Chapter 1: The Hidden Structure of a TV Series


An “Attractive Fantasy”

If a hook gets us watching, what keeps us watching?

We watch some shows because the characters are in a situation that we’d like to be in. In The O.C., the characters have personal problems we can all relate to (romance, family, money), but they’re young and slim and beautiful, and live in spectacular houses under the Southern California sun. Most of us have the problems without the spectacular houses and the sun. We feel we could be them; and by watching the show, we get to enter into their lives. As Lee Rich, creator of Dallas, says, “People are looking at it saying, ‘See , they have problems too, regardless of how much money they have.’”

On Sex and the City, four thirty-something women get to live in the most glamorous parts of the most glamorous city in the world. They wear fabulous clothes and they have fabulous apartments. (On TV, everyone in New York has a fabulous apartment, even if they work at a coffee shop.) They not only have time to go out and breakfast, dine and party with each other several times a week, they all like each other enough to do it. Does anyone over twenty really have friends like that? We wish … and by watching, we step into their world, and they become our friends too.

On Happy Days, the characters live in the simpler, happier 1950s of memory.

The attraction may be that the characters’ lives feel more important than ours. In ER, the characters save lives; in Homicide, the characters catch killers. Like us, they worry about making the rent, and falling in love. But their jobs are immediately, viscerally urgent. We get to step out of our lives and into theirs.

These are the fantasies that attract us to the worlds of these shows. Whatever keeps us coming back to spend time in the world of the show is what I call the show’s “attractive fantasy.”

A show can also have a “negative fantasy.” The characters are dealing with problems like the ones we face but worse.

We watch The Sopranos because our family is just like that, but at least no one’s getting whacked.

We watch Oz because at least we don’t live in a maximum-security ward, where we can be stabbed to death with a spoon. We can step outside any time we like.

We watch Lost because it’s exciting to think about being stranded on a mysterious and dangerous desert island, so long as you know you can change the channel at any moment, and the beast is not actually going to chase you.

Comedy is often based on a negative fantasy. We watch Seinfeld because Jerry and his buddies are just like us, only even more shallow and selfish. On All in the Family, Archie Bunker is a worse redneck bigot than most people’s parents, and Edith is much more of a ditz. Everybody Hates Chris is about how bad it was to grow up being Chris Rock. If we can see the comedy in other people’s lives, we can laugh at our own.

Shows often both attractive and negative fantasies. In Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, the characters are usually in immediate mortal peril, but they also have skills and powers we don’t have. The attractive fantasy is that Buffy gets to save the world; the negative fantasy is that she has to. In Miami Vice the negative fantasy is that the cops are up against arrogant, violent criminals flush with drug money; the attractive fantasy is they get to wear really slick clothes and live in Miami.

What both fantasies have in common is that everything on TV is exciting. TV is compressed time — life without the dull bits. Trying to get a promotion in your own job may involve years of work and politicking, much of it irritating or boring. There’s no scutwork on TV. On The Apprentice, within a dozen hours, someone is going to win the job and the rest are going to get fired. Immediate gratification — for the viewers, anyway.

You can’t really choose whether to have an attractive fantasy or a negative one. It’s inherent in the premise. But understanding what the attractive fantasy of a show is enables you to deliver the goods for that show. If you’re writing an episode of a show like The O.C., Beverly Hills 90210, Miami Vice or The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, remember that people are watching at least partly because it’s set in a community that most of America would like to live in, with characters who never have to worry about the rent. If you’re not selling that fantasy, you’re not delivering the goods.