There’s a concept in script-writing I’ve heard in television circles. Jane Espenson has touched on it in her blog, as has Alex Epstein. I’m sure it’s been described by others as well. That concept is to write to the show’s premise. In my head I started calling it the particularity of plot.
The gist of the rule or guideline is that a show’s strongest stories are ones that can be told only by that show, with that premise. The X-Files did stories about the possibility of alien invasion. 30 Rock does stories about running a sketch comedy show. House does episodes about wacky diseases.
All television shows, of course, include plots and plot elements that are universal — relationships, children, death, fear of death, fear of helplessness. It is how these things are handled that make them unique to a show or not. For instance, the canceled tv show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip had a plot dealing with the fact of military hostages in the Middle East. This is a story that could be handled by many shows set in the contemporary United States. But Studio 60 viewed this through the lens of celebrity and the entertainment industry, which is something other shows could not do.
It is often the case that a show’s early episodes or seasons focus more on plots particular to that premise. Later on, as viewers care more about the characters and their histories, plots dealing with more generic interpersonal interactions are layered in. So we get divorce plots, and pregnancy plots, and drug-use plots in space, in business, in government, in retail, in the coffee shop and bookstore, on the land and in the sea. These plots can be done well. They can also be done incredibly poorly.
I prefer, overall, plots having to do with the premise over plots of a more generic nature.
I was thinking about this while watching the first two episodes of Mad Men. The show is about the lives of ad executives in New York in the early 1960s. In the first two episodes we have two types of stories: stories about advertising campaigns, and stories about the relationships between men and women. In the context of the show, these are brilliant choices.
The advertising plots are particular to the show in away that is obvious — the show is about advertising executives, therefore showing them at work is a plot only this show can do. But the placement of the show in the 1960s spins that in ways that are obviously clever and subtly interesting. The obvious cleverness is in stories such as making a new ad campaign for Lucky Strikes. The subtle interest is in the men talking about women while they design campaigns for household products.
The relationship stories told by the show are incredibly basic. But because of the show’s era — the 1960s — it is practically science fiction. The gender roles and assumptions are wildly different from anything I experience in my life. The environment for women in this show is, I am reminded, exactly the work life my divorced grandmother had as a secretary at the Aurora Pump. (Where she met my step-grandfather who was a foreman on the production floor. I have pictures of my grandmother from that time — hair and make-up perfect, little hats and gloves — and I can tell you, my grandmother was closer to Joan Holloway than she was to anyone else.)
Mad Men takes the stories of dating and courtship and transforms them. It takes all the trite and tired stories of modern television drama — pregnancy, illness, drinking, adultery — and transforms them into something alien, strange, and wonderful.
The show may not be for everyone. It is slow-paced. The lead male character is, at two episodes, opaque to the audience. I don’t know if this will bother me later on. But I bought the first season today. Mad Men is getting some of my valuable television-watching time. It made a strong, positive impression on me.