Best TV Drama 2018

Time for my annual round-up of the best TV of the year.  And I’ve watched a lot for work and pleasure over the last eleven and a bit months. The flood of great shows hasn’t abated, in fact it seems to be increasing.  That’s not going to stop.  Several new streaming services are launching in 2019, including Apple’s and Disney’s.

If you watch only ten shows this year, you could make it the ones in this list. But honestly, so many only just missed the cut, and in the end it came down to margin calls.  And it’s the same at the top end of the list where I went back and forth several times, and would probably come up with a slightly different ranking tomorrow.

I’ll be counting down with one a day, so check back to see what got my viewing and screenwriting juices flowing during 2018.

10. Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina (Netflix)

A Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the modern generation? The big win here is the design of an immersive world that’s like being dipped in a big vat of Halloween. Sabrina’s house, the school, the forest, the pumpkin fields and lonely roads, everything here has a hyper-intense feel that pulls you into a place where the creepy is normal.  The tone is all over the place – and that’s one of the reasons I like it.  Gory, disturbing, playful, but thankfully nowhere near as over-cooked teen drama as its stablemate Riverdale.  Couple that with some great character actors playing it large – Lucy Davis, Michelle Gomez, Miranda Otto and Richard Coyle – and you’ve got a frightening funhouse of a series. Yes, some of the mid-season writing is a bit patchy, but stick with it.  The Midwinter special drops soon.

9. The Good Fight (CBS All Access)

A series with something important to say about the state of the world, and of today’s America.  As a spin-off of the well-crafted but not wave-making The Good Wife, not a lot was expected from The Good Fight.  Indeed, on the surface, this looks like a traditional legal show.

But from the very first scene of the first episode, it set out its stall that this is a critique of Trump and all he stands for, of the vulgarity and the profit-first coarseness that characterises current times.  It’s a series about the huge divide in society, and the inequalities thrown up by a 1% inured to suffering.  The credits come in halfway through the first episode with a reversal that pulls the rug out from under your feet.  And then you can see where The Good Fight is going.

And yet it’s not preachy.  It tells it’s tales with verve and a popular style, with strong characters and a light, yes, traditional, touch where necessary.

8. Homecoming (Amazon Prime)

Another massive critical hit from Prime, after The Magnificent Mrs Maisel, and deserving of all the praise heaped on it, and its star Julia Roberts.  Paranoia runs deep in this series – and paranoia is possibly the key response to the 21st century – as Roberts oversees a facility for military veterans wanting to adjust to the civilian world.  It’s told via different competing timelines, and tackles issues like memory and personality.

The relentless pace – the episodes are only 30 minutes – drag you through the labyrinth.  There’s tricksy direction and graphics, as you’d expect from the director and producer Sam Esmail who made Mr Robot such an interesting and iconoclastic creation.  But the real, emotive performances hold everything together.

7. The Deuce (HBO)

A brave series, in its unflinching attention to every grimy, seedy, brutal aspect of its milieu.  In its examination of the early years of the New York porn industry, it takes you into a world you’ve never seen before, and tells you things you never knew in the process.  As you’d expect from David Simon and George Pelecanos, the flawed characters lie at the heart, raw humanity trying to survive in a time and place determined to grind them down.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is the queen of all she surveys, as both producer, and as Candy, the former streetwalker now photo-feminist demanding agency as she shapes this new industry from behind the camera.  A class act.

6. Atlanta (FX)

The genius that is Donald Glover has achieved something of TV nirvana here – a show that can be absolutely anything it wants to be.  Slice of life, romance, comedy, gritty urban survival, social comment, and, in the episode where the main character goes to buy a second-hand piano, even horror.  Sometimes it’s all of them at the same time.  In the end, the genre here is simply Donald Glover’s worldview, mercurial, wry and witty.  Everyone in the cast gives first-rate performances, and, what makes it great for me, it never fails to surprise.

5. Maniac (Netflix)

A deliriously hallucinogenic comedy-drama miniseries that occupies its own space – post-modern, with heightened performances and a look that often echoes cheap 70s SF movies.  What keeps it from being too quirky for its own good is the big heart at the core, and ultimately it’s deeply affecting.  Emma Stone and Jonah Hill play two broken people volunteering for a new treatment that supposedly will help cure their mental health issues.  This involves flinging them into drug-induced imaginary alternate lives where they can work through their neuroses.  Cary Joji Fukunaga’s direction is dreamy yet emotional, but it’s the career-best performance from Emma Stone, and Justin Theroux as a disturbed psychologist that nails this one down.

4. Billions (Showtime)

If this series maintains its trajectory, it has a good chance of being up there with The Sopranos by the end of its run.  There are similarities with the Mafioso drama – turbulent families, gangster capitalism, big egos crossing lines – but Billions ploughs its own furrow.  Its financial machinations are never dull and always subsumed beneath the character dramas, and it sparkles with an urbane wit that adds to its dynamism.  Fantastic duelling performances from Damien Lewis as hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod and Paul Giamatti as NY attorney Chuck Rhoades provide the visceral, Shakespearean core.  But there are two stand-out supporting turns that will keep you coming back – David Costabile as Wags, Axe’s right hand man who plays louche so well you expect him to seize his pleasure in every scene; and Asia Kate Dillon as the non-binary analyst Taylor, a performance that is all about brains and repressed vulnerability.

3. Ozark (Netflix)

Season one took a while to get going, but set out its stall with its aspiration to be the new Breaking Bad. Season two takes that mission to a completely different level.  Every dilemma, every choice made, fires the characters into a new level of hell, which requires more choices and more terrible consequences.  In the end, the tension of that grim spiral becomes almost unbearable.  This tale of a middle class family among the rednecks is a culture clash drama.  But when it asks the question, who has the capacity for the most evil – the sophisticated family, the uncomplicated, uneducated backwoods folk, the monied, the violent criminal gang, even the FBI – that’s when it comes into its own.  And the answer  demanded in every episode is usually not the one you expect.  Also in this series, Laura Linney emerges as the real star as her character edges into Walter White territory, a strong, unflinching person who will do absolutely anything to ensure survival.

2. Sharp Objects (HBO)

A near-perfect adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s chilling debut novel.  Director Jean-Marc Vallee uses the tics that made Big Little Lies such a success – flashes of images that are sometimes memories, sometimes notions, sometimes fantasies, that together create a dreamy atmosphere that echoes the languorous southern setting.  The pacing is deliberately measured, allowing the slow accretion of detail and character that brings the story to life. Which makes the ending so effective – after that oneiric approach the final scene and the post-credits sequence comes like a baseball bat to the face, smashing home the shattering horror of what has taken place.  Great performance too by Amy Adams as the alcoholic emotionally-troubled reporter returning to her disturbed family to investigate dark goings-on in the community.

1. The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix)

From the outset, this remarkable drama transcends its horror roots and becomes something universal.  The scares aren’t the point here, though there are several very effective ones.  This is a story about grief, addiction, depression and the very personal psychological suffering that is part of the human condition.  If that makes it sound heavy or preachy, it’s not at all – the supernatural is used as a powerful metaphor and that keeps everything moving.  But it is possibly the saddest thing you will see on TV.  Some of the episodes, and the characters, are heartbreaking.  The creator Mike Flanagan has made something enduring because he doesn’t pander to the viewer.  Questions are left hanging until Flanagan is ready to give his answers.  Duelling timelines are rolled out and the viewer is left to piece together which character is which and what’s going on.  There’s some brilliant dexterity behind the camera, with several long, prowling takes around the haunted house(s), and excellent work in front of the camera, particularly from Victoria Pedretti, Kate Siegel and Elizabeth Reaser.  This is a complete and satisfying novel, and there doesn’t need to be another series. But there will be, and I trust Flanagan to do something equally interesting.

And that’s it.  Honourable mentions to Narcos Mexico, Killing Eve, Unreal, 13 Reasons Why, Better Call Saul and Westworld, all of which could easily have made the cut.

And a special award to House of Cards for so spectacularly losing the plot.  The denouement was the worst for any highly-rated show in this new golden age of TV, so bad in fact that it effectively destroyed all that had come before.  It outlined a few basic writing issues.  If a character has been shaped to be supporting, you can’t simply elevate them to lead.  And this was always a novel about Francis Underwood, told in chapters.  His story was left hanging, and no amount of running around and dramatic posturing can make it feel fulfilled. Should have ended it with season 5.

Finally a big vat of the sourest grapes is being hauled by Deliveroo to the home of director Steve McQueen who insisted the golden age of TV was now over…minutes after HBO turned down his pitch for a new TV series.  On the evidence of these ten shows he couldn’t be more wrong.

When Is A Ghost Not A Ghost?

The Haunting of Hill House, which dropped on Netflix shortly before Halloween, is an amazing achievement, and not because of the scary elements (of which there are many).

Matching the show’s duelling timelines – now and then – it’s gone back to the past, to the age of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, when horror was made for grown-ups, with deep themes and symbolism, where the supernatural was a metaphor for real-world concerns.

And after so many years of dumb, funfair ride horror, it was so refreshing to discover something that had real depth.

What is The Haunting of Hill House about?  Not ghosts, not really.  They sweep by on the surface, terrifying and driving the plot, but it’s what they really mean that is truly horrifying.

A be-hatted spectral figure whose face can never be seen, always a few steps behind you – that’s a scary image.  But as a symbol of addiction, that honestly makes the blood run cold.  Depression, mental illness, family breakdown, childhood trauma, these are the ghosts that really haunt Hill House – and that is why the series is so affecting.  Emotional – sad, uplifting – rather than just creepy.

It talks about the human, not the supernatural.

I could go on at length about Mike Flanagan’s tour-de-force.  It’s a show that people will be talking about for ages, because of that meaning and depth married to a chilling tale.

Some complain about the ending.  I think it’s perfect for a series that is a drama about people.  It’s all a matter of perception, which is one of the themes The Haunting of Hill House plays with so effectively.

And it has an attention to detail in its construction that you rarely see in a tale in this genre (which these days producers cynically think is there for a not particularly discerning audience).  The layering of the mystery, the resonances that leap back and forth across the entire series, the excellent performances (particularly from the three female leads who knock it out of the park in their individual story episodes), these are things you usually find in TV dramas aimed at, well, discerning viewers.

Let’s talk about Mike Flanagan’s amazing direction in the ‘single-take’ (really five takes) episode six.  Or that attention to detail in the clockwork story construction. Ponder for a moment the discarded ‘sinister’ ending and why that choice was made.

But mostly praise the decision to reclaim horror for all those people who prefer a little meat on old bones.

Netflix To Let Viewers Pick How Movies End

One of the things you quickly learn as a writer is that viewers and readers never really want what they think they want. They desire what they could never have predicted. That’s why you never listen to ‘fans’ when you’re putting something together for a general audience.

I love Netflix. They’re great disruptors, and they’re driving the modern age of TV and film viewing. Now they’re planning to let viewers choose endings to movies and TV episodes, like a choose-your-own-adventure game.

I think this is a misunderstanding of both human psychology, and how storytelling works.

I’ve had meetings where I’ve been briefed on many new ways of telling visual tales, from VR, to AR, to this. One thing’s for sure – everything is going to change.

But the principles remain the same.

TV Project Updates

Thought it was about time to let people know something (*nothing*) about the TV projects I have in the works. In the TV world, just about everything operates beneath the surface.  Contracts prevent anyone talking about a series until it has definitely been greenlit by a broadcaster, and, usually, the broadcaster has made the first announcement. Which is absolutely right.

So, as vague as I can get away with:

Project Spitfire is with a major producer, with a director and (well-known) star attached. Waiting for the nod to move on to the next stage, which is imminent.

Project Hurricane has a well-known executive producer and has a completed and locked down pilot script.  Waiting to get this under a broadcaster’s nose.

Project B52 is in the early stages of development with a well-known producer and is awaiting notes.

(Don’t read anything into the project titles.)

Meanwhile, I’m moving ahead rapidly on the next novel for Penguin Random House, following on from Dark Age, which will be published in a couple of weeks.

Check out an old post about how you need to juggle projects in multiple media if you want to make a go of being a writer in the current age: The 21st Century Writer.

The Future Of TV

When I’m not writing novels under my pseudonym James Wilde, most of my current work under my own name is screenwriting for TV, developing shows for both the UK and the US. I have several currently in different stages of development (more on these projects soon).

The nature of the industry is changing so fast you can almost feel the land moving under your feet.  Terrestrial broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, NBC, ABC – are in steep decline.  They’re fighting to get eyes on screens and talent to make their shows.  Streaming providers are winning.  Netflix, Prime, soon Disney and Apple, with a whole lot more in the pipeline.

It’s a great time to be a screenwriter.

Netflix has just taken over a massive new building on the lot of Sunset Bronson Studios on Sunset Boulevard.  If you want to get a sense of how they’re changing things up, this piece in Wired is a great read.

On January 7, 2018, Netflix had its biggest ever day of streaming, with users collectively watching 350 million hours of TV shows and movies. (Netflix puts this down in part to an increase in viewers around holiday periods.) It’s planning on spending $8bn on its video content in 2018; by comparison, Fox spent the same amount in 2017 on non-sports content.

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True Horror On TV

I’ll be popping up on Channel 4 next week in the drama-documentary series True Horror. The first episode on April 19, 10 pm, is a chilling account of the Rich family’s terrifying experiences in an isolated farmhouse, which I wrote about in my non-fiction book Testimony. (You can read about it here.)

Far more than a haunting, this story goes to some very dark places indeed.  Some have called it the British Amityville, but it’s more than that.  I decided to investigate because it wasn’t simply an account of the family at the heart of the disturbing events.  Many other people, all of them unconnected, experienced disturbing, inexplicable events in that place.

Worth a look.

Best TV Drama 2017

I’ve watched a lot this year, for both work – because you need to keep up with what’s out there when you’re a screenwriter – and for enjoyment. There’s plenty I haven’t seen (not got round to Dark yet, or the final season of Bloodline) – there’s so much good TV at the moment, which is great because film has been pretty dire.  But this is what got me excited in 2017.

8. SENSE8

We’ve become inured to great TV in the modern age, but the sheer scale of the Wachowskis’ series is breathtaking.  Shot on location around the globe, it looks fantastic.  The downside is that makes it phenomenally expensive, and they just couldn’t maintain the viewing figures necessary for that level of spending.  It’s been cancelled, but there’s a two-hour wrap-up out in the spring.  The plot here about warring telepathically-linked ‘clusters’ isn’t really the point.  It’s all about the characters, and the really great actors behind them.  And, of course, the underpinning philosophy of interconnectedness and love.  Not one for the cynical.

7. THE OA

Another divisive show.  Part gritty drama about suburban malaise, isolation and mental illness, part-fairytale. this is a truly unique vision from writer/actress Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij.  It combines elements of the supernatural, fantasy, SF and mystery and psychological crime, and keeps the viewer continually wrong-footed.  Oh yes, and it also shows how evil can be defeated by contemporary dance.

6. GAME OF THRONES

HBO’s juggernaut winds to its close.  The measured developments and subtle character turns are all in the past.  Now it’s all about the spectacle.  And that bombast is extremely effective.  It’s become a fantasy WWE with everyone rooting for their favourite characters in the ultimate battle.  And what’s wrong with that?  Lavishly shot, well-acted, it’s such a confident production it can even shoehorn in an Ed Sheeran cameo.

5. MINDHUNTER

Okay, I’ve already had to rewrite this once because I forgot this one (thanks, Stephen Volk) – that’s how much good TV there is out there. David Fincher directs a measured examination of the fringes of psychology, slowly unfolding to reveal the darkness at the heart of the human condition. Coolly paced, with great performances, this shows what can be done when you’re not constrained by the structures of network TV.  Take your time pulling back the curtain and the result is far more affecting.

4. BILLIONS

The first season detailing the Shakespearean battle between Billionaire hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and NY attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) was great, but the second season takes it to an entirely new level. One episode in particular – no spoilers – will blow your mind.  Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin have taken a potentially dry subject – finance – and turned it into a battle as gripping as anything in GoT. The magnetic performances by Lewis and Giamatti only drive the spike home.  I couldn’t decide if this was number three or four, so if you like feel free to switch it with…

3. OZARK

A pretty good opening episode develops into something special and endlessly surprising in Netflix’s crime drama.  Jason Bateman, acting against type in a serious role, is a cipher, as is his wife, played by Laura Linney.  It gets into some interesting areas when financial advisor Marty Byrde relocates his family to the Ozarks in backwoods Missouri to pay off a debt to a drug cartel.  There’s a touch of Deliverance and Southern Comfort as smart, sophisticated city folk find themselves playing a wholly different game with the less-educated but far more cunning and brutal rural rednecks.

2. THE DEUCE

The Wire‘s David Simon and his regular collaborator George Pelecanos take a look at the beginning of the porn industry in 1970s New York, their cameras sharking among the pimps and prostitutes and police on 42nd Street like Scorsese in Taxi Driver.  it’s all about character here, and every single one, from those on centre stage to the incidentals, is drawn perfectly.  Maggie Gyllenhall is brilliant as an independent, no-pimp hooker with more brains than anyone else in the show.  And James Franco gives a career-best performance as twins – and, yes, that works.  Insightful, shocking, heart-warming and surprising, it takes us into an area we haven’t been before.  And a nod to the set design – it looks like it could have been made in the era when it’s set.

1. TWIN PEAKS – THE RETURN

If you go in expecting the third season of some 90s TV show, you’re going to be disappointed.  This is something completely new, which just happens to have some of the same characters.  I’ve written about it before, and I’ll probably write about it many times again because there are just so many levels.  David Lynch and Mark Frost have made an 18-hour art movie, a meditation on reality, and the connective tissue for Lynch’s films Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, the original Twin Peaks series and Eraserhead.  Yes, he’s been telling the same story all along, just from different angles.  Episode eight may well be the single best hour of TV ever.  The series is heavily laden with Lynch’s personal philosophy, and gets into the nature of reality.  But if you’re not interested in the heavy stuff, go for the emotional ride which takes you from terror to humour, often in adjoining scenes.

Honourable mentions: The Get Down, House of Cards, Love, and Halt and Catch Fire.

 

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Why I Stopped Watching The Walking Dead

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(Some minor spoilers here for the season seven premiere of The Walking Dead – no names, but some context.)

Halloween is just around the corner and like the coming of the Jack o’Lanterns a new season of The Walking Dead has launched.

AMC’s zombie apocalypse show has been a ratings juggernaut and a huge money-spinner.  I’ve watched it from the start because I like intelligent horror that has something to say about the world around us.  When the trappings of society are stripped away, humans become the real monsters and the survivors the real walking dead, well, that seemed like an interesting discussion to have.

The season premiere that aired in the US on Sunday and in the UK on Monday will be my last.

Some criticism has been levelled at the degree of violence in that episode.  While the series has always been gory, it’s generally been a fantasy violence, punctuated by the regular splitting of zombie heads.  But this episode stepped into a new arena of nastiness with the kind of brutality you could, in your darkest moments, imagine being inflicted on a loved one.  And the creators didn’t flinch from showing it again, and again.

And yet it wasn’t the physical violence that actually killed the series for me, as gut-churning as it was.  There was another form of brutality here.

I’m not thin-skinned.  I’m not afraid of violence, or death; I know both well.  I used to be a journalist.  I’ve seen dead bodies, murder victims, corpses brought out of fires.  I’ve watched an autopsy.  I’ve seen the wounds a gunshot makes, and an axe.  I’ve been in the centre of a riot, two actually.  I’ve watched my mother die.  And I stood beside my father a moment after his life ended.  That well of grief is hard to plumb.

That’s the point here.

This is the true failing of The Walking Dead: they disregarded the basic humanity of their viewers.

I imagine the show’s creators thought they were creating something sublime in this story.  Instead of wallowing in brutality for its own sake like the worst of the horror genre, they were going to show the true cost of violence, the humanity.  But they ended up doing the opposite in a ham-fisted attempt to make their point.

The death of a beloved character tells you everything you need to know about this world: that it is without pity, that survival is all, that some humans are nasty and venal and violent when pushed to their limits, and that others, the majority, are good and caring, that brutality is everywhere and that actions have consequences.

The death of a second beloved character, what does that tell you?  The same?  The same only louder?  What is the point – we already got that?

The gory murders of *all* the beloved characters, even if it’s only a vision in Rick’s head, does that tell you any more?  Does that provide a revelation as a reward for enduring emotional pain?  No, we understood everything we needed to know within the first five minutes.

Now it’s just torture.

But wait, there’s more.

An extended sequence where a father is put through one of the worst torments imaginable, to mutilate his own son to save the lives of others, what extra does that tell us?  That this world is *even more* pitiless, more violent?  If it’s not telling us anything new, there’s no point in it being there.

If it’s not telling us anything new, and it’s causing us emotional pain, it’s a betrayal of the viewer.  Sadism.  Causing hurt just because you can, and then walking away and thinking how clever you are that you have the power to manipulate the emotions of others.

One thing you learn as a writer is that you don’t need to show everything.  A look, the trace of a fingertip on skin, subtlety can be more devastating than every second shown in HD.  That’s because any work of fiction is a partnership: what the creators bring to it, and what the readers or viewers bring from their life experience.  And those readers and viewers are great.  They don’t need dollops of dumb because they have rich lives of love and suffering and anger and grief, and they access all those feelings with the merest hint.

They don’t need to see a beloved character’s eye hanging out, and then someone saying his eye is hanging out, and another shot of his eye hanging out.  They just need to hear the sound of the blow and they are distraught.

And just to keep labouring this point, in my homage to the creators of The Walking Dead, if you’re hungry and someone offers you a peanut butter sandwich, do you want a spread of the filling or do you want it six-inches thick?  Does using the whole jar of peanut butter, so it cloys and clags and chokes, make for a better sandwich?  Because there’s more?

It’s just a TV show.  Except it’s not.  Stories are fundamental to the human experience because they move things deep within us.  And for that reason they have to be used carefully, and thoughtfully.

I don’t advocate censorship.  The freedom to tell stories is paramount.  But I am happy to exercise my right to walk away when I feel that risks taken in that storytelling have not been borne out by the final result.

The season premiere of The Walking Dead was a callous manipulation of the true emotional lives of viewers.  It was nasty and relentless and caused unnecessary pain, a betrayal of the investment every viewer had made in it.  And that, for me, was where it ended.

Your Four-Step Guide To Getting Your TV Series Made #screenwriting

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So, this is BTS #2. Whenever I’m out doing talks, or at conventions, I’m usually collared by someone asking for tips on how to get a TV idea made (and, really, if it was that easy do you think I’d be showing the secret handshake to everyone?)  The conversation usually starts with, they’ve got an absolutely amazing idea that would make a brilliant TV series and everyone will jump the moment they hear it etc etc

Most TV writers I know are a hard-bitten, cynical bunch and for good reason. But there is some advice worth dishing out for those people who really want to be screenwriters (at this point I’m excluding the woman at the last talk who said she had a great idea but didn’t have time to write it so could she just tell someone…)

So here you go, a measly four steps to getting your own TV series made.  Four simple steps to earning hundreds of thousands of pound (UK)/millions of dollars (US).  Easy, right?

1. Get Trusted 

What, not come up with a great idea?  No.  Let’s talk a little about basic human psychology.  Whenever someone in TV hires you (and in books, comics, music, and everywhere really), they’re putting their job on the line.  The job that keeps their partner with a roof over their head or feeds and clothes their undoubtedly beautiful children.  In TV, that usually means giving you anything from a few thousand pounds to earmarking millions if a TV series gets made.  If you screw up, if you miss your deadlines, if your scripts suddenly become ordure, if the series flops so badly TV critics are pointing and mocking, that person who commissioned you will be asked some tough questions by the powers above them.  They might even lose their jobs.  So, as anyone would, they mitigate against this.  They say, “But the writer was an Oscar/BAFTA winning screenwriter.  Anyone would have hired them!”

Which is one reason why you tend to see familiar names at the top of your favourite shows.  If you want to cut the risk factor, hire a seasoned professional, someone who has proven they can take the pressure and do the job.  Not just the job, but an amazing job.  A safe pair of hands.

How do you get trusted?  That’s a topic for a whole ‘nother post.  But briefly, get lots and lots of credits.  In the UK, write for a soap, get taken on as a writer on another series, write a movie, in the US, get hired for the writers’ room on a show.  Build your brand.  Publish novels, comics (these actually mean a lot less than you might think – different skill-sets, but they show you at least understand Story).  Basically, find some cover for the people who might hire you so they can keep their jobs.

2. Write A Jaw-Dropping Spec Script

What, still no amazing idea?  Your spec script is your calling card.  You’ve read this on every screenwriting advice site.  You know this.  It has to be a script that is so good, some producer could imagine going straight to screen with it.  It has to be the equal of the work done by those seasoned, highly-feted writers you know and love.  If it’s not, the producer will simply revert to those other writers.  The people in charge of the money need to know you can do the job.  And, as is the theme of the 21st century, good is not good enough.  It has to be the best.  One tip: aim to write four spec scripts a year.  Keep them flowing out there, circulating, so someone, somewhere is always reading your material.  There’s a tsunami of writers waiting to break in.  Attention spans last days.  Even writers with lots of credits can get forgotten.  You have to keep stepping up and throwing a punch to show you can do it.

3. Have An Amazing Idea

Finally!  But it has to be a particular kind of idea.  Too far ahead of the curve and people will be afraid to touch it.  (See #1, about people trying to keep their jobs.)  But it needs to be fresh.  A novel take in an area people understand, so you don’t have to do lots of explaining before you get to the core of your genius idea.  In a nutshell: new, but not too new.  The TV industry is not burdened with gamblers.  (There are numerous exceptions to this, of course.  The ground-breakers are the ones everyone remembers, and producers will always say they want ground-breakers until someone, somewhere says they don’t.  Break a bit of ground, until you’re in a position to dig up a whole field.)

4. Build Your Family

The TV industry, like publishing, like music, is all about relationships.  This, too, ties in to #1.  Human nature – people like to work with people they like, and people they trust.  Nobody likes to work with a dick, or an incompetent.  Take meetings, get on with people, chat, go for drinks.  I’d say ‘network’ but that’s too cynical.  Just be a nice guy and get on with people and you’ll find a lot of barriers melt away.  Neil Gaiman once said, “Be good, be fast, be likeable. Any two out of three will do.  Any less, won’t.”  That’s decent advice.  So, make as many contacts as you can.  It’s the easiest way to get your work read.  If you’re one of those writers who likes to sit in their room and send their scripts out by raven, trembling at the thought of human interaction, sorry, you’re doomed.

See how easy it is?  This has been a longer bit of bloggage than intended.  I’ll get into detail on some of these points at a later date.  If you want me to pick up on anything specific in the future, leave it in the comments.

In the meantime, I just want to remind you that I have a knockdown special offer running on my ebook of my supernatural thriller The Eternal, for the next seven days.  Buy it now before the inevitable movie adaptation:

Here’s the UK link

Here’s the US and world link

New TV Series In Development – BTS #1#Screenwriting

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BTS. That stands for ‘Behind the Scenes’.  You don’t get a lot of discussion about the process of getting a TV series made…or, more likely, not made, as 99.9% of the series that go into development never see the light of day.  There’s a reason for that.  A lot of writers only like to talk about their successes.  Or they don’t want to jinx the process.  Or they’re afraid of giving too much away.  Or, they believe, no one is really interested in the what-might-bes or the never-wases.

I think they’re wrong on that last point.

So, I’ve just signed a contract to take one of my original ideas into development with the people behind Homeland.  It’s a returning crime series (so, apologies to those of you looking for adaptations of Age of Misrule and Swords of Albion – they’ve both been in and out of development, and will no doubt get on that horse again).

The script for the first episode of this new series has been written. Actually, I did it on spec – that’s what got me the gig.  The next stage is for the producers to take it in to the TV commissioners to see if they’re interested enough to think about airing it.  If they are, we’re on to stage 2 of the long obstacle course.  If they’re not, it goes into a drawer and comes out again in a year or two.

My philosophy is to celebrate every stage, even if the next one may well be turnaround or death by meh.  So see this as a celebration.  Contract signed, possibilities ahead.

And check back tomorrow for news about The Eternal