A brand new 2019 list has been posted.
Click here to access it.
After criss-crossing several sources, it is now time to review what dramas are good to spec, and which are not.
As usual, when available, a sample script is offered for each show listed — usually the pilot episode.
Let’s do again a quick recap of how this 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 (newcomers that could potentially become popular down the line — if they’re not canned first)
There is also a grade regarding the show’s longevity in relation to specs of said show.
Meaning, how long can you keep your spec script without having to throw it in the trash?
To do this, we use what I think is the greatest grading system on Earth; stars:
★★★★★ – Excellent
★★★★★ – Very Good
★★★★★ – Average
★★★★★ – Fair
★★★★★ – Poor
And here we go.
Re-tool your spec if you have one, but you probably shouldn’t bother beginning a new one for those shows.
CSI/Law & Order (CBS/NBC)
Type: Police procedurals
Past their expiration date.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Nothing’s A-Changin’ for this one. It still will get “real old, real fast.”
Type: Serialized crime drama
As predicted last year, the Dexter time has passed, killed by its own popularity (commonly known as the hotness monster).
Longevity: ★★★★★ – If you’ve seen the end of season four, you know what I mean when I say your spec won’t survive the fifth season premiere.
Grey’s Anatomy/Private Practice/House (ABC/FOX)
Type: Medical procedurals
It is harsh putting these three shows at the same level, but the truth of the matter is that they’ve all already been done to death(s), literally.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Renewed, and renewed, and renewed.
Mad Men (AMC)
Type: Serialized historical drama
This might be a surprise for some, but it’s the same reasoning as 30 Rock: everyone is doing it. Sure, you won’t go wrong with a Mad Men spec, but it certainly won’t be an original choice.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – And not only that, but who knows what’s going to happen with all the massive changes at the end of last season? You would need to stumble on major plotlines to get this spec going, which is never good.
The current and new widespread shows in town that are getting read.
Type: Police procedural
Still a mainstream procedural that’s probably living its last year(s) as a tangible spec.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Doesn’t mean the show is going to die soon though (you know, strong ratings and all that).
Breaking Bad (AMC)
Type: Serialized character/family drama
Although it was last year a “Wild Card”, the series has now become pretty much mainstream, replacing Mad Men as one of the most sought-out speccable shows. As much as this is true, I would still not recommend beginning a new spec for three reasons: first, the show is way more popular than you’d think (meaning more competition), second it’s heavily serialized, and third…
Longevity: ★★★★★ – …the end of season two hinted at a different character dynamic altogether for season three. See Mad Men on why that could be problematic.
Type: Light spy/action procedural
On the one hand, Chuck is still an offbeat drama that has a lot of potential, so you shouldn’t throw your current spec out the window.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – On the other hand, the series recently scored its lowest rated episode ever. Beyond that however, the status quo is simply not quo anymore, so it’s hard to find the correct balance between serialized stories and “mission of the week.”
Type: Police/Science-fiction procedural
At this point, the show is more fantasy-fiction than science-fiction. With that said, its procedural side is undoubtedly attractive to many.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – It got beaten hard in its new Thursday timeslot, and despite this, the notoriously-fickle FOX network renewed it. Yeah, it’s safe. Plus, the core dynamics of the show will probably not change much in these next episodes.
Gossip Girl/90210 (The CW)
Type: Teen dramas
When it comes to this subgenre, there’s no debate that, yet again, these are the shows to spec.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – The CW is hanging tight on those two.
The Mentalist (CBS)
Type: Police procedural
Surely the hottest specced procedural right now. Maybe you can play with the Red John storyline.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – This one is pretty much safe.
True Blood (HBO)
Type: Serialized fantasy drama
At one point an “Outsider”, it has now become surprisingly common. I say surprisingly because it is a hard speccer, given both its dense mythology and the fact that it is based on a series of books.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – HBO is certainly not going to can it. Maybe you can predict the future of the show via said novels, but Alan Ball has already changed major stuff. Would your season one spec really fit into a season three narrative?
Not quite fully widespread but will get there given the chance.
Burn Notice/Psych (USA)
Type: Light action and crime procedurals
Although less popular than a few months back, story ideas have not been exhausted yet…
Longevity: ★★★★★ – …and USA isn’t letting them go anytime soon.
Type: Serialized science-fiction drama
This category choice might also surprise some people. If you look at Caprica, unlike the early days of Battlestar Galactica (or SGU), you don’t have a standard formula, at least regarding a potential ‘procedural’ aspect. There are overarching stories that more or less get expanded throughout the various episodes, but you don’t have a stand-alone crisis each episode. If you do decide to spec this, tread lightly…
Longevity: ★★★★★ – …especially considering the regular character and mythological developments, as well as its lukewarm ratings.
Type: Police procedural
Will most likely take over Bones‘ place in the spec world.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Strong 10PM ratings means its nearly-assured renewal. Its classic ‘case of the week’ format is also a crowd-pleaser.
Type: Light serialized high-school drama
Probably one of the most difficult specs out there, despite its overwhelming popularity. It is indeed hard to get past the serialized aspect of the series, as well as its primary use of popular songs which contradicts with the need for a spec script to be realistically producible.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Glee is definitely in for the long run. Try to be careful with the arrival of new cast-members and soapy twists.
Type: Light heist/con/action procedural
Most likely will become one of the hottest spec, the series proved this season it could go beyond the basic “con of the week” and offer actual season-long arcs (and big pay-offs). Regardless, the show’s procedural formula can still be applied to your spec. John Rogers’ blog has tons of other behind-the-scenes info about the writing.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – A major drama for TNT getting renewed early. I would say wait until the season three premiere (and Gina/Sophie’s comeback) before going the hands-on approach.
Type: Police procedural
A spec as worthy now as its older brother was in its heydays…
Longevity: ★★★★★ – …thanks in part to phenomenal ratings.
Type: Police procedural
The little cop show that could. Saved by the bell, it is still the underdog police drama on TV and a speccer with great potential.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Don’t take it as granted though: the ratings are going down fast. You should wait for a definite yes from TNT before beginning a breakdown.
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.
Eureka/Warehouse 13 (Syfy)
Type: Science-fiction procedurals
Yes, believe it or not they are getting specced; and for good reasons. Stand-alones are easy to place inside any of their seasons. Even Eureka, soon in its fourth season, still has some spec potential as a procedural. Not to mention the fact that there are not many other science-fiction shows out there.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – You can count on them being on TV for some time, and major mysteries/arcs can be easily avoided in a potential story.
The Good Wife (CBS)
Type: Legal procedural
IT is hard to define this show, but one thing’s for sure: it will become a hot speccer very soon.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – You shouldn’t be worried for Julianna Margulies anymore, she has found her goldmine.
Stargate: Universe (Syfy)
Type: Serialized science-fiction procedural
This might seem antinomic, but the truth is, SGU is way more serialized than its two predecessors. Still, some episodes can center around the usual “problem of the week,” and therefore give a more procedural aspect to the show, which makes it much more speccable than you’d think.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Long live the Stargate franchise. Be careful that future episodes don’t change major events in your spec.
White Collar (USA)
Type: Light crime procedural
This year’s dark horse, it could down the line become a major speccer for light procedurals.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – It definitely seems it’s going to be here for a few seasons.
For one reason or another, these are much riskier specs to do right now. You have been warned.
Dark Blue (TNT)
Type: Police procedural
This is a gambler simply because it is virtually unknown compared to the other police procedurals. This might be a good thing usually, but I’d hold off speccing this…
Longevity: ★★★★★ – …until it’s deep into its second season and more acknowledged.
Human Target (FOX)
Type: Action procedural
As virtually the only reliable (formula-wise) action-drama on television, you’d think it would be the go-to show to spec. But if you look at it more carefully, there are just too many unknown variables for now.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – If anything, the series is in strong danger of getting canceled. Try to wait for a renewal before starting on your script.
Type: Serialized family drama
Are you seriously considering speccing this one? Let’s get real.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Despite a possible second season, already finding a formula you can lean on for your spec is near-impossible this early.
With over thirty shows reviewed, we can spot of few trends.
Showtime is almost totally absent from this list mainly because of their lack of dramas (they’re more into half-hours it seems). FX is also not listed thanks to their current programming renewal. The basic-cable shows from AMC, TNT, and even Syfy and USA, continue to rise on the spec market.
A lot of new shows are already getting specced right off the bat, primarily due to some early pick-ups, shorter seasons, and dying classics.
I would advise against getting too invested into a spec unless you know for sure the show has been renewed.
Besides the cancelation factor, you also have to consider if the show is heavily serialized or not.
I didn’t include series like FlashForward, V, or even Sons of Anarchy, as they are all nearly impossible to spec at this time. Your spec would be hard to put into “stasis mode” due to the ever-changing storylines.
(Semi-)Procedurals are still the norm, though a lot more serialized shows are getting some sense of success. Even what appear to be classic procedurals such as The Mentalist still have a few arcs you can play with.
The bottom line is the same as usual: chose a show that reflects your voice, your aspirations, and what you like. You really do have a wide array to choose from.
So now, let me ask you this: What are you speccing?
I’ve been getting great feedback on my Sons of Anarchy spec — you know, the highest rated show on television in the coveted male 18 to 35 demographic. I’m surprised you left it off the list.
As I pointed out in my conclusion, I didn’t put Sons of Anarchy up in the main list simply because it was way too serialized (and a spec wouldn’t be a ‘standard’ episode — as there is no clear-cut formula).
It doesn’t mean it’s not a good speccer.
I’m sure that a correctly-nailed SoA spec is a great character piece, so I’m interested to know how you succeeded in doing one without stepping on major plotlines.
However, if it were up there, it would be next up to True Blood.
I’m interested in your opinion on where Damages would place on here.
Like Whit said, I wouldn’t recommend speccing Damages because it is such a serialized show.
You could write a season premiere-type episode, but fitting it within the current storyline (even as a fake season four premiere) would be hard, especially given the huge “twist” from this year (you know the one).
The future of the show is also up in the air at this point (a couple more seasons max?).
The first season of Sons of Anarchy was barely serialized, and even so, I still wouldn’t consider it as serialized as some of the other shows up there (Dexter, True Blood). It gets great ratings, a lot of showrunners I know love it, and almost nobody else is speccing it. Also, I’ve seen it in the “good show to spec” column from a couple agency lists.
Not sure how familiar with SOA you are, but for anyone else interested in speccing it, there actually is a very clear template.
Some kinds of problem occurs within the club or within Charming. Jax and Clay butt heads over how to solve it. Various club members choose sides on the debate. Gemma’s interference/manipulation often plays a large role in solving it, and at the end of the day, the problem is solved, but often at a price heavier than the original problem. Boom, episode.
Regarding Californication, I know a lot of writers that love it, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s one major problem with speccing it: a lot of women hate it. And although there are few female showrunners, there are a lot of women execs. A friend I know who wrote one ran into this problem.
It’s pretty ballsy to spec “Sons of Anarchy” – that show is ALL serial. Glad to hear you’re getting good feedback… I imagine most people reading it haven’t seen any others. Savvy move.
I’m speccing “Fringe” right now – kicked “Leverage” to the curb after my agent balked. He didn’t feel there were enough people in H’wood watching it.
Which is probably why my “Californication” kicks so much ass – although the ratings are low, seems everyone in the business watches it.
“Damages” is one of my favorite shows – but it would be impossible to legitimately spec. Not only is at ALL serial, but they time-shift in every episode. The only way I could see a spec working is doing an “after the season finale”-type script. And even that’s dicey…with a hard “use by” date dictated by the next season’s arrival.
Would love to hear your planned approach, though. Maybe you have an angle I haven’t considered?
Good point on the longevity, Alex. As much as I love “Damages” their ratings curve is depressing since the season one premiere. I wouldn’t bet too much on it being around after this season.
…which sucks. Because Glenn Close is amazing.
Interestingly, I’ve found women respond quite well to my “Californication” – but I intentionally focused on Becca (the daughter) and avoided the all out bang-a-thon that a lot of episodes end up being. The show has a lot of heart and I worked that angle like a maniac.
Good for you, finding a way to make SOA work! Having a tight spec that stands out is tough and you’re clearly passionate about the show.
I enjoy Californication, and I think that’s the merit of the current generation of females–we have so much male influence there are many of us who are ‘one of the boys’.
You could say the same of Enterouge, but I enjoy that as well, not for the misogyny of course, but for the vicarious living. That’s what all these excess shows are good for. Plots are often thin but they still appeal.
What about Legend of the Seeker? Obscure, but I know some people who have written specs for it lately. Hasn’t been renewed for a third season yet though.
I’m trying to spec Sons of Anarchy at the moment. It’s tough. But it’s such a great show, I figured, why not give it a shot?
I am working on three – Chuck and Castle for the hour long and Modern Family for the half-hour… Glad to know that they fall into the category to spec.
I did a Chuck spec at the end of Season 2, anticipating season 3. It works well as a Chuck story but Season 3 ended up being a fundamental shift in the way the show operates.
Essentially, I went light, they went “Chuck goes Emo”… well, comparatively, at least.
Thus I’ve set that baby aside and gotten knee deep in a Mentalist spec. Thankfully, that’s going well.
I put the Chuck spec up on my site, so feel free to drop by and give it a read. I’ve got a Battlestar spec there as well for those who liked that series.
What do you think about the Speccability of Justified, assuming it gets renewed, (which I would say would be pretty safe bet at this point.)
Interesting you should ask that as I was discussing this very question with a friend a few days ago. We ended up with the same conclusion: Justified is at the moment still to young of a show to spec (in terms of finding the right ‘voice’ for your script). However, I’m sure that by this time next year, it will be a good speccer. Wait & See.
Supposing you were going to send a spec to Justified, what TV show would you all recomend speccing. My current top pic would be Burn Notice, (Strong lead, lightly serialized, action it has a number of decent parallels with Justified). Thoughts? Also, does anyone know where I can find Justified scripts?
Great site and lists….
I love True Blood and am looking to write a spec for it, but I am heeding your words on being aware of Ball changing the mythology and stories around, etc.
As for something lighter, I’m looking at doing In Plain Sight–its not on your list so I don’t know if it’s hot or not…
The Good Wife, then Castle. Eureka, Burn Notice or Leverage perhaps, depending on what stories come to mind. If I can swing a good Caprica or Sons of Anarchy, I’d love to write one of these as well.
Is it really that important that a spec has to stay completely current with what’s going on in a ongoing, serialized series? If it did, nobody’s spec would be relevant, as most shows advance their overall plot at least somewhat. Otherwise, some people’s specs would be usable for like a month. It doesn’t seem very practical for the movers and shakers to demand that spec writers keep their specs as completely current as possible. Isn’t there some kind of leeway? Or do they actually demand that? It seems to me that if the writer has great, interesting dialogue and plot, and perfectly captures the tone of the show and characters, then that should be enough to get noticed, despite if the actual show has changed its arc after you’ve written your spec.