PITCH WORKSHOP: Wendy's feedback (Entry #9)

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I wanted to take today to respond to Wendy’s sitcom idea, "Three-Two-One," which she submitted to the pitch workshop last month. First of all—Wendy, thanks so much for submitting this! And another huge thanks to everyone who posted a comment!

For those of you just coming to the party, here’s Wendy’s synopsis for "Three-Two-One," her half-hour TV comedy

Think Sex in the City meets Weight Watchers; this sitcom cold opens each week with Emma, an extra curvy redhead, Mandy a philosophical dumb blonde, and Gwynne, a semi drag-queen, at a weight loss club; followed by an episode where the snarky humor shows the comedic side of their martini-hampered efforts to lose weight, manage their insecurities, and understand the men in their lives.

You’re starting off in some deliciously relatable territory; everyone can relate to the struggles of trying to lose weight, so right off the bat you’re playing with story fodder that’s incredibly universal to millions of women (and men!). And while there’s not much detail, I like that these three friends are leaning on each other in other areas of their life as well… like their romantic failures. Both relationship insecurities and body image issues are rich places to mine for stories.

Well, Wendy, while you’re starting off with some good footholds, I think there are three places you need to focus on strengthening this…

1) CHARACTERS. Tanya and Scott have already given some great notes on your pitch, and I totally agree with their thoughts. Even though you have a short amount of time, you need to introduce us to the hearts and souls of the people in your show—or, as I always like to say, show us “how they see the world.” Descriptions like “semi drag-queen,” “extra curvy redhead,” and even “philosophical dumb blonde” do little to help us understand who these people are, how they approach life and behave.

Think about people you know—maybe even the people these characters are based on—and how they “see the world,” and you’ll probably the answers you’re looking for. For instance, do you have a best friend who is terrified of everything and views the world as an obstacle course of dangers? Maybe your father sees the world as a battleground, where he must decimate every obstacle—including people—in his path. Perhaps you have a fiance who treats life like a party, constantly looking for the next sensual experience… and the all the time in between is just boredom to be survived as easily as possible. Do you have a sister who sees life as a mysterious labyrinth, full of weird and enticing tunnels and paths, each of which should be fully explored?

Think how much more your characters will come to life if you describe them this way…

This sitcom cold opens each week with Emma, a gorgeous redhead who attacks every opportunity in life like it’s her last… Mandy a neurotic blonde who views the world as a maze of monsters waiting to devour her… and Gwynne, a drag-queen who lives each day as if it’s a frat party without consequences… at a weight loss club.

I’m not saying those descriptions are right for your story… or even great descriptions in and of themselves… but—at the very least—you start to get a sense of who these people ARE… and how they interact and function as a unit. Which brings me to point #2…

2) RELATIONSHIPS. Just as important as who these people are as individuals is how they related to one another… how they’re defined by their relationships within the group. Like “Sex and the City,” “Friends,” or even “The Office,” your sitcom is essentially a family comedy… but your family’s not defined by blood. So approach it that way… Who’s the mother? The father? Is there an impetuous child? An awkward teenager? A drunken, wayward uncle?

I’m not suggesting you actually define each person according to a familial role; I’m just suggesting you start looking at your group as just that… a group, with different parts that relate to each other and work together, like a machine. And if you understand how each character sees the world as an individual, you’ll be able to start seeing how they function as a family.

For instance, think how much easier it is to see your characters as a group if you describe them this way…

This sitcom cold opens each week with Emma, a bombshell who views the world as a fight for survival… and it’s her job to protect those close to her, including her friends; Mandy, a naïve waif who longs to prove herself an adult and claim her independence… from her parents, her fiance, and—most importantly—from her best friend Emma; and Gwynne, an irresponsible drag-queen who believes life is a non-stop party, a quest for hedonistic nirvana… and loves seducing her friends—especially Mandy—into joining her ill-advised adventures.

We start to see a triangle of influence… maybe with young, innocent Mandy at the center, and Emma perched liked an angel on one shoulder and Gwynne on the other. While we haven’t given details, we can start to understand where conflicts and stories will come from within the group.

Again, I’m not saying this is the story you want to tell, but you start to see how your characters interact, conflict, and affect each other.

3) HOW DO YOU SEE THE WORLD? This is a big one, Wendy… maybe the biggest of all. Not only do you need to know how each of your characters sees the world, but you need to know—and be able to articulate in your pitch—how YOU (or, rather, the storyteller and world of this show) see the world. Chris Carter sees the world very differently in “The X-Files” than Anthony Zuiker and “CSI.” Bill Cosby and “The Cosby Show” see a different world than Ray Romano in “Everybody Loves Raymond” or Matthew Weiner in “Mad Men.”

And an important thing to note… how these shows and storytellers “see the world” isn’t the same as how you, the audience, perceive the show. Chris Carter, for example, doesn’t see the world as dark and scary. Rather, he sees the world as a place where we’re all under the illusion that we have free will, that we’re making choices about what to wear, who to vote for, how to cook dinner. But the truth is (according to Chris)… NONE of us have free will, because everything we do is being controlled, watched, monitored. Sometimes we’re being controlled by the government. But even the government is being controlled… possibly by the aliens.

Likewise, Bill Cosby and Ray Romano see the world very differently… even though, on paper, their shows seem very similar (befuddled dads trying to navigate the worlds of marriage and parenthood). But the truth is… Bill Cosby views his house as his castle, where he’s willing to give his wife and children long leashes to do as they please, but at the end of the day—what he says goes. Ray Romano, on the other hand, sees marriage and family as a political minefield, where anyone can ambush, attack, or betray you… and your
job is simply to survive with as little conflict as possible.

So the question your facing is: how does WENDY see the world? Or… how does the storyteller “Three-Two-One” see the world?

To be totally honest, I’m not sure—right now—how your sitcom sees the world any differently than “Sex and the City.” “Sex and the City” was about four best friends trying to navigate their personal and professional thirties… and in a world where nothing is certain and no one is loyal, the only thing they had to rely on was each other.

Your show needs to see the world differently. Does this show see the world as a candy shop, packed with millions of delicious experiences to be tried and savored with your friends? Is the world a series of disappointments… and the only silver lining is your friends’ smiles? Is the world a race which you can never win… but your friends keep you from giving up?

Each of these world-views will generate different kinds of stories, characters, and comedies… but it’s ultimately your world-view… and not physical character descriptions or even creative uses of a cold open (or any other device)… that will sell your series. After all, no one tunes into “Gossip Girl” each week to hear Gossip Girl’s voice over… we tune in to spend time with Blair, Chuck, and Serena… and to spend an hour living in their decadent, soapy, melodramatic world.

Anyway, Wendy—thank you again so much for submitting to the pitch festival! Keep reading… keep submitting… and I hope this helped!

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