I’m out of commission today, guys, but I’ve been wanting to ask this question for awhile. What’s the best written show on television?? It seems to me that since Breaking Bad ended, there’s been a lowering of quality in the TV offerings. I’ve tried to get into a lot of shows, and while I’ve liked a few, there’s been nothing that’s exhibited that same addictive quality Walter White and Jesse Pinkman brought to the table every week.
So, in your opinion, what’s the best-written show out there? Emphasis on “WRITTEN.” This is a screenwriting site, so while there are shows with awesome production value, I’m more concerned with what ropes you in on the storytelling end. I admit this post is selfish. I’m looking for a show to commit to. So here are ten options. I’m not doing comedy since you can’t really compare comedy to drama. Maybe we’ll do comedy another time. Feel free to write a show in, though I think I’ve covered all the best ones here…
1) Mr. Robot – I like Mr. Robot a lot. The only reason why I haven’t ravenously kept up with it is because it can be a little intense and heady at times. It’s the show that makes you think more than any other show out there, and sometimes when we watch television, we like to cycle down. Still, this is a strong contender for the top spot.
2) Stranger Things – I initially wrote this off as two writers who’d jumped on the Nostalgia Express, with zero stops at originality. But the show has grown on me, particularly the stellar score. Of course, the score has nothing to do with the writing. This one is a tough call. It’s hard to nail down.
3) The Night Of – This is currently the most hyped TV show on television, and I’m not surprised why. It’s got Steven Zallian and Richard Price behind it, two of the top 15 screenwriters in the world. I remember reviewing this though and feeling it was pretty ordinary. The setup felt familiar. I’ve seen “wake up with dead woman” movies and shows before. Watching the pilot didn’t do much to change that. But maybe the show gets better in the later episodes?
4) Game of Thrones – I’ve tried so hard to keep up with Thrones. I’ve blocked out times to binge watch so I can catch up to the current season (I’m still at the beginning of 5). But the writing’s weaknesses keep bleeding through. Too many scenes with people sitting around talking. Keeping the audience’s attention by killing off characters as a substitution for solid dramatic storytelling. Hey, I understand how hard it is to keep a show fresh past its third season. But Thrones might want to switch its focus from kings to emperors, since this one doesn’t seem to have any clothes on.
5) The Walking Dead – Speaking of trying to keep a show fresh. Holy Moses. The Walking Dead doesn’t have any idea what it wants to do and is continuously repeating previous seasons’ story beats. I gave up a couple of seasons ago when they became part of yet another “perfect” community (repeat of season 3). And, again, when your main source of entertainment is killing off characters, you’ve lost your show.
6) The Americans – Everyone keeps telling me this is the best show on television. I have tried to watch the first episode no fewer than four times now. I have yet to get through the entire thing. The shoddy production value didn’t help. The Cold War stuff isn’t interesting to me (never liked Cold War stories – I think that time in history is extremely boring). If someone could try and explain to me why I should watch this show, they better be offering me a lifetime supply of In and Out double-doubles along with it. Cause I don’t think there’s any other way to get me to give this another chance.
7) Better Call Saul – One of the most understated shows on television. Every episode keeps me just entertained enough to keep watching. But it’s not lost on me how little story they put into each season. I think the main reason I keep watching is because once “Saul” finally emerges, I believe the show will become more like Breaking Bad.
8) Homeland – Like a lot of people, when Homeland won the Emmy for best drama, I binge-watched the first season and loved it. But five episodes into season 2 and I felt like I’d figured the show out. Once you’re ahead of the writers, your show is done.
9) Fargo – The only reason I hesitate to put this up is because it’s an anthology. So we don’t get to continue with those amazing characters from last season. But Fargo Season 2 came out of nowhere to be some of the best writing I’ve seen on TV in years. Wow was this a surprise.
10) Ray Donovan – I LOVE the character of Ray Donovan. I think he’s great and a big reason I watched the first 7 episodes of this show. But like Homeland, I started to feel like I’d figured the show out. There was no mystery or uncertainty anymore. Maybe I jumped the gun, though. I’ve been feeling like I should jump back in to Ray.
Honorable Mentions: The Flash, American Horror Story, Billions, Suits, Orange is the new Black, House of Cards, Outlander
So guys, what’s the best-written show out there???
Not even Jason Bourne can save the worst summer in box office history. The newest Bourne will bring in 10+ million less than its previous Matt Damon installment. Personally, I think they dropped the ball with the title. All those other Bourne movies had cool titles. Like, “The Bourne Sociology” and “The Bourne Platitude.” This one is just, “Jason Bourne.” When you can’t even make your title exciting, why would you expect us to think your movie was exciting? And don’t even get me started on them ditching Tony Gilroy in favor of THEIR DAMN EDITOR writing the script. Hmm, ya THINK that might have something to do with the bad reviews, guys. Let me just throw a question at the editor here. Would you allow a screenwriter to edit this film? Exactly. But surrrrrrre. Anybody can write a script. Why not give the job to someone who’s never done it before? Hilarious. All of this continues to be AWESOME news for screenwriters, though. The industry is learning the hard way that we want something fresh. And as we all know, the hard way (less money) is the only way the industry learns. And who knows. Maybe one of today’s scripts will be the original spark they’re looking for!
Logline: Show business today may be a snake pit of jealousy and backstabbing, but for an aspiring Court Jester in the 1636, it isn’t even THAT nice.
Why you should read: I’m a UK-based writer and I’ve always loved film and TV about the inner workings of show-business, and the chaos, desperation and joy involved when art meets money. ‘I’m Alan Partridge,’ ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’ ‘Bullets Over Broadway,’ etc – it’s been done brilliantly many times but I think with FOOL I’ve found a new angle on it. I love sharp, witty dialogue as much as I love broad slap-stick, and in FOOL I’ve tried to them throw both in together. So if you want a fresh take on a much-loved genre, have a read of FOOL. I hope you enjoy it but if you don’t, you can have fun tearing it to bits – another great showbiz tradition.
Title: Cargo Unknown
Logline: The misfit crew of an interstellar freighter are hired to transport a mysterious scientist and his unknown cargo. During the long trip, they discover the frightening contents of his containers and know they must stop his mad plan before arriving at their destination, Earth.
Why you should read: With this script, I hoped to create a sci-fi action story that continuously ramped up the tension on the crew’s desperate situation. The small crew quickly loses control of their ship. They are nearly weaponless, vastly outnumbered and have only the duration of their trip to stop the villain. The threat isn’t the typical killing machine/monster and I absolutely loved the two badass women who are the ship’s engineers. I was lucky enough to have this script make it into the SS250, but it didn’t crack the top 25. I would certainly appreciate any suggestions and comments from Carson and the Scriptshadow community.
Title: Taking Stock
Logline: When his estranged brother gets in over his head with a Las Vegas Mob boss, A timid, low-level financial analyst must decide whether to risk his job and his freedom by using insider trading information to pay off his brother’s debt.
Why you should read: This is a solid story with interesting characters that are polar opposites. Matthew is a PTSD riddled, gambling addicted Iraqi war veteran engaging in reckless behavior in the hopes that nature will eventually takes its toll. Damian, his younger brother, is a timid, anxiety ridden investment lackey whose idea of risk is not balancing his checkbook. Although different at that cores, they share a tragic past that continues to bind them together. A bond that ultimately compels Damian to risk everything he values to prevent a cruel Mobster from taking all that Matthew has left – his life.
The story also achieves a personal goal for me in that I wanted to write a story that compares the worlds of organized crime and investment banking. This script demonstrates that they are indeed similar beasts.
Logline: An errand boy for a contract killer stumbles into a ruthless battle with his boss and an unscrupulous landlord to save his weirdo friends and their beloved laser tag arena.
Why you should read: The only way I could live further from LA is by moving to Tranquility Base (I’m in Singapore). I submitted this for the Scriptshadow 250 but didn’t make the initial cut. Don’t make the same mistake twice! I’ve read almost all of the Amateur Friday offerings and (bias alert) this script is better than nearly all of them (I would have said “all of them” but trying to be modest about it). If I had to compare it to anything (that’s advisable, right?) I’d say it’s a Clerks meets Pineapple Express deal. I’ve read Scriptshadow Secrets several times and done my level best to implement every bit of advice from it. This is your chance to say “See everybody, my book can turn you into a real screenwriter!”
Title: The Picks, the Pit and the Plan
Genre: Dark Comedy Thriller
Logline: A pot dealer and a primatologist clash with the townies after they hijack a brain damaged clerk’s plan to brutally hunt down everyone he sold a lottery ticket to in a desperate race to claim the jackpot.
Why you should read: I got on your newsletter after you and I talked about a YT video I made called Muppets Saw a few years ago. I’ve had over 60 million views (many of them stolen) of my silly videos on the web. Instead of videos, I now spend my free time writing screenplays. — I’ve had a few reads of this script from people in the biz and the biggest critique was that it wasn’t commercial enough. I think you should read it for very selfish reasons … because I want to write for a living. Your review could only make me closer to that goal.
Genre: Action/Adventure Sci-Fi
Premise: A small-town juvenile delinquent on a hiking trip with three other teens runs afoul of a D.B. Cooper-style air hijacker smuggling extraterrestrial cargo.
Why you should read (from writer): My previous script won AF back in November and I’ve taken everything I learned from the process of writing that one and from the awesome notes I received here, and poured it all into this one. Bush Baby Summer is (hopefully) a fast-paced outdoor action adventure with a sci-fi twist. It’s also my attempt to capture the oft sought after yet ever-elusive “Stand By Me meets E.T.” vibe. It’s currently a Page quarter-finalist under the title “Ramblers”, and – I just found out today – it placed among the top 10% at the Nicholl. Thanks for considering Bush Baby Summer for AOW. I look forward to some constructive notes (good or bad) from the community.
Writer: David Scott Martin
Details: 106 pages
I’m not surprised this script won. With America’s latest obsession being the heavily 80s influenced, Stranger Things, on Netflix, any 80s nostalgia concept is going to garner our interest. But I was surprised, as I dove into this, to see that I’d already read it! David had sent it to me for notes (under a different title) a couple of years ago.
I love seeing new drafts after notes as I’m curious what changes the writer made. And to see just how much they put into it. There are two types of rewriters. There are band-aid rewriters, and their are surgery rewriters. Band-aid rewriters keep the exact same set-up, the exact same series of scenes. They just tweak a character, a scene, or some dialogue. We’ve had some infamous band-aid rewriters right here in our comments section.
Surgery rewriters get to the core of what’s wrong with their script and do anything to make it right. That may mean rewriting the entire first act. It might mean replacing one of the main characters. It might mean shuffling the structure around. Surgery is much harder, which is why most screenwriters choose band-aids.
Let’s check out which approach David took.
47 year old military employee, Newloan, has been given the opportunity of a lifetime. He’s one of the few people lucky enough to be on a flight transporting a small alien creature recovered in a UFO crash.
Newloan makes a few calls, finds out the Russians are willing to pay him half a billion for this thing, and therefore hijacks the flight, steals the alien, and jumps into the endless Oregon forest.
Here’s where we meet teenage best friends Teryn and Bryant. Teryn’s the reckless one and Bryant’s the all-American, but with a rebellious streak of his own. On this particular weekend they decide to go camping in the woods, which is how they spot, you guessed it, Newloan.
Before they can learn what that’s all about, they encounter a couple of poor brothers who live here in the forest, 18 year old Rat and 12 year old Billy. The 4-boy crew is intrigued by this man carrying around a box, and when Newloan hides the box in a cave behind a waterfall, the kids go to check it out.
It’s here where they meet “Bush-Baby,” sort of like an alien cat-dog. It can get feisty but it senses our kids are good so it likes them. Unfortunately, they hear Newloan coming back, this time with a crew of accomplices. So they grab Bush Baby and head deeper into the cave.
What follows is a game of cat and mouse, with our nasty military unit hell-bent on recovering their half-a-billion dollar prize. And if they have to shoot a few kids in the head to get that money, so be it.
The kid-crew eventually gets split up, with Teryn and Billy in one unit and Billy and Rat in the other. Each “different side of the tracks” crew will have to learn how to work together and get Bush Baby to safety or get turned into kiddie swiss cheese by a group of guys hell bent on re-claiming their alien pot of gold.
Okay, so let’s answer the question here. Was this a band-aid rewrite or a surgery rewrite? It was pretty much a band-aid rewrite. Now I’ll give David this. He added some pretty strong band-aids. He wasn’t using that generic brand mom and dad used to buy to save money that would fall off your skin after three minutes. These were sturdy Johnson & Johnson band-aids here.
But they were still band-aids.
Take, for instance, the choice NOT to strengthen the motivation for saving saving Bush Baby.
Why do the kids in The Goonies continue their pursuit despite being chased by people who may kill them? BECAUSE THEY’RE TRYING TO SAVE THEIR NEIGHBORHOOD. They’re about to be kicked out of their houses, sent away where they’ll never see each other again. That motivation makes sense to an audience.
Why is it so important that Teryn, Bryant, Billy, and Rat risk their lives for something they’ve known for all of 60 seconds? Cause if you don’t have a legitimate answer to that, then the only reason you’re doing it is because this is a movie. It doesn’t have any relevance to real-world logic. So I was disappointed that something the entire movie was based on didn’t have anything close to a believable motivation.
Another issue I initially had was the kids. All four of them were cut from the same cloth. They were rebels. Even the all-American boy, Bryant, was a rebel. And I remember David didn’t agree with me on this. But movies like Bush Baby are built on conflicting personalities, ideologies, and life-experiences. And when you look at Bush Baby’s main inspiration, Stand By Me, you see this in spades. One character is a total goody two shoes. Another is terrified to do anything bad. Another is the ultimate rebel. And the final character is crazy.
We don’t have that here so the dynamic between the four boys is kind of boring. An important thing to remember is outside of nuanced dramas and Oscar bait movies, movie characters are defined by extremes. Again, in Stand By Me: Goody Two Shoes, Scaredy-Cat, Rebel, Crazy. If you keep the characters too far away from an extreme, you risk the reader not knowing who the character is. Or worse, the character being boring.
With that said, I have to give David credit for a better set-up. I remember in his first draft, we met Bryant and Teryn with this boring scene of Bryant standing around a house with his grandfather. Guys, you never want to introduce a character standing around talking about something trivial. It’s as uninteresting a way to introduce a character as there is.
So here, instead, we start on Teryn stealing money from the lockers at the local country club. How much better of an opening is that? You have a character performing an ACTION, which tells us so much more about him. And even beyond that, it’s INTERESTING. Sneaking into a locker room and cutting open lockers to steal is more fun to watch than people standing around in a house talking.
Also, despite the characters being too similar for my taste, David’s done a better job exploring them. I can tell he’s thought more about where the mountain brothers come from and what’s going on in both Bryant and Teryn’s lives. Any details you can add to your characters is a good thing. The more we know about them, the more we can relate or empathize with them, and the more we ultimately give a shit about what happens to them.
David obviously knows how to keep this story moving. I think that’s one of this script’s biggest strengths. But if you want to play in the big boy pool, it’s not just about structure. You gotta get the character stuff right. I don’t see enough variety in these characters. Though they’re improved from the last draft, they still don’t go through enough emotionally to move me. That journey has to be just as important as the plot journey.
Script link: Bush Baby Summer
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If I read an opening where people are standing around talking and that talking isn’t laced with a HEAVY amount of conflict or tension (The Social Network, Fargo), I know the script is fucked right there. There’s no reason for me to keep reading. Opening on people talking is just boring. Open on an action, on your character doing something. Use the action to tell us something about them. 99 times out of 100 you will write a better scene. And that approach is recommended throughout the entire screenplay. Choose a character performing an action over a character droning on talking to someone any day of the week.
If you’re new to the Scriptshadow Script Challenge, here are all the previous posts…
Okay everybody, so this upcoming week, you will be finishing your second draft. But for those of you who’ve been lagging behind, fear not. I am giving you five more weeks to get your scripts ready for THE 1ST ANNUAL SCRIPTSHADOW SCREENPLAY TOURNAMENT. Anyone wishing to enter the Scriptshadow Screenplay Tournament will need to submit their script by 11:59pm Pacific Time, Sunday, September 4th. Here’s what you want to include in the e-mail.
All entries should be sent to: Carsonreeves3@gmail.com with subject line: “SCRIPTSHADOW TOURNAMENT.”
Why You Should Be Picked
From there, I will be picking between 40 and 64 screenplays to compete in the tournament. Since this is unprecedented and nobody has done it before, I’m going to be figuring out a lot of this as I go along. But basically, Saturdays will become Scriptshadow Tournament days as opposed to Amateur Offerings days. You guys will be voting on which scripts go through each round, just like you vote for which scripts get a Friday review.
How do we know which scripts were written for this contest and which weren’t? We don’t! The large majority of people who follow this site do not comment. And I’m not going to exclude them from the contest. So we’re going by peoples’ word here. As far as which scripts I choose for the tournament, it’ll be no different from picking scripts for the Scriptshadow 250. The best overall presentations (concept and pitch) get in.
So get those scripts ready people! Let’s find something great. :)
Premise: Mythical creatures and monsters have always lived here on earth with us, hiding in the shadows. Guess what. They’re tired of hiding in the shadows.
About: Here’s the thing I don’t understand. Hollywood is so obsessed with IP that they’ll prioritize a comic book turned script that nobody’s ever heard of over writing it on spec to begin with. It’s not even about getting something that’s done well anymore. It just needs to have been published in another medium. Anyway, Lore sold a few years ago for seven figures in a huge bidding war. The Rock was attached.
Writers: Jeremy Lott & Cory Goodman (story by Cory Goodman) – Based on the graphic novel by Ashley Wood & T.P. Louise
Details: 106 pages – 3/20/12 draft
I remember that this was a HUGE sale. And with The Rock starring, it seemed like one of those rare projects that was going to go from purchase to production in under a year. But how many times have purchase-to-production projects been destroyed by the Gods of Hollywood? What’s the old saying? We make plans and God laughs? Yeah, well, Hollywood laughs harder.
What I think is going on here is that Legendary, who spearheaded the project, moved from Warner Brothers to Universal and whenever that shit happens, everything gets fucked up. Then after this sold, the similar-feeling R.I.P.D. came out and did badly, scaring everyone to death. And now WB’s got this Fantastic Beasts movie that seems like a period-piece version of the exact same concept.
It just goes to show why it’s so hard to make movies in this town. The smallest thing can derail your project at any moment. Maybe if the script’s good enough, though, Lore can make a comeback. Let’s find out!
Calliope Saunders saw something amazing when she was 12. A man fighting a dragon-woman. Granted, you can see that kind of thing on Hollywood Boulevard three times a week. But she’s pretty sure this was, like, a real dragon.
Cut to Calliope all grown up, and she’s dedicated her life to figuring out where that creature came from. She’s convinced that there are places on the planet where certain electro-magnetic faults cross, and that those crossing-points are doorways to a monster world.
Despite her fellow scientists laughing her out of the room, Calliope learns just how right her hypothesis is when Shepherd guardian Jonathan Bradley comes to her defense just as a fairy attacks her. Calliope gets a crash course in monster history, where Bradley informs her that all sorts of creatures (sasquatches, minotaurs, fairies, vampires, trolls) are real and that sometimes they illegally step into our world, and guys like him have to stop them.
The two find out that Kiyo, that dragon-lady from the opening, has learned where these crossing points are. If she can get to them before Bradley and Calliope do, she can unleash all the nightmare creatures inside of them, and it’ll be bye-bye humans.
I could break this down the way I usually do and point out the pros and cons, but the truth is, this is a solid well-executed traditional screenplay. It doesn’t surprise you. But it moves along quickly and keeps you entertained enough so that you care. No small feat.
What I’d rather talk about today is team-ups. I was just reading a script the other day with a really good premise but it wasn’t working. It didn’t take long to realize that the main problem was the central team-up. It consisted of two women who had zero conflict, zero tension, and who seemed to get along great. Because of this, almost all of their scenes together were boring.
Coming up with the right team-up in a team-up film can be the difference between success and failure. No matter how cool your set-pieces are or how many million dollar effects shots you have, it all comes back to the characters and if the audience wants to follow them.
There are two core team-up options.
1) Buddy Cop Team-Up – This doesn’t mean a team-up that you only use in buddy cop movies. Rather, it refers to a conflict-heavy relationship between two men or two women where the parties are so different that they disagree on almost everything. This results in a lot of conflict and therefore a lot of entertainment. Keep in mind that the buddy cop team-up does not always need to be of the over-the-top variety. Not every movie is Bad Boys 2. You can play a team-up in a much more subtle manner depending on the genre, tone, and concept.
2) Sexual Tension Team-Up – The sexual tension team-up is when you take a man and a woman and you play up the sexual tension between the two. This is one of the most time-tested set-ups in film history and while the initial assumption might be that it’s cliche, it will work if done well. Also, like the Buddy Cop team-up, you will tailor the level of tension to the genre, the tone, and the story. It could be over the top like James Bond or it could be under the surface, like Once.
These are your two staple team-up options. Once you go outside of them, you can still make it work, but it becomes tougher. A third team-up option is friendship, like Eliot and E.T. But since there’s little conflict in a good friendship, you have to bring conflict in from the outside and have forces trying to tear that friendship apart.
Look at The Force Awakens. They went the friendship route with Rey and Finn. Now I ask you: was that a satisfying storyline? I’d say it was okay. But I didn’t leave The Force Awakens going, “Man, Finn and Rey! Wow. I have to get more of those two!” Friendship is tough to do because screenwriting likes extremes. It likes “we hate each other” or “we love each other.” If you’re in the middle, “Oh, we like to hang out on Saturdays when we’re bored,” it’s hard to make that entertaining.
There are other ways to get creative with team-ups. For example, bring someone in from the past! Now you have a different kind of conflict, one that’s built off of unresolved issues from the past, and therefore conflict with more weight. A classic example of this is Indy and Marion from Raiders.
Another way to deal with a conflict-weak team-up is to bring more characters into the group as the story unfolds. Luke and Obi-Wan’s team-up is fine at first. But if that’s all we had the entire movie? We’d get bored, because they liked each other so much. So what did they do? They brought in Han Solo. And all of a sudden there was tension and conflict everywhere.
Lore chose to go the sexual tension route between Calliope and Bradley and did a pretty good job with it. And that leads us to our final lesson. The reason why getting the team-up right is so important, is because that’s what’s going to make or break the movie. Writers erroneously believe it’s the awesome effects or cool set-piece that’s going to make their movie unforgettable. But when people remember their favorite movies, it’s always the characters. So make sure to get that right.
Lore was fun. This is becoming a familiar story set-up that a lot of writers are using though. We’ve got Ghostbusters, M.I.B., R.I.P.D., Fantastic Beasts. I don’t know if this is original enough to stand out anymore. You gotta find another way in. “Bright” is a good example of finding another way into the monster universe. What about you? What fresh new angle are you hiding up your sleeve?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Think long and hard about the central-team up in your script and if it provides enough conflict/tension. If it doesn’t, that could result in a really boring movie, since that relationship will be onscreen far longer than any other aspect of the movie. You’ll definitely want to re-think the team-up in a way where there’s adequate conflict to explore.