High (Concept) Anxiety: Are Big Ideas Bad for TV?

TV network executives may want shows with one big idea to hook viewers early, but if those viewers are going to stick around, it pays to sweat the small stuff

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Cliff Lipson / CBS

How I Met Your Mother

In the beginning, as ever, there was the word. And the word, this year, is “f***.”

Not content with television shows which you can sell to people in one sentence, television executives have apparently decided that we’re all at the point where the titles of shows alone are expected to be attention-grabbing enough to make everyone sit up and take notice, with no less than four different series in development at broadcast networks with the word “f***” in the title (Those are: How the F*** I’m Normal and Dumb F***, both in development at ABC, and NBC‘s one-two punch of F*** I’m In My Twenties and Grow the F*** Up, if you’re curious). Although the particular word may be different, the “I Can’t Believe That Show Will Ever Get On The Air With That Title” trend isn’t exactly a new one; the 2010/2011 development cycle saw “bitch” being the in-word, with ABC’s Don’t Trust the Bitch In Apt. 23 and Good Christian Bitches (neither made it to broadcast intact, and in both cases, the “Bitch” became, simply, “B”), and the year before that, lest we forget, CBS managed to make a show that was actually called $#*! My Dad Says after the word “shit” was unsurprisingly declared off-limits.

Consider this just the latest (d)evolutionary step in television executives’ desire to sell you — and, more importantly, the advertisers — on a new series, format or concept in as brief a time as possible. High Concept pitches have always had a home on American broadcast television. (What is Bewitched if not an early example of a high concept pitch along the lines of “She’s the perfect All-American housewife — and she’s also a witch!” when it comes down to it?) But as competition for eyeballs intensifies with the fading dominance of broadcast television, the notion of “big idea” programming has come to hold and more and more importance when it comes to deciding what we’ll be watching the following fall. No wonder, then, that ABC’s then-head of scripted programming Suzanne Patmore-Gibbs told the Wall Street Journal last year, “Big concepts became more attractive to us this year. We were looking for something that would break through the clutter.”

There is, of course, one problem with this thinking: Neither the people who make television shows nor those who watch them are necessarily fans of High Concept TV.

(MORE: CBS’s Upfront: C, B and the S-Word)

For those responsible for creating television shows, there’s the initial problem that not every idea is a big idea. Here’s veteran TV writer Victor Fresco talking about the last year’s development season: “I felt like [the executives are] chasing big titles that don’t necessarily translate into good shows,” he said, during an appearance on the Nerdist Writers’ Panel podcast earlier this year:

“You look at big ideas like $#*! My Dad Says or I Hate My Teenage Daughter, which are provocative ideas, [or] what they describe as ‘the one-sheet,’ you know, the big one sheet idea. They’re chasing the one-sheet, and I think it’s because, as their numbers dwindle, they want to have a way to market the show, which I understand. So it puts us in the position of coming up with an idea that we want to do, but then trying to tweak it in a way so it seems like it would have a one-sheet, but successful [television] don’t have one-sheets, when you look at [Everybody Loves] Raymond or Friends or Seinfeld, none of them have [that kind of simple hook].”

That last part is worth contemplating. How many of your favorite television shows can you easily sum up in one simple sentence? Doctor Who, say, is “an alien traveling through time with a human companion saves the day, no matter what day it is,” but it’s rare that the set-up behind a show really describes what makes a show work. Craig Ferguson’s “triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism” comes close for a one-line summation of Who‘s appeal, but even that doesn’t explain the mythology that’s integral to the show, nor the peculiar tone; good luck trying to high concept Friday Night Lights or The Wire, for example.

Comedian Jason Good, wrote about this seeming contradiction, using The Office as an example. “Here’s the pitch for [the show]: ‘A hilarious examination of the tedious inner workings of a small town paper supply company.’ Huh? Exactly. No one will be interested in that. I exaggerated the banality in the [description], but what makes The Office great is the writing and the size and range of the comedic cast, not the concept. It’s the kind of show you have to sell based on a script, not a pitch. It’s about the people, not the idea.”

I suspect that, for most truly successful shows, that’s the case; even in something as abstract and idea-driven as Lost, for example, the characters were at the core of the show at all times. The same with similarly High Concept hits like The Walking Dead and Mad Men; characters that invite an emotional connection are key to convincing audiences to not only watch once, but return on a regular basis to see what happens next, and good characters by their very nature defy the simplicity of the High Concept.

The recent landscape of cancelled High Concept dramas underscores this, to an extent. What was really wrong with The Event, Alcatraz or Terra Nova? The lack of memorable, compelling and complex characters. If your audience believes in — and cares about — the characters enough, they’ll sit through years of unanswered questions and unbelievable plot twists, but without them, all that’s left was a big idea that, in the case of each of the three series listed, couldn’t sustain itself across more than a handful of hours of storytelling before audiences got bored. Memo to NBC’s Revolution: Please take notice of this phenomenon if you want to make it to a second season.

(MORE: Happy Lost Day! One Year Later)

Bearing all this in mind, it can’t have escaped fans of CBS’S popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother that the title of the show is just a little misleading. It’s not that the show doesn’t make a point of pretending it’s really trying to tell us how architect Ted Mosby finally met the woman of his particularly picky dreams; after all, every episode begins with the voice of Bob Saget as Future Ted introducing that week’s story to his kids. But How I Met Your Mother is really about the relationships between Ted and his infinitely-more-interesting friends as they go through, and grow from, their experiences in their late 20s and early 30s… In other words, the characters. You could easily strip all of the future narration and mystery surrounding the mother’s identity from the series and it wouldn’t be that different at all. That’s because the show is an early example of something that Victor Fresco calls the “disposable hook”: “I heard the term this year,” he explained. “The idea is, ‘how are you going to sell your show?’ and then [the hook] disappears by episode four, once you’re on the air.”

You can see the disposable hook in a number of sitcoms currently on our screens. Mike & Molly (whose High Concept was the distinctly lowbrow “It’s a comedy about relationships — but they’re fat!”), Community and Up All Night are examples of sitcoms that quietly did away with their central conceits sooner rather than later. More recently, NBC’s Go On started with the through line that it was all about Matthew Perry’s Ryan King trying to rebuild his life after the tragic death of his wife, but now it’s a far broader show about how “wacky” Ryan’s friends are, as seen from his more cynical viewpoint. Similarly, ABC’s Don’t Trust The B**** in Apt. 23 may have sold itself in both title and pilot as a show based around the idea that “my new roommate is trying to ruin my life!” But as early as the show’s second episode, it had already settled into something more akin to the far more agreeable “I am a naive fish out of water in this cynical city they call New York, but I like it!” ensemble piece that, again, opens up both audience appeal and story possibilities. Speeding up the kind of changes of direction and focus that would previously take shows years, the strange beauty of the disposable hook is that it offers series the chance to reinvent themselves in the short space from pilot (made, ultimately, for the executives) to series (made for the viewers).

Pilots and series have always been made for differing audiences to some degree or another; pilots, after all, exist as much as a proof of concept of the pitch that executives initially bought from creators, whereas series exist to… Well, be television shows that are watched by a mass audience, if all goes well. The concept of the disposable hook takes that dichotomy and pushes it further, forcing creators to create two different shows at the same time: The one that they really want to make and the pilot, which will feature the same characters but enough of a tweaked concept to convince The Powers That Be that there’s a big idea in there that’ll catch attention and draw people in for that first week.

The trick, if the disposable hook continues to be a trend, will be balancing the two shows. Sure, you need enough of a High Concept idea to get on the air in the first place, but if you concentrate too much on it you won’t last very long once you get there. It’s the difference between Lost and FlashForward; no matter how you feel about the final episode of J.J. Abrams’ and Damon Lindelof’s island melodrama, the reason you cared about it so much in the first place was because you cared about the passengers of Flight 815 and assorted newcomers. But can you even remember one of the characters from the time-travel show that was supposed to replace it in everyone’s heart?