Concurrent Stories and Characters as Connectors

When people think of a single character connecting two fiction worlds, it’s usually part of a franchise universe. Like Marvel’s behemoth. I’ve recently developed a few TV show ideas that are woven together by a single character but in a way different than the classic TV “crossover.” We’re getting primed for this next step. Transmedia story extensions merely add another lane to the road, or a new track to the mix. Here’s a preview of my thinking…

First, some history: Audiences love crossovers. This is an old TV tradition, Lucy from I Love Lucy appeared on The Ann Sothern Show in character back in the 50s. There’s a lot to like with crossovers. If you’re a production company such as Jerry Bruckheimer Productions and you’ve got a bunch of shows on the air, the cross-promotion works for you just as much as it does for the network. Bruckheimer’s shows crossover all the time because he knows how to make money.

Many spinoffs come back and crossover with their parent series for a boost. Sometimes somebody from the originator show pops in on a crossover for a boost — for example, Lilith’s appearances on Frasier. The dynamic that bridges those two character’s shows is their divorce. That tension made it all the more interesting. Frasier went across the country to get away from her and Cheers. I especially want more of the joint-crossover, when two shows’ characters appear on each other’s episodes in the same timeframe. Imagine if one scene appeared in both shows!

Audiences are interested when something affects the world of their show and is felt in other show worlds. I remember actual TV news stories covering a hurricane in 1991 …which hit the TV show world of The Golden Girls, Empty Nest, and Nurses in the same week. There was no actual weather event, just a NBC promotional stunt of a fake hurricane driving the plot of three NBC shows. Daytime soap opera ratings always used to go up in the days preceding Christmas, in part because fans wanted to see their “TV friends” Christmas trees. Seriously.

Also interesting to me are crossovers that bend genre expectations. When the doctors from St. Elsewhere had drinks at Cheers it was amazing because the slight difference in genre. Brilliantly, Roseanne featured the drunken characters from the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous meeting Roseanne Conner during their trip to New York. The AbFab style is slightly different than Roseanne, and yet the crossover works. Here’s why: the rules of Vaudeville. The AbFab girls are crazies (a comedic type) surrounded by “Stooges,” “Feeds” and “Setups” (the straight man of a Vaudeville pair). The AbFab girls had an episode in America, and the Setup character in America – instead of being some unenthused Yank who thought the drunk Brits were bananas – was a known TV personality who thought they were bananas. They simply made it Roseanne Conner.

Imagine the three drunks in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are stumbling along the sidewalk, leaning against a building. Then a cop pulls over. The humorless cop doesn’t get out of the car, it’s just a drive by. The humorless cop says “Get home, dummies.” He’s not telling a joke. He’s not trying. It’s Donnie Wahlberg’s character from Blue Bloods. Then he drives away. He’d be the “Feed” in that Vaudeville scene. The comedians react funnily, perhaps with vomit …and scene.

Despite their style being different, How to Get Away with Murder could take place in the same Philadelphia as It’s Always Sunny. Viola Davis could easily have one line as the straight man in a throw-away “Feed” role. The three idiots could be at a restaurant being obstreperous and the woman at the next table leans over and says, totally seriously, “how have you not been murdered?” – and it’s Viola Davis. She isn’t playing for laughs because her show’s universe isn’t a comedy world. However, every comedy has straight-men types. Often in walk-on roles. If you’re able, make that character a crossover character from another show.

An outside-the-box thought on crossovers would be to really explore genre, not just bend the style as Roseanne did. Exploring genre goes beyond even my Philadelphia suggestions (which merely bend style). There should be more crossovers with unscripted TV. Think of the old gag cameo of Pat Sajak and Vanna White in an episode of The A-Team where Murdock appears on Wheel of Fortune. He wins a car and goes on a Hawaiian vacation. That was merely a cameo. Howling Mad “H. M.” Murdock didn’t actually compete in an episode of Wheel.

But today, Gameshows aren’t the only unscripted TV. Think outside the box and blend scripted worlds into unscripted worlds while being true to both. The old unscripted show Parking Wars took place in Philadelphia. The drunks of It’s Always Sunny could have got a boot. They may have actually appeared on an episode of Parking Wars. The Parking Authority characters would appear on It’s Always Sunny. The same scene, shot two different ways. The kicker: the camera and sound crew of Parking Wars would be visible in the frame of It’s Always Sunny.

What if the geeks from Big Bang Theory splurged and went on a fancy date to Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen (if Ramsay’s show was on CBS). The geeks adventure that day would be their own episode, and they would also appear in cutaways on Hell’s Kitchen, fretting that the Red Team was over-toasting their kale – a quip that is sold as foreshadowing in Hell’s Kitchen. On Big Bang Theory, the same exact quip gets a laugh track before you realize it wasn’t at all funny.

Consider Seinfeld, with those interstitials of Jerry’s live act. Jerry’s standup comedy is his sitcom character’s day job, yes, but stand-up comedy is also a genre. Today, there are plenty of entertainers who perform, not on stage, but on reality TV shows. There are also real people who appear regularly on reality TV shows not as entertainers, but as “actual” people with everyday lives.

Which brings me to my idea… I’m developing two TV shows that are woven together in this way. One is scripted, one is unscripted. The two shows are not about the same thing. The star and hero of one appears regularly as the heel in the other. The two shows run concurrently. Nobody lies about what they’re doing in either. The way the two formats play off each other, and the differences between them, becomes important to the themes explored in both. People will find this interesting. I know I do. It’s the logical next step of the TV crossover.

Hopefully you’ll see the two shows on the same smart network soon. I’m taking it to Sundance first.

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