Building Blocks: Premise (Part I)

If you’ve been reading reviews here on this week, you may have noticed I started dividing each review into sections: Premise, Casting, Directing, Story, Plot, and Writing. These terms can be interpreted in a rather broad fashion, so I’d like to clarify what I was thinking when I came up with them.

Note: Non-fiction, such as the reality show, is beyond the scope of this series.


All movies, novels, and short stories—as well as most other forms of fictional entertainment—start with an idea. Idea is even more important for episodic entertainment (a TV or web series) because it can decide the lifetime of the series. An idea can be just about anything, but…

Idea is just the beginning. It has to be fleshed out into a premise that includes:

  • environment,
  • character(s),
  • genre, and
  • struggle, the long-term goal of a central characters.

These building blocks attract money people and audiences alike. Financial backing and viewers are hard to attract and keep, but without a solid premise, they won’t come at all.

Let’s look at some examples.

Star Trek (TOS)

Rumor has it that Roddenberry’s first thought was to introduce the world to alien life in the person of Mr. Spock. But one character doesn’t make a series, so he fleshed the idea out.

How he built Star Trek’s premise is anyone’s guess, but these are the building blocks:

  • environment: deep space (the final frontier)
  • characters: the bridge crew of the starship Enterprise
  • genre: science fiction/adventure
  • struggle: to boldly go where no man has gone before

Note how many of these premise elements are mentioned during the opening credit sequences in both TOS and TNG.

The original pilot didn’t work, but after a quick re-balancing of the cast, Roddenberry got a green light and the rest is history. I’ll talk about why Hunter was replaced by Shatner later in this series, but for now, let’s move on to another example.


Here are the premise elements:

  • environment: a crime-ridden city
  • characters: a loose-cannon novelist (Castle), a by-the-book cop (Beckett)
  • genre: murder mystery/comedy
  • struggle: to crack murder cases neither character could solve alone

The rest of the cast are there as support and to act as character foils. Rick Castle’s family shows us he’s more than a buffoon, detectives Ryan and Esposito do the legwork best done off-screen, Dr. Parish provides details of the crime, and the captain (any one of them) tells them when they’ve overstepped law or propriety.

It’s possible this series was sold with a pitch like… what if the nutty sidekick is the most important member of the team: Huggy Bear teams up with Dirty Harry.

The Big Bang Theory

And the premise elements are:

  • environment: those places where geeks hang out
  • characters: a neurotic egghead, a hapless roommate, the blonde next door
  • genre: sitcom with science-y overtones
  • struggle: the hapless roommate wants the blonde, the blonde wants an acting career, and the egghead wants a Nobel Prize

The beauty of the original premise for TBBT was that all three characters want long-term, hard-to-reach goals, a major factor in developing a series premise. Here are the major obstacles standing in the way of these goals:

  • The hapless roommate (Leonard) is too geeky for the blonde to take seriously,
  • the blonde (Penny) is too focused on partying to succeed, and
  • the egghead (Sheldon) is annoying so even if he were considered for a Nobel, they might think twice about giving it to him.

Howard and Raj showed us that geeks each have their own persona hidden under a geeky exterior. Each has a unique way of throwing a monkey wrench into any given plot. Leslie Winkle showed us that being a geek isn’t exclusively a male domain.

But these aren’t the only elements that go into building a solid premise. In the next installment, I’ll talk about ‘legs,’ that final (and elusive) element without which any series is doomed to a short run… if it gets made at all.

For now, I hope this gives you the beginnings of an understanding as to why some shows work while others fall flat.

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Very interesting article.