Theme Versus TerritoryComplications Ensue
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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Several times now over the past few years, I've run across people asking me, or someone else, to clarify the "theme" of a TV show. Maybe this is a thing they teach in film school, I don't know. Thing is, I'm not really sure that successful television shows have "themes," in the sense of having an overall point that they're trying to make. Certainly television episodes can have themes. But a whole TV series?

I don't think people watch television shows in order to have someone make a point. This was a bone of contention on a show I worked on a ways back, where my producer kept insisting that every episode had to make a point, and every story line within it had to make the same point. It got in the way of telling fresh stories. I think people watch television shows in order to be told dramatic or comically compelling stories.

Does MODERN FAMILY have a theme, other than "hey, families are wacky"? Or 30 ROCK, other than, "hey, show people are wacky"? Does CSI have a theme, other than, "wow, there are a lot of bad people out there!"?

I think a show needs a territory. It needs a vein to mine. It needs a way to generate hundreds of stories. The problem with defining a theme for a show is that it limits your territory. Some stories may relate to your theme, but some other perfectly good, entertaining stories will have absolutely nothing to do with your theme.

Worse, if your show has a theme, you are more or less telling the audience how every episode is going to end, and how your main character is going to act. After four or five episodes, your audience is going to go, "Yeah, fine, I get it." And tune into another episode of THE SIMPSONS, whose endings are practically impossible to predict, because it has no theme at all.

(And at this point, you are probably trying to figure out a theme for THE SIMPSONS to prove me wrong. Yeah, they have endings where the family is back together again at the end. You could claim that there's a theme of "family is important." But I don't think that's what the episodes are about.)

Maybe talking about theme helps execs get a sense of a show. But I don't think in terms of theme. I think in terms of story engine. What's going to keep the show moving? Give me a show with a great story engine and no theme and I'll tune in every week.



Very interesting read. I'm currently at film school and have been told about how everything has to have a theme. I think I agree with you though. If it's entertaining, it's good.

By Blogger jebsly, at 10:30 AM  

I politely disagree.

Great shows have great characters with strong worldviews. These worldviews are usually in relation to each other, the control freak (felix) is paired with the reckless slob (Oscar)

30 Rock for instance, explores the theme of order (Jack and Liz) vs Chaos (Tracy, Jenna, and just about everything else). Both Jack and Liz have a point of view of top down control, with Jack being effective at it and Liz being ineffective at it. Jenna and Tracy fill out this dichotemy, intentionally (Jenna) or unintentionally (Tracy) creating chaos. Every story the show does explores these themes. And each time, control doesn't do the trick of turning chaos into order, letting go does.

A good show will have it's own strong POV.

Cheers is all about class. It's about a bar in Boston where working class and upper class folks mingle. Diane is torn between working class Sam (who's celebrity status makes him nouveau riche) and Fraiser, the epitome of the elite.

The Simpsons has a downright cynical point of view: each character is the embodiment of the worst stereotypes of a given group. Mr. Burns (and all the rich folks in town, really) are greedy and evil. But by the same token, every working class person in springfield, especially Homer Simpson, is lazy, incompetent, fat and stupid. The Religious zealots are insane tyrants, the clergy are corrupt, the nerds are snobs, etc.

I'd have to think about modern family a little bit, but I'm sure it's there.

By Blogger Dan, at 2:16 PM  

Are you in the States? Americans and Canadians seem to have a different definition of "theme." In Canada, it means you have to be able to say, in one sentence, "The moral of the story is ______." And every single episode needs to reinforce that point of view.

I made an idiot of myself recently trying to answer a producer's question about the theme of a show because I was going by an American definition.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 3:36 PM  

If by "theme" you mean "what is the main conflict between the characters," then sure, every show has a theme.

But the episode where Liz and Carol start picking fights with each other is really about relationships, and the episode about Liz try to adopt is about motherhood, and no one is telling Tina Fey she can't have an episode about Liz and Jack being a couple because that doesn't speak to the series theme of Order vs. Chaos.

(And frankly, you can fit any episode of any show into "order vs. chaos," can't you?)

That's why I mean by theme in the above post.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 4:46 PM  

Awesome post, Alex.

Hadn't really thought about theme as being any different in film than TV.

Makes a whole lot of sense. Have one pilot that's going gangbusters and I'm having a hard time getting a new one for my manager. I think it is precisely because I like to delve into theme when I write.

And television is so, so, so much more about the story engine.

It's the very first question anyone asks. Where do you see this going?

If you can't answer that question, you might as well not even write the pilot. You're dead in the water.

I had a hard time figuring out why the stories I care less about were the ones producers have been more interested in.

This makes a lot of sense. The ones I care about have more of a thematic birth. Those that I don't were a creation of a mechanism of some idea. How character and plot come together to consistently create conflict. In other words, a story engine.

I really hadn't even thought about it until now. But it makes a lot of sense.

I'd like to add a theory here --

Film is about the journey.

When I think about some of my pilots. Some of the stronger ones, that I thought for sure were a lock, had a story engine and every thing -- they didn't get picked up because the series was about the journey.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that TV is not about the journey. It's more about the predicament and being able to continually place these characters in a familiar peril.

Interesting food for thought. Thanks, Alex!

By Blogger James, at 5:00 AM  

@James: I think that's right. A film takes your hero from A to B. Most TV shows take your hero from A to B and back to A at the end of the episode. That's how you get 100 episodes. There are serial shows, of course, that are about an endless journey. But the characters can't change too much or learn too much, or the show won't work.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 9:20 AM  

Each show has an arc and the series has an arc. The series arc demonstrates the theme, if you want to call it that. Each show goes through an evolutionary process, where you end up with a State of Perfection of some sort - see Kal's observation in the video at ; also see The Shield as an example - the overall series arc is resolved when Mackey is confined for his initial act of killing a police officer but each episode has it's own scenario.

By Blogger Dave's Girl, at 8:03 AM  

@Alex There was a really great interview with David Duchovny about what you just mentioned recently in terms of his character on "Californication" (love it or leave it - up to you) and how it's such a fine line on a serialized show because your audience wants your character to grow and change, but if they grow too much then it pisses them off. If Hank Moody suddenly stopped chasing tail and settled down permanently, the audience might on some level be happy for the character, but they sure as hell wouldn't keep watching for long.

By Blogger Jeremy, at 9:27 AM  

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