“vintage TV on gray wooden table inside room” by Tina Rataj-Berard on Unsplash

So Your Pilot Idea Isn’t That Original

What show is this:

Boisterous wild-card dad, grounded stay-at-home mom, three kids in varying shades of good/evil and dumb/smart, outlandishly precocious baby, crazy adventures usually centered around dad or evil kid’s poor decision making.

Depending on maybe how old you are, the bulk of you either thought of the Simpsons or Family Guy. Tweak some specifics about the baby and it could be the Dunphys of Modern Family. Or the Cleveland Show but you probably didn’t watch that. Change the setting and it’s Bob’s Burgers.

Take away a kid and add in non-conventional house guest and you could be talking American Dad or Alf (two kids, one alien, same show?), or keep the third kid and the unconventional houseguest and it’s Mr. Belvedere or trade mom for uncle and keep houseguest and it’s Full House.

Okay. Change houseguest to always-there neighbor and we have Family Matters. Or are we in Home Improvement territory now? Depends on how whether the wacky neighbor gets to drive story or just be a plot device, I guess.

They all did that.

Okay. Let’s go back to the beginning but make the dad a little more grounded and work-focused and you could be describing Fresh Off the Boat or Black-ish (but the mom in the latter has a great job AND is the grounded one), especially if you add in the quirky grandparent (which also keeps us planted in Simpsons, Family Guy and Family Matters territory). See also: Growing Pains. Addams Family. Roseanne (not anymore). Everybody Loves Raymond. Others that I can’t think of what do I have all day? (I mean technically, I do.)

Or maybe the family IS the aliens and we’re talkin’ Third Rock from the Sun here. Or the neighbors are aliens in the show that inexplicably got two seasons: The Neighbors.

If you take that general family setup as a premise and make just the smallest of changes here and there, you could be describing fully half of all sitcoms ever.

Two people live together that really have no business living together but here we are.

Is this… the Odd Couple? Or is it King of Queens (which is really just the Honeymooners meets the Odd Couple) or Perfect Strangers or, I don’t know, the Odd Couple remake or Will & Grace or the Will & Grace reboot or Two Broke Girls or anyone who lived with Monica during Friends.

A workplace with a crazy boss, a love triangle, an alpha dog, underlings of varying levels of quirky, an HR person that nobody likes…

Archer or The Office? Take out the HR person and it could be Taxi. Change underlings to customers and it’s Cheers. Change “crazy” to “quirky” with the boss and sub out the hacky HR person for someone else in the power structure and you can get into Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Parks and Rec territory. You get it.

Okay, fine, but what about one-hour dramas?

More room to play in terms of page count, more formats (there aren’t a lot of half-hour limited series, for instance), so there’s more opportunities to differentiate. And the unique “hook” of the show is often more important in one-hour than in half-hour. But let’s play that game again.

Quirky/Personality-disordered male character with “special skills” teams up with no-nonsense female cop.

Okay we talkin’ Lucifer here or Forever or Sleepy Hollow. Drop the British accent, keep the mystery, watch the X-Files or Fringe. Reverse the roles for iZombie. Dial down the sci-fi/horror and turn up the thriller and we got Castle.

How could you forget Bones?

And yeah, procedurals are kind of same-same by design, but even the more unique fare has the DNA of other things all over it. Look at any season of American Horror Story and try not to see that it’s just stitched together from a pile of pre-existing ideas and tropes. It’s unapologetically that.

Let’s not even talk about the fact that a solid majority of shows comes from some other IP directly.

That’s not to say that there’s no original ideas, and that there are no shows that don’t feel fresh and interesting even if they have familiar roots. Usually, the thing that stands out is the characters and how they interact, the choices they make, the drama they create, rather than a given premise specific.

Is The Good Place so good because of the premise? The setting is different but the situations are familiar so it must be the characters. Gregory House was fun to watch because he was House, not because he was Sherlock Holmes with a medical license and a limp in addition to the addiction (and an on-the-nose parallel name). Walter White wasn’t the first family man to break bad, nor was Tony Soprano, but the shows were compelling because the characters were compelling.

I teach a pilot writing class and one of the biggest things people get hung up on is overcomplicating their ideas in some quest to make them unique when that’s not really the point.

Here’s the secret — by and large, we want stories that are familiar, and relatable, so that we can comfortably sink into them and go along for the journey.

Remember that the initial idea is just where you start. You don’t need to put so much pressure on yourself to come up with that one completely unique premise that will make networks flock to your door clamoring to do your show, because that’s not going to ever be the case. You definitely don’t need to go out of your way to add inorganic elements like “oh it’s Just Shoot Me but the David Spade character is a ghost”.

Instead, you just need to take situations and setups that are familiar and relatable — weird family, dumb boss, starting over, growing up, being young and having friends, following your dreams, solving crimes, doing crimes — and create characters and a point of view that comes from your perspective, tone, experience, and comedic or dramatic voice.

This is not about having permission to be lazy and not examine your ideas. It’s about not stopping yourself from even exploring them if they’re not something that literally nobody has ever seen before in any form ever. That just isn’t the bar.

Create what you would find interesting and new and fresh in that world. Combine ideas in new ways to create the new thing that has its roots in soil that has already been proven fertile. That’s what we haven’t seen before and what makes the story interesting — the stuff that comes from you.

And, I mean, If you do have some great unique original totally new idea then fuck, dude, good for you. Just like, don’t wait for that perfect idea to come to start writing is all I’m saying.

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