Saturday, 4 January 2014

Decoding The Formula!

Ask any University student from India who watches a lot of TV shows in his/her laptop as to which is their favorite show of all time. The student will appear confused, maybe count with fingers, do some arrangement and then say X, Y and Z (say) are equally good shows.

Why so, you may ask? The answer is simple. The typical Indian student is a good observer, a sharp critic and most importantly, a major contributor to the hype and hoopla of the television industry. Be it Hollywood or South India's most active Kollywood, every evolving teenager takes away a lot from the screen. This post, probably my most serious one, is an attempt to reveal the various dynamics that makes a TV series successful.

Aimlessly clicking my screen, I blinked for a second, stunned. My hard disk had 32 shows inside the folder 'TV Series', out of which I had completely watched 22 of them. So, I considered myself qualified to write this article!

I have always thought of myself as a people person. So naturally, after 22 shows encompassing almost all genres a human mind could possibly think of, I feel I have explored and understood a lot, if not everything, about how many things work - minds, relationships, situations, decisions and whatnot, not to mention pure entertainment. But what then struck me was the fact that these shows kept me glued, catching me unawares of the time that had passed - close to about 3 college semesters. Which got me thinking: Come to think of it, what ARE the primary factors that mold and contribute to the success of modern day TV series?



In TV lingo, the primetime is said to be the most important and critical period in the evening, when folks of the house sit down to watch something on the telly. Naturally, what is aired at that time has an impact on the monthly numbers reported, which makes a cable network successful. Now, it can be said that a popular cable network can always ensure a successful show, but this common belief is quite wrong. On the contrary, hit shows enhance the credentials of a network even more. For example:

CBS - How I  Met Your Mother (Eight seasons and running), Two and a Half Men,
           The Big Bang Theory.
AMC - Mad Men, Breaking Bad.
HBO - Entourage, Game of Thrones, The Newsroom.
NBC - The Blacklist (recently released, of James Spader fame).

Depending on the success of every season of any show and the numbers generated, the network decides whether to renew the series for another season. Many shows have faced the brunt of this logic in a severe manner. One such show was Lie To Me. Owing to the fact that despite the huge audience during the re-runs, the show did not generate the expected revenue at its original airing time (possibly due to a very thin storyline), hence cancelling the show after 3 seasons. Many hardcore fans went to the extent of creating "Save Lie To Me" pages and requests to the show runners and cable owners, but to no avail.


Sometimes, an ensemble cast (featuring a loaded cast of popular celebrities) does the trick for the show, with each of them flaunting their own persona to the delight of their hardcore fans. A good example for this is 'The Newsroom' which boasts names like Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire), Olivia Munn and Emily Mortimer(The Pink Panther).

In many shows like 'White Collar', 'Suits', 'Castle' and 'Franklin and Bash', the show is primarily fuelled by the chemistry/bromance of the lead duo. Such a casting often helps a script writer when it comes to scripting humor, witty one-liners and in some cases, a prolonged romantic atmosphere rattling the otherwise comfortable man-woman duo, as in the case of 'Castle', 'Royal Pains' and (of late), 'The Mentalist.'


However, the above need not be true all the time. Not many people around the globe knew Bryan Cranston prior to the all time classic 'Breaking Bad'. Jon Hamm was virtually unknown before playing Don Draper in the five-time Golden Globe nominated 'Mad Men'. (Seen in first pic)

But unless the plot presents twists and continues to promise, dazzle and entertain viewers in a very fascinating way, shows may tend to lean too much on the celeb power and on-screen bromances.


TV shows are usually of various genres, the most popular these days being situational comedies (sitcoms), procedural drama and police procedural. For example, 'The Mentalist' (Simon Baker, Robin Tunney, Tim Kang) is a police procedural that usually airs one episode a week following a "Case of the Week' formula to entertain its viewers on the various crimes that takes place in the city of Sacremento, California. On the other hand, 'Boardwalk Empire' (starring Steve Buscemi, Kelly MacDonald) is a crime and period drama that follows a prstory arc based on the real life story of Enoch L. Johnson, a political mobster who promoted illegal bootlegging in the state of Atlanta, to ensure its position as an entertainment hub for tourists.

There are exceptions of course, as in the case of USA's 'Suits' (starring Gabriel Macht, Patrick J. Adams) which followed a case of the week pattern followed by a 16 episode story arc second season. The third season is not yet complete. Even more interesting is the way the series '24' presents its story: A situation that lasts for 24 hours is captured with each hour accounting for every episode for a total of 24 episode for every season. Unique indeed!


A closer observation (read that as following the developments of a TV series fanatically) reveals the hidden-yet-obvious fact that creating, producing and successfully running a TV show is as good a teamwork as any sport or art can demand.

I briefly followed the writers of 'The Mentalist' on Twitter. I don't know exactly the number of writers who were involved but they certainly worked together as a team, around a table, a perfect example of brainstorming. Before every season, they occasionally put up pictures about how each episode is hinged on one key word which develops into a main plot with the sub plot and case of the week woven into the series, complete with humor and character outlines.

Bruno Heller, the creator, also serves as an EP (Executive Producer), thereby helping provide valuable inputs that enhances the series' originality. Sometimes, Simon Baker himself directs a few episodes, discuss scenes with the producers, along with adding charms and expressions of his own, making him a very amicable person and a household name in the US.


All the above factors and other factors (like costumes, props, setting, location, etc) contribute significantly to the success of any TV series.  But I strongly feel that it is truly the CHARACTERS developed by the script that adds to the entertainment quotient to tip the numbers in your favor, should you be the producer of your very own TV series. Why is this so? Let's take a walk down inside ourselves.

Every one of us have our own desires and ambitions in life - to reach a certain level, to come to the level of Mr. X , to ooze style like Mr. Y , to be successful to the likes of .....well, there you have it. That's the answer. Yearning!

Every writer, producer and director cashes in on these yearnings and desires of the general masses with different aspirations living in different parts of the world and strives to create a show where the common man can associate himself with the character on screen. The genius of this gimmick is that the character is also given a dash of the fictitious, a touch of the fantastic and a partial feel of the unreal, which makes us (the consumers and avid entertainment seekers) DESIRE them, awakening in us a wild romantic, a master mind-reader or perhaps even the criminal within!!! What's the evidence?

a. The appearance of actress Christina Hendricks as office manager Joan in 'Mad Men' is said to have sparked a renewed interest in a voluptuous look for women, and to be partly responsible for, among other things, a 10% increase in breast implant surgery in Britain in 2010.

b. A recently discovered sea-slug is named after the beautiful Khaleesi (Daenerys Targaryen) from Game of Thrones. It's called Tritonia Khaleesi. Researchers noted the similarities between the pale, effervescent sea slug and its fair-haired nomenclature

c. A lot of facts (like the fact that most of the cast of Breaking Bad were comedians, including Cranston, like the fact that Warren Buffet felt Walter White was a very good businessman, like the fact that people are actually getting jailed trying to emulate cooking methamphetamine, taking inspiration from the show) are often unknown to the general public. But that's just about a tenth of the stuff you don't know if you are a fan of this classic.
    The last episode was rated 9.9 on 10 by IMDB and the name Felina for the final episode was a combination of 3 elements, Fe- indicating blood (Iron present in haemoglobin), Li- the main constituent in meth, Na- Sodium, present in tears!!
You could easily obtain these facts on the net, but that's the sort of excitement and fanaticism generated by the fans in following brilliant TV shows like the ones I mentioned above: they LIVE their shows and they want more. What more could the EPs ask for? They are glad to oblige!
I haven't mentioned a whole lot of other shows like Sherlock, Mind Your Language, Everybody Loves Raymond, Downton Abbey, Person of Interest, House M.D, Dexter, Friends, Fringe, Hotel Babylon, Homeland, Boston Legal.......Now, I'm just reading all this from my hard disk because that's how vast the universe of television shows really are. Literally, that's just about the size of it :)

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