Sometimes it’s Bigger Than a Single Character

One of the things I hear when talking with some execs and prodcos when pitching or discussing a sitcom is their “conventional wisdom” that a sitcom needs a main character.

Please excuse my rant as I blow off a little steam…

There are significant differences between episodic TV writing and feature writing. They seem the same: similar formatting, except for multi-cam and all that stuff TV scripts cram into the headers; similar techniques for introducing characters and stories, reveals, reversals, tension, suspense, etc. But the reality is that they are different beasts that are beholden to different masters. According to conventional wisdom a feature is about the moment or series of events that are central to character’s life. It either fixes them or makes them who they are supposed to be; romances and buddy films are about two characters, obviously. Sequels and all the superhero universes are also exceptions. TV series are about the time in a group of characters’ lives where they are/were at their best, even if that group of characters had a main, or focus, character.

Another way of looking at the differences between a feature and a pilot is that the feature is designed to be a closed system, requiring nothing to occur afterwards, and a series is designed to be an open system that can go on episode after episode, season after season.

Since a feature doesn’t need to be concerned with what’s coming after the final credits roll, the writer only has to build the journey, the visceral/vicarious/voyeuristic experience the audience will experience between FADE IN: and FADE OUT. TV pilots have to accomplish a number of different things, some of which are:

  • Establish all of the main and supporting characters and their relationships.
  • Establish the main locations.
  • Tell a couple of good stories that are entertaining.
  • Establish the look/feel/tone of the series.
  • Give the network and the audience a reason to want to keep seeing more episodes.
  • Production Concerns. There was a series back in the 90s or early aughts titled, Nasty Boys, which was about the Las Vegas SWAT team. The pilot was filmed in Vegas. Great production values. Storming casinos under all those great neon lights, a climactic shoot out on the strip. Audiences loved the pilot. The series got picked up, and they shot the next five in the San Fernando Valley. No more shoot outs on the strip, no casinos. Instead, they were storming apartment buildings in Reseda and staking out pawn shops in Culver City. It didn’t make it past those first few episodes.

The pilot needs to reflect what the series is going to be, and it’s going to be about a group of characters whether there’s a main one or not!

The following clip from my Sitcom Basics Course discusses the different type of sitcom cast configuration: