Critics have praised NBC's new drama Awake, which airs tonight at 10 EST, for the originality of its premise: Following a terrible car accident, a man switches between two realities every time he falls asleep — one in which his wife survived but his son died, and another in which the opposite is true. It's an intriguing idea, rich with potential to dramatize loss, guilt, and grief. Too bad the show's creator, Kyle Killen (Lone Star), decided to make his protagonist a cop.
Awake could have been a gripping psychological drama, with elements of what might prove either to be magical realism or a sci-fi-tinged conspiracy thriller (it's too soon to tell). Unfortunately, it's only half of those things; the other half is a standard police procedural. (Perhaps the well-trod territory of the cop show is part of the reason that Awake has been a ratings disappointment and is currently only a 50/50 bet to be picked up for a second season.) Is there any more overused setting for a TV drama than the world of police detectives? Actually, hospitals and courtrooms are probably in a three-way tie for this title.
We all know why showrunners love creating stories that revolve around cops, lawyers, and doctors: In all those jobs, the stakes are built in, making it easy for writers to come up with dramatic situations for dozens (or hundreds) of episodes. But, at this point, haven't we all seen enough doctors who get too emotionally involved with their patients, cops who play by their own rules, and lawyers who trick witnesses into self-incrimination with supremely clever cross-examinations? There are other jobs where lives (or, at least, happiness) hang in the balance, and that haven't been strip-mined to exhaustion on television. Here are five that any writer's-blocked would-be creator can have for free.
The news tells us that Americans are having a tough time in this economy, yet if all you had to go on were shows like Gossip Girl or Royal Pains, you'd think the entertainment industry had no idea. When good people find themselves in dire financial circumstances, their paths will cross those of a whole range of experts whose job it is to help them — credit counselors, loan modifiers, insurance adjusters, career counselors. The people who avail themselves of these services are at the worst — and therefore most crucial — points in their lives, which is why any one of these jobs would make for compelling television.
THINK: Til Debt Do Us Part meets Dear John.
Political Campaign Strategist
The West Wing and K Street were both on a long time ago, since which time social media and the growing number of 24-hour cable networks have made all of us more savvy about how political campaigns work. What we now know about the process has made it possible for The Good Wife to create a character like Eli Gold — a devious political mastermind — and make him the breakout star of the show. But he only schemes on behalf of Peter Florrick for an eighth of a season, maximum. It's time for someone who performs this fascinating if distasteful function to appear at the center of a scripted drama — maybe in a TV series adaptation of The Ides Of March? (Shonda Rhimes's imminent Scandal, about a publicist specializing in crisis management, is a promising take on an adjacent occupation.)
THINK: Commander In Chief meets The Larry Sanders Show (Artie parts only).
For the average person, one's wedding is an occasion — maybe the only occasion — at which one will feel like the star of a show. So it follows that the planning of such an event is loaded with anticipation, excitement, anxiety, and stress. Wedding planners must satisfy the expectations of a wide range of stakeholders, not just the betrothed couple, but their parents (and step-parents, and siblings, and friends). Huge sums of money are at issue. Virtually every decision is likely to lead to a crisis. And the planner has a relationship with his or her clients for months. A scripted show about the process could follow a few couples per season as they prepare for their nuptials — and carefully stack the deck for a demographic mix: Straight and gay; religious and not; traditional and wacky. Will all the couples even make it to the altar? SUSPENSE!
THINK: Bridezillas meets Tell Me You Love Me.
Reality TV Producer
Though many sitcoms (The Office, Modern Family) employ a faux-reality format, none has taken us behind the scenes of a competitive reality show of the sort that relocates contestants to remote locations in order to put them through perilous physical challenges. And though such reality shows put the contestants' pain on camera, those shows' production staffs are also far from home, living in rough camps, trying to make a TV show out of mostly banal goings-on while also compromising their own personal ethics for the sake of a juicy storyline. If this sounds like I'm proposing a scripted look at how a show like Survivor is made, that's because I totally am.
THINK: The Challenge meets Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
If newspaper and magazine trend stories are to be believed, women's choice to delay parenthood is one of the greatest problems plaguing this country. And as some of us approach our later thirties (hi), we will probably come to know at least one couple who've pursued adoption (with or without a stop at fertility treatment along the way). Many series have portrayed adoption (Parenthood and Smash are the most recent), but always in the context of characters we already know engaging in the process, with the adoption counselors mere guest stars parachuting into their lives. In fact, storylines often require adoption counselors to investigate the characters' families with what seems to be excessive vigilance, and/or to deliver bad news about the characters' hopes for becoming parents. The result? Adoption counselors tend to be cast as the villains. Flipping the perspective on these stories would not only demystify a process that's become more and more common, but could redeem the reputations of people who work in the adoption field and are sick of being portrayed as morons (as on, just off the top of my head, Friends).
THINK: Inconceivable meets Judging Amy (Maxine parts only).