What Really Makes a TV Series “Work?”

by Diana Black

Why does one series succeed and another, with all the same hopes, dreams, and good intentions, fail?Miss-Phryne-Fisher

There are many reasons, of course, starting with the oft-quoted adage, “Nobody knows anything” when it comes to what’s going to grab audiences, and ending with “What a stinkeroo!” which probably is said much more often even though nobody seems to want to step up and claim authorship.

Today, just for the hell of it, let’s head ‘down under’ and explore the fates of two Aussie dramas – Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (Debra Cox and Fiona Eagger, 2012 -2015) and The Dr. Blake Mysteries (George Adams, 2013–).

If we run a ‘Compare’ (similarities) versus a ‘Contrast’ (differences) on these productions, there’s of course a lot that’s similar and yet in other ways, they’re worlds apart.

Why bother, I hear you ask? What’s in it for us as writers? Well, a lot actually – if we’re willing to wear two ‘hats’ simultaneously, that of the viewer and of the script analyst.(Drives my ‘significant other’ nuts…same in your household, huh?) Placate you S.O. with a bowl of popcorn – but none for you because you’ll be too busy juggling hats and writing furiously to eat.

As emerging TVwriters, we really, really need to do this exercise often if we’re to become better writers. You’ll be ever so pleased you paid attention and did your homework in that expensive screenwriting class(es) – because it’s all there in these two shows – you’ll be ticking boxes all over the place – or not….

Dr. BlakeOkay, let’s compare. Both shows belong to the ‘crime/mystery-solving’ genre, they’re period pieces (anything older than 30 years), set in Australia and both ‘procedurals’ with the protagonists determined to solve the fresh, new murder mystery at hand, which they invariably do.

In each episode and as each Series progresses, humor is juxtaposed against a backdrop of mystery, violence and an exploration of the protagonist’s character and into their troubled past. Both use diagetic and non-diagetic sound and from a technical standpoint, shot in HD – 720 p.

So how are they different? While the list is extensive, most of the items are things we’d have little-to-no control over unless we had an ‘in’ with the Showrunner/Producer.

The screen aesthetic of Miss Fisher v Dr. Blake – sumptuous v austere – almost bleak – the lighting – light and soft v dark, bordering on ‘noir’; coloration – pinks and creams v dark blues, black and gray; the musical score – light and energetic for the most part v dark and dramatic – is something the writer can only look on at (just like the viewer, no?)

But what of the aspects we as writers usually do (or should) have control over? Character is foremost and secondarily, plot.

Miss Fisher (Essie Davis) is a glamorous, drop-dead gorgeous private dick who ‘takes charge’ – brilliantly, and without so much as a grimy smudge on her beautiful costume or flawless make-up. Dripping genuine charm, warmth and compassion, she’s highly seductive. Her intelligence and sharp eye for detail makes everyone else, even her ‘foil’ – the handsome and complex detective (Nathan Page), grossly inferior. The undercurrent of humor is playful and lightly done.

Then there’s Dr. Blake (Craig McLachlan). He’s a plain yet sincere man, ‘damaged goods’ from the ‘get-go’, struggling to rise above his post-war addiction and personal loss while attempting to fill his extremely popular father’s role as the local doctor and part-time Police Surgeon. He does so in an efficient, sensible and lack-luster manner. That sense of humor mentioned earlier – it seems obvious and forced. Indeed, the characterization in this series borders on one-dimensional with the character traits for many of the leading roles somewhat hackneyed and obvious.

While the standard narrative arc of bringing criminals to justice ensues in both series, it’s the dialogue and action and the effect on the pace that provides us with a ‘cautionary tale’. To be fair, this fundamental difference is more apparent in earlier episodes.

In Miss Fisher…thanks to economical dialogue rich with sub-text and action, it gaily trips along with the energy and verve of a ‘Charleston’.

For Dr. Blake… its dead slow to the point that yes, go get yourself that bucket of popcorn, you’ll have plenty of time to munch and take notes. The dialogue early in the series lacks subtext and then later, when they’ve obviously copped flack over this issue, its ‘loaded’ with sub-text to the point of being obvious; same for the action – overdone. This in turn, compromises the actors who are doing their best but burdened as they are – their performance comes across as ‘forced’.

Writers, be kind to your potential cast – give them a break and don’t weigh them down with heavy, cumbersome actions, dialogue or an imbalance or lack of subtext…please! Think about what goes down on that page – you’re responsible for it.

Oh, speaking of success. Miss Fisher is off the air in Australia but a massive hit on Netflix and the pirate downloading sites. Dr. Blake – well, he’s going strong in Aussieland and on the UK’s ITV Network (home of a dozen other mysteries done in the show’s style, actually) – yet all but invisible internationally.

Maybe nobody really knows anything after all.

Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer and formerly a member of Larry Brody’s Master Class.