There are two kinds of hour-long dramas on television. The first is a serial. These are shows with one continuing plot line that advances in each weekly installment in creative and interesting ways. Serials are often the best shows on TV, with recent examples including Mad Men, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Lost. Under no circumstances are you to write a serial. Shows that you have to watch every week are Too Complicated and are really only enjoyed by people on the coasts. Art belongs in a museum.
The other type of hour-long drama show is a procedural. Procedurals are programs where we watch a new case get tackled every week – usually by doctors, lawyers, or police officers – in a repetitive and often predictable format. Law and Order, CSI, NCIS, these are all procedurals. These are the most formulaic of TV shows, and are very easy for even the most simplistic of viewers to follow. A procedural is what you will write. A procedural is all anyone should write.
When creating a procedural, it is important to have a dynamic and original lead character, like Dr. House or The Blonde Woman on The Closer. Consider making your lead either Very Smart, or Very Mean, or perhaps Very Attractive. Also, this person is to be White.
Now try giving your lead character an interesting quirk. For instance, Tony Shalhoub’s character on Monk had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. That is Very Interesting. Perhaps your lead drinks too much, or enjoys raising birds, or enjoys raising birds that drink too much. This will Set Your Character Apart and make him More Real. Should you be unable to think of a quirk, make your lead Handicapped.
OK, this next decision is Very Important: what will the lead character in your procedural do? Rip up four small pieces of paper and write “Assistant District Attorney” on one, “Private Detective/Police Officer/Forensic Scientist” on the second, “Doctor” on the third, and “Wild Card” on the fourth. Now get a Baseball Cap or Top Hat or Other Kind Of Hat and put the papers inside. Being careful to close your eyes, reach into the hat and grab one of the papers. Open it and read your lead character’s new profession out loud! If you get the piece of paper reading “Wild Card”, put it back in the hat and pick another piece of paper. If you take out two pieces of paper by accident, then your character will have two professions. He’s a doctor who also happens to be a district attorney. Or a police officer who used to be a nurse. This script is what is called in the industry a Two Hander, and will immediately fail.
It’s time to create your lead’s supporting cast! These are the people who help your lead out on that week’s case, or get in fights with the lead, or Have Sex with the lead. These characters should each have one specific trait to make them a Varied and Interesting group. One should be Funny/Fat, another should be Sassy/Black, and the third should be Very Attractive.
Now this is CRUCIAL. Your lead character must have a Love Interest. People have attempted to create shows without a girlfriend, potential girlfriend, wife, or flirty boss and they have Failed. Audiences enjoy sexual tension and the Possibility of Falling In Love. It does not need to be probable or even possible that your lead character could obtain the Love Interest in real life. In fact, as an easy rule of thumb, the woman in this relationship should be 2.5 times more attractive than the man. The only other requirement is that the characters find each other Sexually Exciting and Regularly Have Arguments.
Finally, if at all possible, have your characters frequently sing covers of celebrated pop songs.
Congratulations, you now have a one-hour television drama! Next up, the sitcom!