Thursday, February 14, 2013

"Where Do The Stories Come From?"

Surveying my TV viewing habits, when I am not watching sports, the Westerns Channel, cable news or old movies, I generally watch dramas, partly because today’s comedies rarely tickle my funny bone, and partly because I’m not doing any of them.  (Which is fine, because if the people doing those shows truly find them funny, I would, practically, not be able to help them.)

The two dramas I watch the most are Law & Order – the original – and SVU, though I have serious reservations about SVU, especially when they make child actors reenact rape scenarios:

“He made me touch him…‘down there.’”

I don’t know how a parent submits little children to that kind of…blechhhh!

PARENT:  It's only acting.

They’re children!

Anyway I have deviated from my point.  (And how often does that happen?)  Allow me to work my way back.  In stages.  No disruptifying leaps.

These are the rules for dramas I will never watch.  I will never watch a drama if it’s a continuing story demanding regular attendance (so no Homeland for me.)  Or if it abandons its conceptual premise and morphs into a soap opera; one adulterous kiss, and I am outta there.  (I have not seen The Good Wife in years.  It used to be a lawyer show.)

(Bear with me, I’m almost home, “home” being why I decided to write this post.)

When you throw in all the cable series, what amazes me most about TV dramas is that, together, every season, they come up with hundreds of original, generally engrossing story ideas.  This makes me wonder, “Where do these hundreds of original, generally engrossing story ideas come from?”

And now, a sidetrack.  (Or is it?)

I saw a cable rerun of an SVU episode once – probably more than once, I watch them over and over, forgetting, not that I’ve already seen them, I remember that.  What I’ve forgotten is how they turned out.  I can watch a Law & Order episode multiple times, because I have no recollection whatsoever of the ending.

In this particular episode, a murder victim – they were probably also sexually victimized because it’s SVU (“Special Victims Unit”, “special” meaning you were sexually victimized – the cadaver is autopsied, and they discover somewhere on the body the DNA of a dead fraternal twin.  

The live fraternal twin – a female – is eliminated as a suspect, because fraternal twins do not have the same DNA. 


An intense investigation reveals – Get this! – that as newborns, the two siblings had, in fact, been identical twins, but, as a result of a botched operation “down there”, the surviving twin, originally born a boy, had been surgically reconstructed into a female.  Meaning that the surviving sibling (who, by the way, had no idea they had been born a male) would have the same DNA as their deceased sibling, and could therefore have been – and indeed turned out to be – the murderer.

Be honest, now.  Who of us saw that coming?

Okay, they can’t all be gems.  The show’s been on fourteen years; this was clearly one of their later episodes.  All of this, however, begs the question, the question being, “How did they ever come up with that?”

Months later, I get a call from my daughter Anna, who is also an SVU watcher, and who had seen that episode.  She says, “Dad, my friend Lizzie just told me she read about a doctor in Florida who was arrested for botching a circumcision of twins, which he covered up by turning the botched twin into a girl.”

Mystery solved:  One source – possibly the primary source – of stories for dramas is actual life, that somebody wrote about and someone on the show’s writing staff discovered.  (Mystery Number Two:  It was not a later SVU episode, it was an earlier one.  Anna knew that because of Olivia’s hairstyle.)

My confusion about where dramas get their stories emanates from my experience in comedy.  For sitcom series, coming up with stories is an entirely different process, an “in-house” rather than an external one. 

The majority of sitcom storylines derive, not from researchable material in the public domain, but from personal experience (every story on my series Family Man happened to me, either as a child, or as an adult), the regulars’ character traits (Kramer’s struggles with compulsive gambling), the unique arena of the series (Best of the West drew storylines from classic westerns, and its frontier locale) or from tried-and-true sitcom perennials (your best friend’s place is being fumigated, so they temporarily move in with with you.)

I once developed an episode out of a writer on the staff’s hobby of playing “chess by mail” (this was before the Internet) his opponent, a chess player he had never met.  I lucked out on that one.  I turned a colleague’s experience into an interesting comedy episode I had never seen before.  On the other hand, having a writer on your staff who’d been born an identical male twin but had been turned into a female following a botched circumcision?

That’s just too much to hope for. 

And I’m not sure it’s funny.

1 comment:

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