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?