Day 147: Low concept vs. high concept TV

As I talk to people about the series I’m developing, I frequently come across the distinction between a high concept and a low concept series. It’s something I never really thought about before and it’s taught me a lot about how Hollywood works. I should point out, I’m FAR from an expert on any of this.

A good example of a high concept show would be Weeds on Showtime. Here’s the pitch (or “logline”): “After the sudden death of her husband, a suburban Mom turns to dealing marijuana to support her family.” Anyone could start writing that series from the pitch. It’s a great premise, and network execs like it when they can see the show in their head. Another good example of a high concept show is United States of Tara. Here’s the pitch:  “A family stuggles for normality despite having a matriarch with multiple personality disorder.” The comedy and drama is built into the idea. That’s what I think of as high concept.

A  lower concept show is The Office. Here’s the pitch for that: “A hilarious examination of the tedious inner workings of a small town paper supply company.” Huh? Exactly. No one will be interested in that. I exaggerated the banality in the logline, but what makes The Office great is the writing and the size and range of the comedic cast, not the concept. It’s the kind of show you have to sell based on a script, not a pitch. It’s about the people, not the idea. I understand that creating a series which showcases all the different office personality archetypes and the conflicts between them is a great idea, but from a pitch perspective, it’s a tough sell. I’m not sure the American version would ever have been made had the BBC and Ricky Gervais not done it first.

A show that falls somewhere in the middle is Californication. Here’s the pitch for that: “A troubled-genius writer stuggles to keep his family and career despite his problems with sex addiction, crippling self doubt, and impossibly high standards of authenticity.” That’s a hard logline to write, and I really didn’t even do that good of a job. Here’s the logline the actual writer did for it: “A writer tries to juggle his career, his relationship with his daughter and his ex-girlfriend, as well as his appetite for beautiful women.” Whichever one you like more, you can see that the show is really just about the internal struggle of one dude – Hank Moody. There are other funny characters in the show, but nearly every scene has Hank in it. It’s a hard show to sell without someone like David Ducovney playing the lead.

That leads me to my series, “Making Good” (co-written with Jeff Glasse) Here’s the pitch: “A stand-up comedian juggles his career, family and day job as he searches to understand how everyone around him could possibly be happy with the status quo.” It’s a comedy, but nothing about it indicates that it’s funny. You have to read it to get it, and that’s a big problem – the concept does’t have comedy built into it. In scope, it’s closer to Californication than to The  Office or Weeds. It’s a medium concept show (no idea if that’s a term). It’s basically about a dude – Me. Jason is in every single scene of the pilot.  That all makes it hard to get people excited unless you say something like “John Hamm is interested in playing the part of Jason.” I’ve blogged in the past about who I dream might play me, but the more I think about it, the more I just want to shoot it myself with me playing me and then try to sell it.

I'm a contributing writer to Parents Magazine, GQ, Psychology Today and some others. My book, "This is Ridiculous. This is Amazing: Parenthood in 71 Lists" is available here Look for two more books in 2015: "Must. Push. Buttons (Bloomsbury Kids), and an as-of-yet untitled memoir I’ve appeared on Comedy Central’s “Live at Gotham” and “Nick Mom’s Night Out." I live in New Jersey with my wife and two sons and enjoy making them laugh more than anyone else.

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