, or a crisis, or an obstacle—you want to put your characters up a tree and keep throwing stones at them.

It just has to be a big problem that can’t be solved right away or simply. It’s going to involve a lot of complications, obstacles, and disasters, and it’s going to have escalating conflict over and over. And that compelling crisis should be in the bones of your story.

An impossible choice: Sam's knife at his brother's throat. Jensen Ackles as Dean Winchester in Supernatural

An impossible choice: Sam’s knife at his brother’s throat. Jensen Ackles as Dean Winchester in Supernatural.

Is the A storyline generally the compelling crisis?

I think if the compelling crisis is in the pilot, and it’s defined and clear, then that’s enough. But it probably should be a part of the A storyline—that’s the smartest thing to do because then you’re devoting the most page time in your pilot to the major problem of your series.

But if you look at the different examples in the book, writers do different things. So just stay true to your story.

That’s why it’s good to have that Basic Story Map in front of you: Protagonist, your theme, the protagonist’s internal and external goals, the meta-theme of your story, the compelling crisis, and the week-to-week, i.e., the central activities that recur and define “what happens” in each episode.

If you have that stuff typed out, printed out, and in front of you as you write, you’re ideally going to make choices that are flowing from the basic dramatic elements of your story. Then they’re going to feel true to the reader.

In the book, I have the Basic Story Map for Scandal. The theme is recognizing and sacrificing for true love, the compelling crisis is that she works in the shadows fixing other people’s problems but she can’t fix her own, chiefly, the secret affair with the President. And the week-to-week is that she’s always solving a crisis for a client that mirrors her and her people’s personal struggles.

So then in the pilot, you have as the A story the case of the week, that’s Sully, and that does have to do with recognizing and sacrificing for true love, and it is part of the week-to-week in that she has to solve someone’s crisis, which is a public crisis.

But at the same time she also has her personal struggle, and the compelling crisis of the series, the whole thing with her working in the shadows, trying to help other people while she can’t really help herself. So they are basically all interwoven. I don’t know if I would say they’re all different ways of expressing the same thing, there are subtle differences.

But your storytelling in the pilot is where structure really plays a huge part. It’s up to you to figure out the story beats and character nuances that are going to express all this to the audience without them getting confused, and at the same time, launch this really interesting and compelling world that they’re going to want to hang out in for 100 episodes.

It’s not easy—it takes time to learn, and I think the first starting point has to be structure. You have to spend a lot of time mapping out, beating out, and outlining your story before you start.

I would say the best way to learn how to write professionally is to look at what the pros did. And so, if you look in my book at the mini beat sheet for these seven groundbreaking shows, you can see how they told their stories. It really helps to have a template show as a primer for how you might structure your show.

So let’s say you have a show about a woman lawyer who’s tough as nails—you might use Scandal as your structural template, and so when you’re story mapping your first pass, you follow the structure of Scandal. You’re not following the beats, you’re not telling the same story, but you’re using the same basic act structure and beat structure.

And that may be the same structure you’re going to end up with by your tenth draft, or it may not be, but it’s a good starting point, to have that roadmap template that you really need if you’re just starting out in this form. It’s a new animal that you’re learning how to tame.

Bellamy Young as Mellie Grant in Scandal. Photo by Eric McCandless/ABC - © © 2016 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

Bellamy Young as Mellie Grant in Scandal. Photo by Eric McCandless/ABC – © © 2016 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

Using an existing show as a template also makes your show clearer to a reader, because it alludes to something they’re familiar with.

Yes, which is a good thing, if someone can say, “OK, this is similar to this.”

But it can’t be too similar, of course. You can’t have them say, “Well, Scandal already did this exactly, so we can’t buy your show because it’s too close.” But if they say, “Well, Scandal explores similar themes as your show, and targeted the same audience, and it’s also a broadcast network drama,” then that’s a good thing because they know that there’s an audience for it, and it could be successful.

For writers who have no idea where to start, how can they most productively use your framework in their writing process?

I would say start with, “What is this story about, and what is it?” So basically, “What theme is this story exploring?” And then, “What exactly is this show,” which speaks to the compelling crisis.

So, two detectives in New York chasing murder cases—there’s nothing really there for me to hold onto. If you want to explore a specific theme within that, and you have an idea of a crisis within this cop world, which is compelling because it happens to be about people in a specific milieu that we haven’t seen before, well then, that’s great.

So now you have, let’s say, pet detectives in Brooklyn; we’ve never seen pet detectives in Brooklyn. And the theme is people who have to decide between the happiness of their pets and the happiness of their family. And the compelling crisis each week is they have to decide what’s more important, protecting their pets and keeping them happy, or making themselves happy. And maybe the pilot story is that a career woman is given her grandma’s cat in her grandma’s will, and her grandma dies, and this career woman has to decide how much time she devotes to this high-maintenance cat, at the expense of her job in which she’s a partner.

And the cops are a man and a woman who own a pet shelter. They do detective work each week, they’re kind of like fixers for pet owners, and they have to help her figure out this dilemma.

So that’s silly and I just made it up off the top of my head. But if I knew that much, if you and I workshopped that, pitched it back and forth, and honed in on those elements—the compelling crisis, the week-to-week, what is it about, the setting, what makes it unique, what makes it relevant—I think we have a great starting point.

But it’s a really tricky question, because you can’t tell someone how to write or how to come up with an idea. Maybe the people who created Monk had a relative who had really bad OCD, and they just wanted to do a character who had bad OCD. And they wanted it to be funny, but not like a full, laugh-out-loud sitcom comedy. And, they also liked cop shows.

So maybe it started with, they wanted to tell a story about OCD, and they thought, “What’s the worst situation a guy who has OCD could be thrown into? A germaphobe could be thrown into crime scenes with blood and germs, and he’d have to get into the muck and deal with all these strange, dangerous characters.” And I think they were just off to the races from there.

I’ve heard other writers say, “Always start with theme,” but you know what, you can’t always start with theme, maybe you start with a scene—you have an idea for a really cool scene and it just blossoms out from there. And I think what you do is just ask yourself questions.

Questions come from the elements that are broken down in the Basic Stories Map. You know, what is this about, what is the week to week that we’re going to be watching, why is this relevant, who is this about, etc.

Tony Shalhoub as Adrian Monk and Traylor Howard as Natalie Teeger in Monk

Tony Shalhoub as Adrian Monk and Traylor Howard as Natalie Teeger in Monk

Since a broadcast show typically has more episodes in a season than a cable show, do you advise writers to think about where they want the pilot to land, and write the pilot differently considering they may have only 10 episodes to get through an arc, versus 22? For example, would you have changed the Breaking Bad pilot had it been written for a broadcast season?

I don’t think so. Logic would tell you, “Well, if it’s a 22-episode broadcast season, you should write the pilot slower. And then if it’s a 10-episode HBO season, you should cram in more and write it faster,” but that doesn’t make sense, right?

A pilot should be paced how that particular story should be paced, and most pilots are in the same basic structure, the teaser-plus-four or the teaser-plus-five acts, regardless of if they’re on CBS or HBO. So I think you should just stay true to your story, but consider the pilot the same in structure whether it is going to pay cable versus broadcast.

Now, the actual content is probably going to be different, but if you’re just talking about structure or page counts and pacing, there probably shouldn’t be a difference.

I would like to think the Breaking Bad pilot would not have been different because it was such a well-structured, satisfying, singular story. It opened with this teaser which was total chaos, and he has a gun, and a gas mask, and there are two guys passed out in the back of his RV and he crashes it, so we’re wondering what the hell’s going on.

By the end of the episode, he has become a meth cooker and taken out bad guys and tried to kill himself but failed, but he’s in a totally new world. So it’s so satisfying and cohesive, and really kicks off the story, that I would like to think if it were on ABC, and they knew that they had 26 episodes or whatever, it wouldn’t have been different.

But it’s good to know where you think this show will land in the commercial landscape. So, are you writing an NBC thriller, or are you writing an HBO thriller? You should have a target network, a target audience, and you should really have in mind where this show will land and who’s watching it.

Just in general, premium cable content tends to be a little darker; and AMC and FX tend to be a little darker than the broadcast networks, a little more mature, and a little more edgy. But shows landing there don’t have to be.

Would Breaking Bad have been different if it had been on HBO? Probably not. I think Mad Men could’ve been on HBO—Mad Men was pitched to HBO and they passed. There are great shows now where people are like, “Oh my god, the network passed on it, how stupid were they?” That happens all the time.

Jesse Pinkman, Vince Gilligan and Walter White on set of Breaking Bad, Season 4, Episode 12 "End Times". Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

Jesse Pinkman, Vince Gilligan and Walter White on set of Breaking Bad. Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

So the choice of network should inform a pilot’s tone and kind of content, but not its structure or pacing.

I think that’s totally right. You don’t need to worry about whether this will be 10, 13, or 22 episodes—you should have an idea, but don’t belabor it. Just focus on writing a really great pilot.

How much can you afford to leave off the page in a pilot, and can you make up for it in a meeting?

The pilot is definitely going to showcase your style and your tone and your storytelling on the page, and a good reader can visualize how it’s going to be on the screen. You just can’t fully get style and tone from a pitch. And the thing is, it doesn’t really matter for new writers, because you need a polished, compelling pilot to even get in the game.

If you’re a newbie, the only real requirement and the very first step is to write a really great pilot, which means you have it on the page. You can maybe sell a pitch, but it’s going to be hard to even get in those rooms unless you have sold a pilot.

I know from years of being a reader for movie studios that a script has to be clear. If I have a question in my mind as I’m reading something, if I’m constantly confused, like the writer’s using no complete sentences and no punctuation, and I’m just pulled out and I don’t even know what I’m reading, well then that’s just death to that writer.

Take the Game of Thrones pilot. I know the books are incredibly dense, so if you’d read all the books and you were watching the pilot for the first time, you would have a bunch of questions, like, “When is Jon Snow going to join the Night’s Watch?”

But if you were watching it without having read the books, you didn’t really have many questions because they were telling a very clear story. It made sense in the pilot.

You were wondering where it was going to go, but you weren’t confused; it wasn’t like, “I don’t know who Khal Drogo is and where he comes from and who are the Dothraki,” it didn’t really matter at that point, we didn’t need an entire backstory on Khal Drogo, so that was good because it was clear and it flowed.

Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones. © 2016 HBO

Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones. © 2016 HBO

Any advice on writing pilots for dramas based on true stories, or miniseries, or should new writers avoid these?

I would probably say avoid anthologies and miniseries; they tend to come from established TV showrunners and creators, or they come from source material, existing IP.

I would say try to create a dramatic episodic series that the reader and the person being pitched to can definitely see could clearly be on a specific network for a specific audience and could run next season, in today’s world.

What would you say is the biggest mistake new writers of drama pilots make?

I would say it’d probably be a combo of writing something that’s confusing and brings up too many questions in the reader’s head, and telling too closed of a story—basically, telling a feature film story, but just cutting it up into kind of arbitrary acts.

Pilots really are their own animals, and one of the toughest things to do is to write a pilot that feels like it comes to a satisfying ending but yet leaves us wanting more, and sets up an engine that we know is going to create more compelling stories.

In the feature world, if it’s an action movie or summer blockbuster, you can have a cheeky epilogue or tag at the end which shows us, “Oh, the villain’s still alive, so I bet there’ll be a sequel!” But it’s more complicated with pilots.

You note that commercial breaks gave rise to the 4-6 act structure of a one-hour episode. As more shows are airing without commercials and new media platforms are creating their own content—that is, as shows are being consumed and produced in different ways—do you think the nature of shows will change?

I think it can change, but the jury’s out whether it will change. If you look at feature films, and compare a film like Fritz Lang’s M to a film today, it uses the same basic classical 3-act structure. Technically films are made so differently now than they were by Fritz Lang, but that structure has remained ironclad.

Also, what I’m hearing and seeing is a lot of these platforms, like YouTube, started with, of course, short clips and webisodes, and little funny memes, but they’re moving toward the more traditional half-hour show.

Some of them are moving toward just a 22-minute format, with or without commercials. If you look at a half-hour show on network TV like New Girl, it’s 22 minutes, probably because they know young people are streaming New Girl without commercials, so young people are used to a 22-minute story.

So, you’re not seeing a complete throwing out of the rulebook; I think you’re still seeing adherence to the same structural paradigms that have been around for a long time. But the actual sophistication of the storytelling and the pacing are different.

If you look at shows from the eighties or seventies, they are a lot different than shows today, just in the pacing—scenes are shorter now, and the stories are more realistic and more intelligent and mature and darker. There are different expectations, and they’re relevant to society in different ways. But the overall structure is still the same.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but the structure of movies has basically remained the same, so I have a feeling that a one-hour show—whether it’s 58 minutes on HBO, or a 48-minute running time show in a one-hour block on CBS, or however long of a Hulu show, or a YouTube show that they’re calling a one-hour drama—is probably going to use a 4-5 act structure.

Zooey Deschanel as Jess Day in New Girl. © 2015 Fox Broadcasting Co.

Zooey Deschanel as Jess Day in New Girl. © 2015 Fox Broadcasting Co.

With Orange is the New Black releasing an entire season at once, and people generally binge-watching shows for multiple-hour stretches, what do you feel is the fate of the idea of an episode?

I don’t see the episode going away at all, because people like chapters, and you get into the pattern of storytelling of a show. So, if Orange is the New Black was going to do Episode 1 of the new season in 58 minutes, and then Episode 2 is 27 minutes, and Episode 3 is 13 minutes, and Episode 4 is back to 58 minutes, that would be confusing, you’d be thrown off.

It’s not like you couldn’t follow it, because you’d be binge watching, but it just wouldn’t feel right, and I don’t think it would be as satisfying. Then you also have those questions, like, “I was hoping to get a full hour of Orange is the New Black, what’s this 27-minute shit?” So I definitely see the episode as sticking around, at least for a number of years ahead. I see it basically being half an hour, and one hour.

Now, more importantly, for new writers writing pilots, you don’t need to predict the future; you need to adhere to industry standards now. So, if you’re writing a one-hour pilot now, it should be in the range of 52-60 pages, and if you’re writing a 30-minute show now, it should be in the range of, let’s say, 28-38 pages.

You’re not going to change the industry, you’re not going to reinvent the structure, you’re not going to be the Quentin Tarantino of TV. You really need to show that you can work in the defined industry-standard structure that’s in use today.

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, unless you’re going to fundraise, shoot it, and distribute it yourself on whatever platform—then you can do whatever you want, and that’s great, people do that. But if you want to sell a pilot script, or you want to get in the game to hopefully get hired on staff of a show, you want to write something that adheres to the basic industry-standard structure.

 Amanda Stephen as Alison Abdullahin and Adrienne C. Moore as Cindy Hayes Orange is the New Black. Photo by K C Bailey/Netflix - © 2016 Netflix

Amanda Stephen as Alison Abdullahin and Adrienne C. Moore as Cindy Hayes in Orange is the New Black. Photo by K C Bailey/Netflix – © 2016 Netflix

What’s your opinion on the shows or years that marked the dawn of this current golden age of television?

It’s interesting to me to look back at the past twenty years in TV. I think one of the big watershed shows was NYPD Blue on ABC. At that same time, HBO was developing more compelling shows like Sex and the City. I think the turn was that all of these shows aimed at an adult audience, and they used more feature filmmaking-style storytelling.

Also ER, I think, was a big watershed show in the nineties; it was executive produced by Steven Spielberg, and it was meant, from the beginning, to look like a high stakes, fast-paced feature film. I’ve never thought about this before, but probably the big generator or transition into the new golden age, as it were, was bringing feature film storytelling techniques to TV.

Most writers and critics and TV historians peg The Sopranos as a big turning point. The Sopranos felt like Goodfellas or Donnie Brasco. It wasn’t just a cheeky mafia show that was playing like a mafia feature film but wasn’t quite getting there—it really had that level of quality of a really good mafia film.

Lost was another big watershed moment, because it was a really long-form, multi-character, multi-arc sci-fi series, and nothing else really like it was on at the time.

I think after that Mad Men was a big turning point, because one of the interesting things Mad Men did was it took a cable channel that wasn’t known for original storytelling and established it as a place for really high quality, original, serial television.

So then they followed that up with Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. Now we have, like, the Nat Geo channel transitioning into original storytelling, and that happened with a lot of channels.

The FX channel had already had original programming for a number of years, shows like Nip Tuck and Rescue Me—I don’t know when the FX channel exactly started, but they were known for that. So it wasn’t like their entire channel pivoted to a new brand of storytelling.

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos

Do you have a sense of what will follow “peak TV?”

I’m trying to trademark the phrase “more peak television.” I don’t know, who knows—there are just so many shows out there, and you probably are the same way as I am, as everybody is, which is, like, “What show do I watch next?”

I just got the first season of The Knick on DVD, so now I’m going to start watching The Knick; but I have never seen Ray Donovan, I want to watch Ray Donovan. I mean, there are so many shows that are just in the queue waiting to be seen that it’s hard to choose.

But on the good side for writers, there are so many shows staffing up, and there are so many new pilots being bought, and there are so many sizzle reels being shot to pitch new shows, so it’s a really exciting time. What do you think?

The endless cliffhangers built into the structure of episodic shows does seem to perpetuate binge watching and make “more peak television” plausible as a way of maintaining that high that you don’t get or expect from, say, watching closed-ended films.

You have to wonder, will there be a breaking point where some of these channels go bankrupt because they can’t afford to produce ten, fifteen original series, and they just don’t have the viewership, I don’t know.

People are saying that Netflix is spending too much on original content. Maybe they are, and they’re going to run into financial trouble—for example, if Netflix is spending so much to produce original TV shows, do they have less money to license TV shows from other channels?

So then you wonder, are other channels then going to have less viewership and less profit, so those channels will cut down on the amount of original content they put out because they just won’t have the distribution and the ad dollars for the aftermarkets? So it’s interesting to look at the various business models.

Then you have the big thing in feature films which is day-and-date releasing, where it’s available on demand from your living room the same day it’s in theaters, or it never even goes to theaters.

There’s a movie on either on The Movie Channel or Showtime, and they keep showing the commercial—it looks like a really, really high quality feature film, and it’s got name actors in it, and every time I see that I’m like, “Did that come out in theaters?” I think it was produced just for cable, but it’s almost indistinguishable from a feature film that would come out in theaters. So there is that overlap of film and TV, it’s interesting.

Liev Schreiber as Ray Donovan and Peter Jacobson as Lee Drexler in Ray Donovan

Liev Schreiber as Ray Donovan and Peter Jacobson as Lee Drexler in Ray Donovan

Since no one can ultimately predict what will be a hit, your final advice for writers is to write a show they would watch.

I think you have to start there, yes. It has to be something that you would watch, that compels you, that you’re passionate about. You need to listen a bit to feedback from people in the industry, but it’s not the only thing. And the reason is, you’re always going to get critique and notes from people that are telling you to write a different show.

I was sending out a pilot a couple years ago, and I got responses from a lot of industry people that were very limiting. Like, they said, “OK, the only network this would be on would be ABC Family, and we know that ABC Family is only looking for ‘x’ right now, and this isn’t ‘x,’ so I don’t think there’s a home for this show.”

You can get those notes from a bunch of people, and it can be really disheartening and you can get down on your pilot, but you need to believe in yourself and believe in your pilot, and the goal is to find the champion in the industry for that pilot.

You will find a producer or network executive or manager or an agent who sees your vision, and wants to market your pilot as it is. This is the show, this is your vision, and we’re going to try to find a home for it, rather than you’re copying another vision, or you’re making something just like another show. You really want to make your own thing.

I think with so many platforms now, it’s more feasible to find a platform for your own unique, compelling vision.

Nothing is easy in this business, it’s not easy to sell anything, and you have to get it out there to as many people as possible. Something I’m always telling writers is you have to pick up the phone and cold call and make these relationships happen, and feed them, and send out your work to as many people as possible.

It’s tough, and it’s scary, but if you do it enough, you will find that champion for your show, and I think you can eventually get it set up somewhere.


Before You Go

Check out Daniel Calvisi’s Amazon Page, or take a look at his books for sale:

Or take a look at our great videos on writing for television, available from this website!

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Jennie E. Park is an artist and attorney in Los Angeles. She also contributes to <i>Artillery</i> and <i>M/In the Art World</i> Magazine.

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