Drama Spec Script 2016 – What is hot and what is not

Drama Spec Script 2016 – What is hot and what is not


UPDATED:
A brand new 2017 list has been posted.
Click here to access it.

Like every year, it is now time to review which TV shows are good to spec, and which are not.
Dedicated posts will be made respectively for the best comedies (half-hour) and the best dramas (one-hour).
As the title says, this post is all about the dramas.
Canceled or dead shows have been removed since last season’s spec list.

In addition, you’ll also find (when available) a script for the corresponding show for educational purposes (title will be in red).

NOTE:
Given Warner Bros’ rules for their fellowship, I have indicated with an asterisk (*) series that they will not accept specs for (mainly first-season shows). It could be only one of the shows coupled together.

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.

The Americans (FX)
Type: Serialized historical thriller
Three full seasons as a spec juggernaut means it’s time to call it quits.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Not that we don’t love the show. Fourth season is on its way.

American Horror Story (FX) *
Type: Serialized horror
An anthology series that is so difficult to pin down, some may see it closer to a stunt spec.
Longevity: ★★★★ – If the choice is between a fake season premiere or a stand-alone episode from a past mythology, you’re already on the wrong boat.

Bones/Castle (FOX/ABC)
Type: Light police procedural
Almost about to end.
Longevity: ★★★★ – Almost.

Elementary (CBS)
Type: Police procedural
Too many cops, too many cops…
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Sherlock Holmes is immortal.

Game of Thrones (HBO) *
Type: Serialized fantasy drama
The books send their regards.
Longevity: ★★★★ – Well, actually, they don’t anymore.

The Good Wife (CBS)
Type: Legal procedural
Bye, Alicia.
Longevity: ★★★★ – Final season.

Grey’s Anatomy (ABC)
Type: Medical procedural
The OG Shondaland show, still going strong.
Longevity: ★★★★ – Way past its expiration date in spec world.

Grimm/Once Upon A Time/The Vampire Diaries (NBC/ABC/The CW)
Type: Fantasy drama
Props for keeping the fantasy torch alive for all these seasons…
Longevity: ★★★★ – …making them now-stale choices for genre shows.

Hawaii Five-0/NCIS:LA (CBS) *
Type: Police/Action procedural
Pew pew!
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Kaboom.

Homeland (Showtime)
Type: Serialized thriller
After 3 seasons hovering the top of the spec charts, can you figure a fresh spec?
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Yay for cast shuffling.

House of Cards/Orange Is The New Black (Netflix)
Type: Serialized political/relationship drama
Still hot, but they have shone so brightly that their number of specs have cast a long shadow over any new entrants.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Classic example of shows worth polishing a spec for, but not starting a new one.

Major Crimes (TNT)
Type: Procedural drama
One of the few straight crime procedurals currently in the spec world,
Longevity: ★★★★★ – TNT knows drama, so there’s more than a chance the show will go on for a few seasons.

Masters of Sex (Showtime)
Type: Serialized historical drama
Right past the cusp of being over-specced. Had many entries in its early seasons plus is now against fierce competition with the many other dramas on the board.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Can still last you a while since it’s an accomplished Showtime series (also known as endlessly renewed).

Nashville (ABC) *
Type: Musical/Family drama
Had a hard time reaching mainstream level to get widely accepted, despite being four seasons in.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Getting long in the tooth.

Orphan Black (BBC America)
Type: Serialized science-fiction drama
In a time when only a handful of genre shows were speccable, Orphan Black rose near the top.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Four years later, it’s hard not to see this show as past its spec date.

Person of Interest (CBS) *
Type: Action/Science-fiction drama
Great show…
Longevity: ★★★★ – …with only a few episodes left.

Royal Pains/Suits (USA) *
Type: Light procedural
A tougher crowd for lighter fares coupled with the shows’ age bring Pains and Suits over the hill.
Longevity: ★★★★ – With USA’s change of identity, the doors may soon close.

Scandal (ABC)
Type: Serialized political drama
Shondaland has a new queen in town.
Longevity: ★★★★ – Will Fitz be back with Olivia by the time you finish reading this sentence?

Shameless (Showtime) *
Type: Serialized family dramedy
Still a top option for a lot of people, which means a lot of competition.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Plus it’s already deep in season six.

The Walking Dead (AMC)
Type: Ensemble/horror drama
Pretty much the first drama to really become a top spec from season one, episode one.
Longevity: ★★★★ – Like other soaps, this one will never end.


Mainstream

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

The 100 (The CW)
Type: Serialized science-fiction drama
A very strong sci-fi contender, both as a show and spec choice.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – The risk factor is clear: every season gets crazier.

The Affair/The Leftovers (Showtime/HBO) *
Type: Serialized relationship drama
Both have regained momentum with their intimate approach to relationships, which also makes them hard shows to spec.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – One is on its final season, while the other keeps changing perspective. Will that be cause for trouble?

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC)
Type: Fantasy procedural
The first of many superhero choices.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Expanding mythology = difficult to keep the spec rolling past one season.

Arrow/The Flash (The CW)
Type: Action/Fantasy procedural
The former is getting a tad old in the spec world, replaced by the latter’s energy.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Things can shake in your favor, depending on season enders.

Better Call Saul (AMC)
Type: Crime drama
Difficult to pin down, and not as popular as its original counterpart–which can be a great thing if you nail the tone.
Longevity: ★★★★ – Still not easy to find an evergreen story.

The Blacklist (NBC)
Type: Action procedural
Everyone’s go-to network action spec.
Longevity: ★★★★ – This show ain’t ending any time soon.

Chicago Fire/Chicago PD (NBC)
Type: Action procedural
Dick Wolf is still killing it for NBC.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Watch out for all the deaths.

Empire (FOX)
Type: Family soap
Huge pick last season. A bit more tempered this year.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Burning. Through. Story.

Fargo (FX)
Type: Crime drama
Although a popular choice, it still is a risky pick…
Longevity: ★★★★★ – …especially given its anthology status.

How to Get Away with Murder (ABC)
Type: Legal procedural
If you need a Shondaland spec, then this is probably the one you’re looking for.
Longevity: ★★★★ – Good news is you can fit a case of the week.

Jane the Virgin (The CW)
Type: Serialized dramedy
Huge critical achievements have carried this show into becoming a legitimate option for your pick of one-hour dramedy.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – 36 chapters later, it is challenging to find new reveals.

The Knick (Cinemax) *
Type: Serialized historical medical drama
Now that Mad Men is long gone, few hard period dramas remain as popular alternatives to spec. The Knick is one of them with a great pedigree and critical fame to back it.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Watch out for that ending.

Ray Donovan (Showtime)
Type: Family/crime drama
Catapulted into mainstream over the last couple of seasons with many wins in the spec world. Strong contender if you need a tonally modular show.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Four seasons would indicate its peak.

Rectify (Sundance) *
Type: Serialized drama
Moved beyond the little cable drama that could into the spotlight. Surprisingly popular among specs.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Final season is on its way.


Wild Cards

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

Agent Carter (ABC)
Type: Action-adventure drama
The “nicher” of Marvel shows, making it a harder spec to get read. Doesn’t mean it’s not worth the write, especially when considering the serialized alternatives.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – But will it get renewed?

Blindspot/Limitless/Quantico/Scorpion (NBC/ABC/CBS) *
Type: Action/thriller procedural
All have the potential to become great spec choices for people wanting a broad network thriller. Or to put it another way: a Blacklist replacement. Given the NBC connection though, Blindspot is still the front-runner out of the four.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Not all have the greatest of successes, but they have clinched full seasons (and some renewals), while Scorpion is already in its second season.

Chicago Med/Code Black (NBC/CBS) *
Type: Medical drama
It’s been a while since we last saw a real medical contender for popular specs.
Longevity: ★★★★ – And now we’ve got two.

Daredevil/Jessica Jones (Netflix)
Type: Serialized superhero drama
Undoubtedly popular as both shows and specs. And with the Defenders popping up left and right, you have your replacement specs cut out for you.
Longevity: ★★★★ – Is there a way you can make a Marvel spec last for many seasons (or even just one)? Good news is you already have access to all the episodes.

Fear the Walking Dead (AMC)
Type: Serialized survival horror
Fear may prove to be a spec winner, even if it relies more on serialized family dynamics than being a clear-cut soap with zombies like its sister show.
Longevity: ★★★★ – With only 6 episodes aired, it’s ambitious to extrapolate the story into a long-term spec.

Gotham/Supergirl (FOX/CBS) *
Type: Superhero procedural
One didn’t get the traction it needed to become mainstream, while the other is the new kid on the block.
Longevity: ★★★★ – Let’s see how they fare this season.

Legends of Tomorrow (The CW) *
Type: Superhero action-adventure
It’s still trying to figure itself out, but when it does, it’ll be a strong contender for a DC spec.
Longevity: ★★★★ – Dark horse.

Lucifer/Rosewood (FOX) *
Type: Police procedural
Depending on a second season, they could become good safe picks for their genre.
Longevity: ★★★★ – Renewals look good.

Madam Secretary (CBS) *
Type: Political drama
A decent Good Wife replacement.
Longevity: ★★★★ – It still hasn’t reached a level of notoriety that would guarantee a wide read.

Mr. Robot (USA Network)
Type: Serialized thriller
Huge critical success which has crossed off USA’s “blue-sky” approach. But will it convert to the spec world?
Longevity: ★★★★ – Rule number 1: You don’t talk about Fight Club.

Scream Queens (FOX) *
Type: Procedural drama
Expecting this to go the way of American Horror Story but for network.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Crazy anthology.

UnReal (Lifetime)
Type: Serialized drama
Already a cable sensation, which might lead to a big wave of triumphant specs.
Longevity: ★★★★ – Who’s your bachelor?


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.

Bates Motel (A&E)
Type: Serialized family drama/horror
Four seasons in, Bates has gained some repuation with specs.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Probably the last season before spoilage.

Billions (Showtime) *
Type: Serialized drama
Brand new with little traction despite its cast.
Longevity: ★★★★ – Not sure I would go long on a spec–even with a renewal.

Black Mirror (Netflix)
Type: Science-fiction anthology
A surprisingly acceptable choice considering the upcoming return of the show. But why not just make an original sci-fi pilot using your episode concept?
Longevity: ★★★★ – No continuity means long life–as long as the show doesn’t do your idea.

Bosch/Mad Dogs/The Man in the High Castle/Mozart in the Jungle (Amazon) *
Type: Serialized dramas
Combining four dramas does seem like a lot, but they all suffer from the same issue: as spec samples, they do not have the same appeal as broader choices. And given their serialized nature, they defeat the main point of specs (showing off your imitation skills).
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Will go on, but not with the stories you may imagine.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)
Type: Romantic musical comedy
Much like Jane the Virgin before it, Ex-Girlfriend has a lot of work to do before it catches on outside its niche audience.
Longevity: ★★★★ – Can become a real musical contender.

Halt & Catch Fire/Turn/Into the Badlands (AMC) *
Type: Serialized historical drama
The first two did not gain the spec success they might have had, while Badlands just entered the race.
Longevity: ★★★★ – All three are rolling in with AMC.

iZombie (The CW)
Type: Horror dramedy
Whodathunk Veronica Mars would return?
Longevity: ★★★★ – Tenuous renewal, but CW is in a good mode these days.

The Last Ship (TNT) *
Type: Action procedural
America!
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Comin’ again to save the motherfuckin’ day, yeah!

The Librarians (TNT) *
Type: Adventure procedural
Where Leverage once stood…
Longevity: ★★★★ – …so does The Librarians.

The Originals/Reign (The CW) *
Type: Serialized fantasy/historical drama
Could be interesting (albeit risky) bets if you’re writing in this genre, especially considering the spec popularity of similar shows..
Longevity: ★★★★★ – CW renewed them (with many other shows). Doesn’t keep their stories from constantly shifting.

Outlander/Power (Starz) *
Type: Serialized historical/personal drama
It may seem odd to put Starz’s biggest shows as Wild Cards, but keep in mind a fervent fan base doesn’t necessarily translate to spec success. Plus they’re fairly nascent with two seasons.
Longevity: ★★★★ – There’s always the option of looking into the Outlander books to figure out if your spec will be damaged. No such luck with Power.


Gamblers

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

12 Monkeys/Colony/Killjoys/The Strain (USA/Syfy/FX) *
Type: Science-fiction/Fantasy drama
Strain and Monkeys did not gain the momentum among genre speccers, especially compared to other network choices. Meanwhile, Colony and Killjoys are brand new shows, which may prove difficult to get a read.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Watch out, sci-fi can go in so many directions.

The Fosters (Freeform) *
Type: Serialized family/workplace drama
Although ABC Family Freeform has very prominent shows, notably with critical darling The Fosters, none of them have really gained mainstream readership.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Even if compelling, a Fosters spec is tricky to hold on to.

Outsiders/Salem (WGN) *
Type: Serialized historical/supernatural drama
Still too niche to be considered a widely acceptable spec…
Longevity: ★★★★ – …but could grow like Manhattan did.


2016 Trends

A staggering 87 dramas are listed on this year’s spec list! To give you a better idea of scale, that’s a 25% increase of shows since only last year–when we already had 68 dramas listed. Insane.

With nearly a third of shows being sci-fi or fantasy, this season really saw the explosion of genre back on the spec world–especially with the many CW entries (The 100, The Flash, Arrow, The Originals). Basic cable and streaming shows are going strong, with about half of all series on the board.

The past trend of “quicker is better” seems to have partially slowed down. A healthy mix of second and third-year shows are in the mainstream (The Blacklist, Chicago, Jane the Virgin), with some still climbing the chart (Gotham, Madam Secretary, Scorpion).
Spec maturity seems to peak between the third and fourth season, with most series above that threshold already over-specced.

Aging shows coupled with many serialized entries makes this year very precarious for spec longevity. In other words, it is becoming increasingly harder to keep specs current for more than a season or two. This may not be such a bad thing given the enormity of options available.

Overall, the spec field is definitely crowded–in a good way. More choices here means more finely tuned samples that can match very closely to the writer’s sensibilities. It’s anybody’s pick.


Still wondering which show to spec?

Try my awesome TV Spec Test


18 Comments

  1. Paul P

    March 24, 2016 at 3:12 PM

    The Knick is Cinemax, not Starz.

  2. Alex

    March 24, 2016 at 3:17 PM

    Indeed! Just corrected it. :)

  3. D. Brown

    March 24, 2016 at 8:23 PM

    No Sense8?

  4. Alex

    March 24, 2016 at 9:25 PM

    I would probably have classified Sense8 as either an Outsider or a Gambler.

    The show has the same issues as a pick like Man in the High Castle (or similar science-fiction shows). Namely, these shows are still not that widespread, plus their long production cycles (~2 years between seasons) makes them very ephemeral.

    That’s not even bringing up the fact that Sense8 is only in its first season, and relies on a pretty layered serialized story.

    Besides a few tentpole series with a lot of critical and popular acclaim (House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Transparent, Marvel), most streaming shows are still searching for a path beyond their niche.

  5. Marcus D Russell

    April 7, 2016 at 4:31 PM

    Why didn’t “Humans” make the list?

  6. Alex

    April 8, 2016 at 12:09 PM

    Humans would have probably ended somewhere near its AMC sister shows (i.e. Outsiders).

    It’s only a first-season show with eight episodes, and a similar reach as Into the Badlands (notably, Warner Bros. doesn’t accept these shows).

  7. BettySpinks

    May 13, 2016 at 9:03 AM

    Two questions:
    1. Is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend a Drama simply because it’s one hour?
    2. Can I spec a sketch show? (Inside Amy Schumer, Drunk History)

  8. Alex

    May 13, 2016 at 1:51 PM

    1.
    For the purposes of this list (and the WGA/Emmys), yes I would count Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as a Drama due to its runtime.

    Length of a show (and thereby script) is a good rule-of-thumb to classify it.
    Television is an intrinsically structural medium (on a tight schedule). The ability to break a one-hour versus a half-hour requires different skills.
    I’ve discussed a bit more about that issue here:
    https://www.tv-calling.com/comedy-spec-script-2016-what-is-hot-and-what-is-not/comment-page-1/#comment-43098

    With that said, fellowships operate under a different set of guidelines. Crazy Ex is classified as a comedy for WB. I’m not sure about the other ones.

    2.
    Nothing is stopping you from speccing sketch shows if you want to practice them, however your readership audience will be fairly limited. Not many fellowships will accept them as initial spec samples.

    One of the main goals of a spec is to showcase your ability to mimic the voice of a show/showrunner. That’s an almost nonexistent option when it comes to sketch shows– You are actually creating fully original content, albeit within the logline concept of your show.

  9. Allison Cassidy

    May 26, 2016 at 3:13 PM

    Where would you put Bloodline?

  10. Michael

    June 11, 2016 at 4:37 PM

    I believe the Black Mirror script link is broken.

  11. Aaron

    July 19, 2016 at 2:30 PM

    Thanks for the list, it’s a very valuable resource to me. FYI, Colony is on USA, not SyFy or FX. Thanks!

  12. Alex

    August 1, 2016 at 10:11 AM

    Allison: I would probably put Bloodlines as an Outsider. I compare it to something like The Affair, which didn’t break through until its second season happened.

    Michael: Link seems to be working fine on my end. Try going directly to my script library (linked in top menu bar) if it doesn’t work.

    Aaron: Good catch! Added USA to the list. :)

  13. BettySpinks

    August 2, 2016 at 7:07 PM

    Hi Alex– Congratulations on the Paper Team podcast! Gonna listen to the Spec v. Pilot episode after I ask you this question…

    I’ve written an outline for a pilot with similar bones to Preacher. Should I write my pilot? Or should I funnel the ideas into a spec for Preacher?

  14. Alex

    August 3, 2016 at 11:17 AM

    Thank you for the kind words. :)

    Your question was so interesting (and I ended up writing so much about it) that I made a full post of it!
    You can read my long (and hopefully useful) answer over here:
    https://www.tv-calling.com/writing-an-original-tv-pilot-similar-to-a-show-vs-speccing-it-directly-readers-mail/

  15. A-Hoz

    August 25, 2016 at 11:41 AM

    Hi Alex,
    Thanks so much for the lists. They’re so helpful looking ahead to the new season. With iZombie renewed now, would you move it from outsider status to wild card?

  16. Erika

    September 13, 2016 at 10:27 AM

    What do you think of BoJack Horseman as an option?

  17. Penn Javdan

    November 4, 2016 at 2:15 PM

    Thanks for the info, Alex.

    How would you recommend approaching an anthology like Fargo? Writing a spec as a substitute or addition to an already produced season, or a spec with a completely new storyline (and characters)?

    Thanks,
    Penn

  18. Alex

    March 22, 2017 at 12:14 PM

    A-Hoz:
    iZombie is a great choice for dramas. I’ve just posted my 2017 list and it’s in the mainstream category.
    Here’s the link to my updated 2017 Drama spec script list: https://www.tv-calling.com/drama-spec-script-2017-what-is-hot-and-what-is-not

    Erika:
    BoJack is a strong choice, however I’d be wary that it isn’t accepted by all the fellowships.
    You can find my 2017 Comedy/Half-Hour spec script list here: https://www.tv-calling.com/comedy-spec-script-2017-what-is-hot-and-what-is-not

    Penn:
    That’s a great question. I think speccing anthologies is becoming more and more common as people do write episodes featuring all brand new characters — which can in turn become a pilot.
    It’s entirely dependent on what strong stories you have and what makes the better spec. If I had to give a rule of thumb, I would say that if it’s a traditional episodic anthology (like Black Mirror), then there’s obviously no choice but to create a new world/characters. But if it’s a seasonal anthology (like Fargo), I personally would probably try to write something within that season.

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Hi there!

Alex Freedman

I'm Alex Freedman, the writer behind TV Calling.


I started this site in 2008 to chronicle my own journey in television writing.

650 posts and 9 years later, TV Calling has also become a comprehensive resource dedicated to the full TV writing industry — from spec to success.


Everything here is written by yours truly (unless otherwise credited), so feel free to blame me for any missed deadlines.


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