Book Review: The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap by Neil Landau

Book Review: The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap by Neil Landau

26 Jun 2014

Whether you’re keen on a career in writing for TV or simply love watching telly, this is a super-satisfying read

Early in the book The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap, there’s an important comparison between movies and television series. Movies are finite; an indelible, singular sensation. A television series, on the other hand, is a fluid, continuously unfolding story. That’s the reason our relationships with our favourite TV shows go on over seasons, over years. It’s how they become a part of our lives.

It’s obvious that Landau – who’s a screenwriter (his TV credits include Doogie Howser MD, Melrose Place and The Secret World of Alex Mack), author, producer and UCLA professor – really loves TV. But his book never falls into sentimentality; instead it’s as thought-provoking as it is practical. Just what you’d expect when the title includes the message: 21 Navigational Tips for Screenwriters to Create and Sustain a Hit TV Series.

Through interviews with top showrunners (almost always the head writers and executive producers of a TV series), Landau structures his tips and builds a bridge to the world of addictive viewing experiences. He’s spoken to everyone from Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy’s Shonda Rhimes to Homeland’s Alex Gansa as well as Modern Family’s Christopher Lloyd and Revenge’s Michael Kelley, among many others. And what emerges is clever and consciously compelling – much like the shows we just have to watch.

In the first chapter/tip Prepare the Perfect Pitch, Landau breaks down why it’s all about branding or finding the niche of each channel. He explains how to find out which network would be the right fit for your pitch, why it’s important to prepare different versions of a pitch, the key to recon and actual guidelines to achieve what you want.

The steps proceed, revealing what might seem obvious and then giving it extra relevance as in chapter/tip five: Make Us Care. Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan shares the hilarious (and ultimately providential) turn of conversation that led to the creation of his iconic show. In chapter/tip eight: Identify Characters’ Weaknesses, House MD’s David Shore says he believes in the theme of the show “nobody changes”, adding that “it’s more interesting to watch somebody strive to change and maybe in tiny little ways and then maybe fall back.” For those of us who've watched the trajectory of Greg House's character, that's a large part of what keeps us hooked.   

You learn about A stories, B stories and C stories (the main plots and the sub-plots) that shows are structured around. You discover how on-screen romances play a huge part in the direction the series take (to go with the slow-burn: we're talking Castle and Beckett's relationship in Castle or speed things up: Jess and Nick in New Girl). You find out how single-camera and multi-camera shows make a difference in perspective.       

The structure gets even stronger up ahead: Chapter/tip 15 (Pique Our Interest with a Potent Teaser, think Dexter), 16 (Hit the Sweet Spot, Bones’ Hart Hanson says that the story engine for his show is a simple, time-honoured one – the rational versus the spiritual), 17 (Pay Off the Setups: The Killing), 18 (Establish the Mythology: Once Upon a Time – Creating a credible, alternative reality) and 19 (Push Them Off a Cliff, think Revenge). 

By chapter/tip 21: Make Us Laugh, you learn how conflict can be a source of humour and the revelation of a golden rule, “Never be afraid to say something stupid” because it might spark something smart and valuable from someone else in the room! Plus, the man behind Modern Family, Christopher Lloyd, reveals a few secrets from the world of the very funny family that just about everyone adores.  

If you’re serious about a career in TV screenwriting and want to find out how to make a success of it, this book is a very valuable guide. If you’re simply a couch potato, it still provides lots of amazing stories about how the shows you watch get made. Either way, The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap is a great read.   

INFO: The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap, available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble