All About TV Thrillers & Target Audiences
I’ve been streaming a lot of TV thrillers shows from the early 00s to approximately 2012 at the moment. As veteran Bangers know, I love to track the changes to writing craft and what’s popular with TV audiences.
Many people think I get ALL my information from talking with industry pros. That is true in part now, but it wasn’t before I made those contacts (duh!). This means I was doing this long before I knew anyone of note. Many new writers are surprised to hear the vast majority of my knowledge comes from good old-fashioned research. I do this by …
- Keeping up-to-date with changes in the industry via articles, interviews, internet rumours
- Reading books about writing craft and the industry
- Watching TV and movies (not just recent ones, but old ones too – including RE-watching them)
- Drawing conclusions based on evidence from the above
- Breaking down popular shows and movies in a bid to understand what audiences love about them
- Putting ego aside (just because we don’t like a story does not mean we can’t learn something!!)
The great news is, ANYONE can do this. The internet means the industry is not the closed shop it was. Even if you know NOBODY, there’s a plethora of information out there ready for you to find it. Yes, really! Let me demonstrate.
Changes In TV Thrillers
Obviously, the first thing we can notice is the major changes in US TV Thrillers before and after the Netflix era. I frequently say that a lot has changed in the past twenty years of my career … But in real terms the past 5-6 years has changed more in the fifteen years that preceded it. That’s why I updated my Thriller Screenplays book in 2023!
22-24 episode runs were not unusual before Netflix became a major disruptor in the industry. Now it’s more likely we see 8-10 episodes per season in TV Thrillers. In addition, ‘bingeworthy content’ usually means serials, rather than ‘returning drama’.
The difference between them is subtle, but crucial. In TV serials, a pilot will pose what I call a ‘Dramatic Question’ in my Thriller Screenplays book … and the rest of the episodes will answer that question. This means each episode becomes a ‘breadcrumb’ that leads to the ‘gingerbread house’ (aka the finale). Audiences love this because they frequently watch multiple episodes or even whole series in one go.
In contrast, each episode of ‘returning drama’ had a ‘story of the week’ that would resolve, with a serial element that would take us from episode to episode. (Before streaming, this meant people could dip and out of series week on week and still more or less follow. They didn’t necessarily have to watch every single one. This makes sense when we consider that the average audience member could only tune in once a week back then).
Monster Season Runs In US TV Made All The Difference Back Then
Mammoth season runs of 22-24 episodes often meant streeeeeeeettttttttching out series arcs as standard, with entire threads going off at weird plotting tangents sometimes. We’d also see the bizarre off-shoots of this sometimes with entire storylines ret-conned or conveniently forgotten about so they faded away.
Other times pay-offs would be ‘PSYCHE! You thought this was the end suckers? NOPE HERE’S 3 MORE SERIES WE DIDN’T PLAN FOR ORIGINALLY OOPS!’ (Apparently this happened with Lost, according to Damon Lindeloff).
Now series are much more likely to be somewhere around the 8-10 episode run and we can see the benefit. Character arcs are much more streamlined and focused, without so much ‘padding’. Character drives the action much more so the series feel more ‘holistic’.
In the recent past, characters were often let down by having to do stuff that didn’t feel organic, simply to keep the plot going. This then lead to lots of angsty ‘character-building’ crap with quiet scenes of upset or endless arguing to say HEY THE CHARACTER MIGHT’VE DONE THAT WEIRD THING BUT THIS IS WHY CUZ EMOSHUNS (ugh no thanks).
Pace In TV Thrillers (And Across The Genres Generally)
It’s a fact that audiences demand faster paces now than we got back then. It is WILD to see how much pace of TV thrillers has changed since the 00s. It was SO much slower in the pre-Netflix era!
Contrary to what many think, this is NOT because audiences have suddenly become ‘stupid’. Yet newer screenwriters will make all kinds of lofty assertions about how it’s ‘sad’ that pace has to be quicker nowadays to keep people’s interest. (Seriously?? Do you enjoy being told the same shit, THE SAME WAY at length??? No, didn’t think so!).
In real terms, the opposite is true: media literacy is based on what’s gone before. This means that if audiences have seen something before, they will understand what it is quicker next time. This is not rocket science! (By the way, these are often the same screenwriters who will claim that apparently audiences ‘get what they’re given’ by ‘risk averse’ producers. Make your sodding minds up, people!).
Female Characters in 00s TV Thrillers
Another thing that really strikes me was the latent sexism of 00s TV Thrillers. Female characters in the 00s somehow became very insipid and dull, they barely existed. (That’s not to say there were ‘no’ good ones; that would be absurd. However, they were in more short supply than any other decade I have studied at length).
In contrast, in the 90s great female characters DID exist, they just were not usually protagonists. Sure, there were lots of sexist portrayals: women were too often jezebels or innocents, wives or girlfriends.
However, the (white) feminist commentary that insists there were ‘no’ good female characters back then is BULLSHIT. Many rocked their secondary role functions and were memorable AF. (If you can’t think of any 90s female characters bar Sarah Connor and Buffy, you have your head up your ass. Go learn some TV and cinema history!).
Yet we accepted this back then as the ‘norm’
I couldn’t believe how poor so many 00s female characters were when I was re-watching various TV series recently. (Of course, female characters were not even the worst affected back then, though it is the most obvious. BIPOC and LGBTQ characters fared even worse, plus disabled characters were pretty much AWOL altogether and unfortunately still are for the most part).
… Sadly, YES IT WAS widespread!
First up, it should be noted that some 00s subgenre of TV Thriller did okay with female characters. In the course of my research, crime series probably fared the best. Whilst female characters were again hardly ever protagonists, they still tended to be three-dimensional secondaries.
There were however some shocking oversights, particularly with reference to side-lining female characters, however.
This was particularly obvious in dystopian / action thriller-style pieces. I found that when female characters did appear, they were often only in the background. When they were prominent, male characters would have multiple male team members, all highly differentiated … Yet there would be just one ‘girl character’ whose ‘female-ness’ was her differentiation. (This happened in movies too, around the same time).
Jericho is a good example here of a TV thriller series that really under-served its female characters in this way. Set at the end of the world after a nuclear apocalypse, in one episode the men are locking down their settlement for war. Meanwhile, the women in the same settlement? PLANNING AN EFFING WEDDING. I kid ye not!
Falling Skies, Failing Female Characters
I watched lots, but Falling Skies is a good example of 00s TV Thrillers here. Now it’s important to note I enjoyed this story overall, but its sidelining of female characters was very frustrating. In the early seasons, it was a male-centric sausage fest. This picture pretty much sums it up — look how far away the two major female characters are (there’s another in the background if you squint).
Tom – right in the centre – is the protagonist. He becomes a feared military leader, despite being a mere history professor and having no battlefield experience before the alien invasion. I have no issue with that, but Tom has THREE sons, plus the military around him is nearly all male. The guys who were not military – again, male. Hell, even the aliens all appear to be male! Why were so many male characters surrounded by men during this decade??
As usual, Tom’s wife is dead – a common tactic employed back then to pull on our heartstrings. This is because the 00s erased female characters as standard in this genre.
Female characters were again in short supply in Falling Skies, like so many others
When they were focused on, they had to be the lynchpin, the one everyone could turn to, the cleverest or ELSE! Vom. It was like this big flex. Don’t forget, everyone was talking about ‘strong female characters’ back then, yet ironically it only became a reductive label.
There’s maybe two major characters who are female in the first seasons of Falling Skies. One, Anne (on the right in the pic above), is a doctor and very important to the war effort. Of course, she is extraordinary and can do literally anything! This includes operating on children who have been changed by aliens despite telling everyone she is not a surgeon (handy!).
The other female character in the pic is Maggie (left), who is marked out first by being Tom’s eldest son’s girlfriend (sigh). She’s angsty and angry and Just One Of The Guys. That said, over time she does become more than a two-dimensional Kickass Hottie. This is because Kickass Hotties can be great characters too, but again she’s introduced in a dull and overly familiar way.
Falling Skies makes an interesting case study. It ran between 2011-2015, which means it straddles the change in audience demands for better, more nuanced female characters. It also was on air around the time Netflix really started to disrupt the industry. As a result, in retrospect we can see Falling Skies attempt to satisfy audience demands for better female characters … AND try and compete with the streamers.
The show actually does a good job with female characters as it goes along but fails dismally on its plotting. It became weird and nonsensical, with possibly one of the least compelling finales in TV history. But you can’t win ’em all!
This Is The Reality …
… If you’re making a TV show about stuff people have seen before, we’re not reinventing the wheel here. This means you have to deliver your story in the way an audience prefers **at the time of writing/making it**, NOT in the style of your favourite TV show from 5-25 years ago! (Again, not rocket science).
I’ve absolutely had it with screenwriting gurus and professors holding up some prehistoric TV show as THE ONE TO EMULATE. That might work for academia, but it does NOT work for the industry!!! Not even a little bit.
Note: this does not mean you’re not allowed your favourites. You absolutely are. But you also need to understand the components of your favourite AND how it would differ if it was made today … Not just in craft, but catered to its target audience!!!
But HOW do we do this??
As I have said multiple times on this blog, knowing about your own industry can only help you. Here’s how we do it …
- By staying up-to-date with as much as we can (but especially our preferred genre)
- Breaking down stuff like styles of story and character tropes
- Comparing and contrasting what is made when, plus anything that changes (ie. tech)
- Checking out reviews on sites like Rotten Tomatoes
- Reading up on the industry on sites like ScreenDaily, Broadcast, DoneDealPro, Variety, IMDB, Deadline Hollywood
The good news: anyone can study the industry and what’s been made before, comparing and contrasting the evidence to make their own conclusions. Industry pros have different ideas of what works and what doesn’t, so there’s no ‘right’ answer to be had here. Instead, it’s about building up your knowledge and being able to back up what you think.
If nothing else, it will stop you making mad proclamations online and repelling industry pros! That’s gotta be a win, right??