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The Makings Of A Hit TV Show

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How To Make A Hit TV Show

This might be considered a crucial attribute, elemental even, for someone resolving to write a column of this nature, but I watch an awful lot of television. One of the things I've noticed from my long-held, eight-hour-a-day habit is that a lot of successful TV - comedies and dramas in particular, and some of my own personal favourites - are often linked by a mix of common quirks as hard to explain as they are to manufacture. Great writing, cast and production and, occasionally, naked breasts (looking at you, Game of Thrones) are all very well and good, but there are other less tangible common factors at play that end up being hallmarks of a quality show. Things like...

Giving an auditioning actor another part apart from the part they went for:

Successful TV shows have always managed to accommodate talented actors in ways they didn't initially intend. McLean Stevenson wanted the role of Hawkeye Pierce before becoming Henry Blake in M*A*S*H*, the last episode of which garnered the biggest audience in history.

Alan Alda, the man who immortalised Hawkeye, was himself considered to play Jed Bartlet in The West Wing, but later played Presidential nominee Arnie Vinick. Michael Rispoli auditioned to be Tony Soprano, but was made Jackie Asprile Senior instead.

Similarly Lance Reddick, Cedric Daniels in The Wire, could have been Bunk or Bubbles based on his multiple earlier auditions. January Jones attempted to become Don Draper's assistant Peggy Olson in Mad Men, but in typical Don-fashion she became his wife instead, while Kristin Davis of Sex And The City could have made Carrie Bradshaw much less equine.

Sarah Michelle Geller and Charisma Carpenter originally auditioned for each other's eventual roles in Buffy, and Courtney Cox was originally asked to play Rachel in Friends before becoming Monica. And John Ratzenberger aimed to sit at the edge of the bar as Norm Peterson at Cheers, and became the subject of another successful TV phenomenon...

Creating a character out of thin air:

Having struck out as Norm, Ratzenberger bugged the producers of Cheers with inane chatter to the point where they made up Cliff Claven on the spot based on his tirade. When a good deal of those same producers spun off and created Frasier over a decade later, casting director Sheila Guthrie brought to their attention a photo of the actor David Hyde Pierce, whom she considered to be a dead ringer for a young Kelsey Grammer. They created Niles Crane largely on the strength of that photo.

What's more, Frasier and Cheers also managed to create popular characters out of thin air that didn't even exist: Niles' wife Maris and Norm's wife Vera. But it's not just a comic phenomenon: Steve Van Zandt, headhunted by David Chase for a role in The Sopranos, was so concerned about bumping another actor out of a role that Silvio Dante was created specifically for him.

Promoting a bit player to the big leagues:

The most successful shows habitually have minor characters come to life on screen that didn't exactly jump off the page. M*A*S*H* transvestite Corporal Klinger was intended to be a one episode gag but became a cast fixture until the final episode. Lilith Sternin was meant to be a solitary date for Frasier Crane, himself originally thought of as a transient character, but ended up becoming his wife. The West Wing's Donna Moss too was supposed to be a recurring guest, but her chemistry with Josh Lyman sealed her fate as one of the more popular members of the cast throughout its run. More recently, 30 Rock's Kenneth Parcell has become nigh on the dictionary definition of a breakout character. Then there's Arthur Fonzarelli, originally meant to be a walk-in, walk-out character on Happy Days, but became so wildly popular that the city of Milwaukee, where the show was set, erected a brass statue of him. The Fonz, incidentally, was originally meant to be played by Mickey Dolenz from The Monkees.

Replacing characters wisely:

A good way of separating the TV wheat from the chaff is how a programme handles the departure of a pivotal character. Do you remember for instance who replaced Eric in That Seventies Show? Of course you don't. The guy who played him probably doesn't even remember. The best approach to take is go for a character wildly divergent from the last one: In M*A*S*H* the inept busybody Frank Burns was replaced by the brilliant blueblood Major Winchester and the hapless Colonel Blake by the much more together Colonel Potter, and in Cheers the passing of old timer The Coach made young Woody Harrelson a household name.

Other blue chip shows practically made a habit of constantly getting in/shipping out new stars, just to show off. The West Wing disposed of Mandy Hampton and Sam Seaborn without breaking a sweat. ER, LA Law and The Practice had a cumulative ensemble cast larger than the extras lunch queue on the set of Ghandi, but those three shows ran for a total of thirty years between them. The show runner of those last two, David E Kelley, got so used to bringing big characters in and out that on his most recent success, Boston Legal, he regularly disposed of senior cast members without the slightest explanation. And he got away with it too. Now that's a sign of success.