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Attention TV Executives: The Secret Formula for Great Geek TV Shows

My brain is a virtual treasure trove of information on how people in any given group could be more useful and productive members of society. But since the fundamentalist Christians, George Lucas, and the Bush administration won’t reply to my letters, I’ll turn my attention to television executives. That’s right, TV execs, today I’m making it my job to help you.

And, no, I don’t mean that I’m taking over for the girl who usually administers your afternoon herbal enema.

By way of my keen analytical powers and countless hours of having enjoyed geeky television programming, I’m here to offer you the formula for creating compelling Geek TV.

A Novel Fantasy / Sci-Fi Concept or A Marked Advancement for a Beloved Franchise or Portrayal of Genuine Geekiness

You can’t just slap a laser gun on a robot and expect to have a successful geek TV show. The fantasy/sci-fi concept needs to be distinctively original and give the writers room to create imaginative, fantastic, and fun action sequences. Consider Heroes — comic book on TV! Buffy — the high school cheerleader / vampire slayer! Jericho — post-apocalyptic battles for survival between small towns in middle America!

A geek show doesn’t need to have a novel core concept to be successful, though, if it can provide an exciting evolution for a beloved geek franchise.

Take the original Battlestar Galactica, for example. Humans fighting Cylons in space. Pretty sweet stuff, even with the dated special effects and uninspired scripts. The contemporary version of the show rocketed the franchise to a new level with cutting-edge (for TV) effects, rich characterization, intelligent stories, a beautiful score, and sharp socio-political commentary.

Also consider Smallville, or “Superman: The Formative Teen Years.” Or Star Trek: TNG, which advanced the space-exploration story of the original series to a new era in which politics and strategy play a bigger role in a mostly-charted universe. Or Doctor Who, which is currently in its arguably-most-popular incarnation, yet.

Point is, you can’t just slap a coat of paint on a turd and call it “New and exciting!”

Finally, shows like Freaks and Geeks and Arrested Development can reach geek greatness without any aspect of fantasy or sci-fi when they faithfully and favorably portray geeks in all of their glory. Faithful portrayal of geeks in a show that already has an original fantasy concept is just icing on the cake.

Loveable, Underdog Cast of Characters

Name a geek TV show with a legion of fanboy followers, and I’ll show you a scrappy, flawed protagonist facing daunting odds with a resolve to stick to his or her scruples and with a group of scrappy, flawed friends.

(Seriously. Name one. Or ten. I’ll wait. I’ve already been through this exercise with a list of thirty classic geek TV shows already, so–as usual–I know I’m right. And it’s a satisfying feeling. As usual.)

Sure, our heroes waver ever so often (or more than every so often for the characters on Lost or Battlestar Galactica), but that’s what makes them so damn fascinating… their humanity. And in the long run… they always restore our faith. Even that annoying Nathan Petrelli character on Heroes.

Heart

Sure, the payoff of a brilliant story arc is incredibly satisfying and exciting if you’ve been following a show all along, but how often have you heard someone complain that they can’t get into a show because it’s too hard to figure out? (P.S. How do you know that geeks are smarter than everyone else? Because a geek can’t get into a show if it’s too stupid.)

What so often alienates people from getting on board with great geek TV shows is exactly what attracts hordes of geeks. It’s the depth, backstories, and relationships that emotionally entangle you with the characters.

And that’s how you know if a show has “heart.” If you truly love and care about the characters and relationships.

Don’t be like a college freshman in a within-dorm relationship, though, and mistake familiarity for love. If I sit and watch enough episodes of Two and a Half Men, I’ll probably get familiar enough with the characters to care if they replace Charlie Sheen with a cast-iron skillet. But I sure as hell won’t love the characters.

Esoteric Humor

Great geek TV shows are quite funny… and not the punchy, contrived, one-liner-accompanied-by-laugh-track kind of funny you get from a sitcom. Buffy, Veronica Mars, or Jaye from Wonderfalls could quip any sitcom character under the table.

No, geeks love their TV shows for a brand of humor that dares to be clever or esoteric… that is, humor that might fly right over the heads of the masses. It’s the type of humor that gives a show a distinctive voice… and it’s a voice that geeks recognize.

A great geek show that’s not funny-by-design still doesn’t take itself too seriously. In my mind, one of the stand-out moments from Star Trek: TNG was when Lt. Tasha Yar got all randy and seduced the anatomically-correct android, Data. Oh, the mental images.

Or how about the constant homoerotic subtext around every interaction between Clark Kent and Lex Luthor on Smallville? That’s a running joke among die-hard fans of the show.

Even the laughably-serious Heroes (“Save the cheerleader, save the world…” guffaw!) has charming comic relief in the form of Hiro and Ando.

Inspired Writing

“Oh, really, GWS? Good writing makes for good TV? You don’t say. Next thing you know, you’re going to tell me that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, Captain Obvious. Sheesh.”

Ok, I know it’s an obvious point, but it’s one worth making. No need to be so sarcastic. Jerk.

All the qualities I’ve talked about so far–genuine humor, heart, and brilliant characterization–are born out of sharp, inspired writing. But that’s not where the job of the writing stops. It’s all about the storytelling.

Let’s face it… everything old is new again. Every story you hear is just a version of a story that was first told tens, hundreds, or thousands of years ago. One of the keys to good writing is bringing freshness to a oft-rehashed story.

Take the old story concept of “What would happen if so-and-so never existed.” Think, It’s a Wonderful Life. Or, better yet, it’s funnier and just-as-heartwarming successor, Scrooged.

One of the awesomest (oh, yeah… I said it) episodes of Buffy: TVS was the what-if-the-Slayer-never-came-to-Sunnydale episode. Sure, that story formula is a reliable one, but the writers were so damn clever that the episode was genuinely a lot of fun.

Hell, practically every other episode of Star Trek: TNG was a rehash of another episode of Star Trek: TNG. Talk about formulaic. But the stories remained interesting (he said, grudgingly), the characters were interesting, and the universe that the writers created was just esoteric enough to make the fanboys feel like they were a part of something special.

The brilliant presentation of the old high-school-gumshoe-solves-a-mystery story made the first season of Veronica Mars one of the best seasons of television… ever.

Summary

You pretty much need all of these criteria to get to geek TV show greatness. Otherwise, shows like Mutant X and Knight Rider 2000 would have primetime slots instead of Saturday morning at 2am slots on your local CW affiliate.

Tomorrow I’ll measure the geek programming of the impending Fall season against these criteria, and we shall discover which shows are found wanting. Oh, yes. We shall.

Now excuse me while I catch the season premiere of Beauty and the Geek.

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3 comments… add one
  • Nima September 19, 2007, 10:01 am

    Sooooo, how do you explain what happened to “Firefly”? Dum dum dummmmmmm!

  • Great White Snark September 19, 2007, 10:30 am

    Firefly was a great geek TV show… it met all of these criteria. Done.

    The show didn’t get canceled due to lack of support from geeks. Perhaps you’re suggesting that I include a special addendum note to the TV execs that you shouldn’t broadcast a show’s episodes out of order on a Friday night and expect it to get the necessary traction?

  • Nicole October 1, 2008, 11:03 pm

    I think one of the most awesomest Buffy episodes was the one where she might have been in a mental institution, after that you just never really knew. I actually think ending it somewhere around there would have avoided the whole jumping the shark scenario too! ;D

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