The Setting Doesn’t Really Matter Much


 

Ken Levine’s new post “Your life is not a sitcom,” about people who think that their wacky workplace and co-workers would make a great show, touches on a theme I consider very important: the important thing about a TV show is not the setting or even the individual characters, it’s the relationships between the characters:

Here’s what nobody ever pitches me: a show about a relationship. THE OFFICE is funny because of the relationship between Michael and his employees. It is funnier still because of the relationships among the employees. What they actually manufacture is completely unimportant.

Start with the characters first.

What about the dynamics between them are interesting, fresh, and could sustain stories week after week? And then, what is the best setting to put them in? One that hasn’t been seen before is a plus but not imperative. How many shows and plays and radio series have been set in bars?

That said, there are some areas that are tougher sales than others. Madcap terrorist cells probably won’t fly.

Every TV character is to some extent a known quantity — there are only so many character types to choose from. And the setting, too, is not really that special, no matter how unique and high-concept it might seem. What gives a show its individuality is the way characters interact with each other, how they relate to their environment (the setting) and how they deal with the situations that come their way. A setting and a character, described on their own, are always going to be a lot like every other setting and character; the relationships are where the new stuff happens. The things that make a character “wacky” tend to be the things that make him exactly like every other TV character you’ve seen, but when he makes a choice that another TV character might not have made, or has a relationship with his spouse that isn’t exactly like the relationship of [fill in names of another couple on another show], he becomes something resembling a person.

This is one reason why most successful or semi-successful shows tend to drift away from their original settings, abandoning the high-concept premise for a generic one. 30 Rock started out as a show about a particular kind of workplace, and ended its first season as a show about an almost completely generic workplace; it was pitched as a show about making late-night TV, but it wound up being any workplace where the boss has to deal with inefficient underlings and meddling corporate management. Tina Fey did what most people just dream about: she made a show about the place where she used to work. But that idea couldn’t sustain a show for more than a few episodes, because once you’ve used up all the wacky real-life workplace stories, it’s time to move on to a more generalized setting and more specific relationships. It’s almost like TV is better when the setting and concept are more generic.

Successful TV producers and executives tend to understand that while a high-concept premise or unusual setting might be a good selling point for advertisers or network executives, the concept itself is the least important part. One of my favourite TV executive quotes is from Grant Tinker, who said essentially that he didn’t care about the premise of a show:

Ideas in themselves are never interesting to me. It’s all a matter of execution.

And Bob Boyett, not a quality TV producer but a successful one, said something similar:

Basically, the concept of a show is merely a vehicle to get it launched. What keeps it going is the ability to present characters people want to follow.

In other words, the fact that a show takes place in the craziest office/home/military base/terrorist cell ever is not going to keep it on the air.

Update: I shouldn’t make it sound like there’s absolutely no difference between one premise/setting and another (though I came close to making it sound exactly like that). Different settings do produce different shows, and the setting itself can be a character in the show, like Sunnydale or Mayberry. But when a show depends too heavily on the idea that the uniqueness of the setting is enough to make the concept viable, then it runs into trouble.


 
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The Setting Doesn’t Really Matter Much

  1. Dollhouse is a good example of a high concept show that ran into trouble when it focused too much on the premise in the first few episodes. At the halfway point, the writers started focusing on the relationships between the characters, and it became a much better show.

  2. For the "too much of a good thing" counter-argument re: relationships making the show, see the final season of Battlestar Galactica.

  3. I agree that the relationships between the characters are the most important part of any given show and in general define how a good or not-so-good a show is and whether it survives. But that doesn't mean the setting doesn't matter! Sure, what really makes THE OFFICE great is the character interaction. But the fact that these people work at a paper company, selling paper, which is just about the most mundane–and rapidly becoming obsolete–product one could think to sell is important.

    Or to take a more extreme example: What made BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER great was the character interaction, but the fact that they lived on top of a series-defining metaphor was still important.

    Or, to extend it to the premise: What makes HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER really good is the character interaction, but the fact the entire series is a flashback seen through the subjective eyes of future Ted is still important.

    Of course, the premise and the setting are only important in relation to the relationships, insomuch as they inform how the characters interact with one another. Which is why they're not as important. But calling them nothing more than selling points sells them short, I think.

  4. I believe the point is not that the setting isn't important. The point is that the relationships keep us coming back every week. I would say that the setting certainly helps set up what type of stories you can tell, but whether those stories are worth watching depends almost entirely on the characters.

    If we took the characters from Buffy and made it into a cop show or a medical drama, it would certainly change the particular stories involved, but the show would remain good because of the character interactions.

    • I believe the point is not that the setting isn't important. The point is that the relationships keep us coming back every week. I would say that the setting certainly helps set up what type of stories you can tell, but whether those stories are worth watching depends almost entirely on the characters.

      Agreed on all counts. The post, as it was, just seemed a bit on the reductive side. That's all.

      If we took the characters from Buffy and made it into a cop show or a medical drama, it would certainly change the particular stories involved, but the show would remain good because of the character interactions.

      While the show might remain good, I'm inclined to think that it wouldn't be nearly as good. An especially familiar setting and format really does tend to limit how good a show can be.