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Published: 4 years ago

Drama Spec Script 2011 — What is hot and what is not


UPDATED:
A brand new 2014 list has been posted.
Click here to access it.


It is now time to review which current dramas are good to spec, and which are not.
A sample script is provided (when available) with the corresponding show.

Let’s do another quick recap of how the list works:
The shows are divided into five categories regarding their appeal to readers and how well they are known/read:
Over-specced (shows that have passed their prime, try to avoid doing them)
Mainstream (shows that have matured enough that they have become on-the-nose speccers–and a lot of people are speccing them)
Wild Cards (soon, everyone will spec those, maybe you can get a head start)
Outsiders (specs that will get you out from the pack)
Gamblers (risky shows that could pay off, or bomb)

There is also a grade regarding the show’s longevity in relation to its speccability.
Meaning, how long can you keep your spec script fresh without having to throw it in the trash?
To do this, we will use the greatest grading system on Earth; stars:
★★★★★ — Excellent
★★★★ — Very Good
★★★★★ — Average
★★★★★ — Fair
★★★★ — Poor

And here we go.


Over-Specced
Re-tool your spec if you have one, but you probably shouldn’t bother beginning a new one for these shows.

CSI/Criminal Minds/Law & Order/The Closer (CBS/NBC/TNT)
Type: Police procedurals
Move along folks, nothing to see here.
Longevity: ★★★★ — If you’re really thinking of speccing these, you’re pretty much five years too late.

Dexter (Sho)
Type: Serialized crime drama
Once upon a time, Dexter was a clear favorite. Now however, the show has past its expiration date for specs.
Longevity: ★★★★★ — Since every season reinvents the show (in an interesting or bad way), it’s never good to put one’s spec stories to the test like that.

Grey’s Anatomy/Private Practice/House (ABC/FOX)
Type: Medical procedurals
Honestly, there’s just no real point in crafting a brand new spec for one of these three.
Longevity: ★★★★★ — Shockingly, they’re all getting another season. Doesn’t mean it’s a good sign.

Mad Men (AMC)
Type: Serialized historical drama
Putting Mad Men as over-specced may once again ruffle a few feathers, but if you know what’s good for you then you’re pretty much aware already that this won’t be an original choice.
Longevity: ★★★★★ — Although there’s a very low risk of AMC ending its flagship drama, treading on serialized plotlines is virtually impossible to avoid.


Mainstream
The current and new widespread shows in town that are getting read.

Bones/Castle (FOX/ABC)
Type: Light police procedural
Bones still has a year or two ahead of it, while Castle joins the mainstream list by becoming the go-to light police procedural specced.
Longevity: ★★★★ — Both are going strong and the ‘case of the week’ format is a proven crowd-pleaser.

Breaking Bad (AMC)
Type: Serialized character/family drama
The show continues to grow in fame and is probably reaching its peak, which means this might one of the last mainstream years for it.
Longevity: ★★★★★ — The problem isn’t that the show won’t get renewed (it will), it is its serialized aspect. I’ll slow-clap anyone who successfully specs a stand-alone episode of Breaking Bad.

Chuck (NBC)
Type: Light spy/action procedural
Everybody loves Chuck. Sadly this means that it is pretty much on the verge of being over-specced.
Longevity: ★★★★★ — Definitely not as much on the bubble as a couple of seasons ago.

Fringe (FOX)
Type: Police/Science-fiction procedural
The number one science-fiction show specced presently (mainly because there aren’t so many out there). Fringe is a strong option, although…
Longevity: ★★★★★ — …you already know how “on the bubble” this show is, so I’d probably wait to see what FOX choses to do with it.

Glee (FOX)
Type: Light serialized high-school dramedy
As predicted, last year’s major Wild Card is now on top of the Mainstream pile. Still a very hard show to spec mainly because of its atypical world. Also might not be the greatest way to showcase your talent given that a third of the script will probably end up being music lyrics.
Longevity: ★★★★ — It’s always a good bet to spec the number one show on television, right? Be careful when juggling with all the soap elements (they might give you a headache).

The Good Wife (CBS)
Type: Legal procedural
Jumping from Outsider to Mainstream is no easy task, but The Good Wife has proven times and times again these past few months its popularity. This is clearly a smart show to spec (watch out for the serialized elements).
Longevity: ★★★★ — Strong ratings and a great procedural/serial balance allows room for a potential spec.

Gossip Girl/90210 (The CW)
Type: Teen dramas
It’s not as if there’s an overwhelming array of teen dramas out there, right?
Longevity: ★★★★ — Never-ending.

The Mentalist (CBS)
Type: Police procedural
A new classic police procedural to spec. It’s hot all right.
Longevity: ★★★★★ — No need to double check, this one is safe.

NCIS:LA (CBS)
Type: Police/Action procedural
Last year it was about to break big, this year it is big. Its older sister show would be proud.
Longevity: ★★★★★ — Another secure CBS procedural.

True Blood (HBO)
Type: Serialized fantasy drama
Somewhat common in the spec pile, despite its heavy reliance on the books’ mythology. Making a loner out of this one will prove difficult.
Longevity: ★★★★True Blood is a big success, but its stories are all over the place (i.e. it is hard to find a status quo to base a spec on).



Wild Cards
Not quite fully widespread but will get there given the chance.

Boardwalk Empire/Treme (HBO)
Type: Serialized historical drama
Now those are hard shows to spec. If you think you can make a Mad Men or even a True Blood spec work, I’d recommend taking a gander at these two first. Especially Boardwalk Empire (which definitely has a lot of potential).
Longevity: ★★★★ — With all the acclaim, it’s no wonder HBO is keeping both series tightly where they are.

Hawaii Five-0 (CBS)
Type: Police/Action procedural
Like NCIS:LA last year, this is undoubtedly the breakout procedural hit of the season, which is sure to become Mainstream real fast.
Longevity: ★★★★★ — Hit show, clear-cut formula and procedural aspect leads to a long spec life.

Justified (FX)
Type: Police procedural
A critical darling and great numbers means Justified is getting hotter by the second. It will probably enter Mainstream land by next season.
Longevity: ★★★★ — The show that keeps on giving (certainly for FX).

Leverage (TNT)
Type: Light heist/con/action procedural
With its fourth season about to debut, Leverage is becoming more popular and the series has matured enough that it’s an almost-perfect light action/heist procedural to spec.
Longevity: ★★★★ — Finding a solid con that stays unused by the show might prove tricky.

Nikita (The CW)
Type: Action procedural
It’s CW, meaning it’s not that watched, although it also means not that many people are speccing it.
Longevity: ★★★★ — It is doubtful the network will let this one go seeing as it’s one of their only (relative) hit.

Parenthood (NBC)
Type: Serialized family drama
Speccing this one last season was pretty much a gamble, but since the first year has passed and storylines are settling, it might be an interesting choice.
Longevity: ★★★★★ — Solid numbers indicate renewal, but can you make the family stories work?

Sons of Anarchy (FX)
Type: Serialized ensemble drama
Sure, Sons of Anarchy is FX’s most popular show, yet its extremely serialized aspect makes it very difficult to write for. If you can make it work, go for it.
Longevity: ★★★★★ — Storylines are shaking up every season so it might be tough to keep an SOA spec current.

The Walking Dead (AMC)
Type: Ensemble/horror drama
If a surprise hit was made last year, this is the one. The enormous success of the show and its amazing potential makes it destined for great spec material.
Longevity: ★★★★ — Great news for potential speccers (not for viewers): The Walking Dead has obviously abandoned the comics’ serialized nature for a more procedural-like aspect.



Outsiders
The shows (mostly cable) you may be tempted to take a risk on, getting you on top of the reading pile. Beyond that, it depends on the willingness of the reader and his/her knowledge of the show. Who knows, maybe the showrunner is into less popular shows and will value your risk-taking.

Burn Notice/Psych (USA)
Type: Light action and crime procedurals
On the limit of being over-specced if only for the fact that they never were mainstream.
Longevity: ★★★★★ — They are both nearing their death bed (even if it’s still a couple of seasons away).

Eureka/Warehouse 13 (Syfy)
Type: Science-fiction procedurals
With Fringe winding down and Stargate: Universe gone, those two are almost the only science-fiction options out there. They are still strong spec shows all around.
Longevity: ★★★★★ — Original stories might be harder to find, especially with Eureka, entering its fifth season already.

Southland (TNT)
Type: Police procedural
Southland is definitely getting more traction with its third season and it’s one of the only cop dramas right now with a real grittiness to it.
Longevity: ★★★★★ — Renewal beyond the current season is still pretty much on the line given the substantial budget cuts needed.

White Collar (USA)
Type: Light crime procedural
White Collar continues to be the dark horse among light procedurals. Undeniably, the show is still continuing to grow in demand.
Longevity: ★★★★ — Pretty much a success for USA’s standards and a perfect candidate for a more atypical spec show.



Gamblers
For one reason or another, these are much riskier specs to do right now. You have been warned.

Blue Bloods (CBS)
Type: Police/family drama
It was a surprise Friday-night hit for CBS, which might make Blue Bloods an interesting spec choice, yet this might still be too unknown.
Longevity: ★★★★★ — It worked for Fridays but not for Wednesdays, so it’s still a toss-up regarding its renewal.

The Chicago Code/Harry’s Law (FOX/NBC)
Type: Police procedural/Legal procedural
Come on, you want to spec this one already? Too soon.
Longevity: ★★★★★ — Chances are Chicago Code is getting the boot sadly. Harry’s Law meanwhile will probably live to see another season.

Forty shows are listed this year and, like last season, a few trends can be observed.

The basic cable market has never been stronger with a big presence by AMC, FX, Syfy, USA and TNT.
On the premium side, beyond the symbolic Dexter presence, Showtime is still pretty much absent from the list due to the lack of dramas. HBO meanwhile is slowly rebuilding its “epic TV” brand (I’m sure Games of Throne will pop up on the list next year).
Network-wise, CBS is still the procedural king, although FOX and ABC are recouping the field with lighter dramas, while NBC is virtually MIA.

Unsurprisingly, a vast majority of the top shows are procedurals with light character serialization. They are the ones which offer a wide range of storylines without compromising the status quo.
Interestingly enough though, the harder shows to spec (relying on more complex mythologies and serialized plots) are still considered attractive. They are indeed a great platform to showcase more in-depth writing skills, but they come at the price of spec longevity.

The bottom line is the same as usual: select a show that reflects your voice, your aspirations, and what you like.
The choice is yours.

Click here for the Comedy Spec Script list.

  • KMC

    What would be a good horror/supernatural show to spec? It seems like some (The Vampire Diaries, for example) are impossibly serialized, while others may be difficult to spec because they’re based on books or comics (True Blood [though I’m familiar enough with the books to guess where things are going] and The Walking Dead). I do have a Supernatural spec up my sleeve (and I do think I have an original story there), but it’s an older and not terribly well-known show, so I’m unsure whether I should use it or not.

  • Alex

    That’s a good question and you raise some valid points about the serialized nature of many horror/supernatural shows out there.
    If you’re going for a more “premium” writing feel, then I would definitely consider The Walking Dead (which is angling towards a more stand-alone format). I would think there is room for a “survivor encounter of the week” kind-of approach to it (similarly to the BBC’s own Survivors).
    True Blood is a tough call seeing as it’s based on existing material, meaning strong serialization, yet still changes a lot of key elements of the mythology (i.e. stories are harder to predict).
    The Vampire Diaries might be a good alternative if you succeed in finding that balance between stand-alone and serialization while maintaining somewhat of a status quo.
    Regarding Supernatural, it is kind of outdated (six seasons and counting), but it also depends on if you think your idea is strong enough.
    A great spec of an older show is always better than an average spec of a brand new show.

  • KMC

    Thank you for the quick reply!

    Right now, I’m leaning toward The Walking Dead. I wrote the Supernatural spec knowing that I might not use it, simply because I wanted to write a comedic horror episode, and there aren’t many shows that combine comic and horrific elements without heavy serialization. The Vampire Diaries does a bit of this, and I think a spec could be quite a lot of fun, but storylines progress so quickly that it’s difficult to predict where things will end up, especially toward the end of the season.

    The Walking Dead isn’t a laugh riot, obviously, but I can work with a more serious atmosphere. So, thanks for the sound advice!

  • c4x

    Great list. I have been thinking about giving Hawaii 5–0 a go. Chuck is pretty much dead, though; most likely not returning.

  • Ryan

    I second c4x–Great List, Alex!

    Question, I am looking for a drama to spec, but I did want to showcase a spec that would fall more in line with the original pilot specs I’m thinking of writing–Both will be in the sci-fi/supernatural genre. BUT…most of the sci-fi shows are either a bit too old/long in the tooth, not shows I watch (Vampire Diaries) or ones I was on the fence with (The Walking Dead–I liked it but I felt the first season was such a mess. But, now that I’m hearing it will be more stand alone ala Survivors like you said, I think I will revisit it). I don’t watch Fringe AT ALL…

    any options for what I could spec?

  • Ryan

    And let me also say about FRINGE:

    I take that back. I do watch and probably could do a decent spec on the show, but honestly, I just wasn’t interested enough in the season to watch every week…

    so I don’t know. I think I do have a strong idea for a standalone ep for the show but I just don’t think I should go there because it’s not a show that I’m particularly interested in…

  • http://web.archive.org/web/20120911080852/http://www.scriptawish.com:80/ Michael Ferris

    Again, awesome list. I think the lists you put together of what to spec is an invaluable tool for writers wanting to break into TV. I just want to put in my two cents — I would definitely NOT spec Chuck (last season, and ratings are absymal), Fringe (low ratings and probably will be cancelled), and Breaking Bad (the last season is winding down soon). With every spec you write, you want it to have as long of a shelf life as possible — especially considering how much work you put into making it great — so it’s best to spec shows that will be around and have solid ratings for 2+ more years.

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