What Writers Can Learn from Bad TV Adaptations

Even in this image you can see different personality types.

There’s a popular TV adaptation of a thriller series that drives me crazy, but it’s a perfect example of what not to do.

The first problem is characterization. Every single female on the show is the same—strong, badass, snarky, and walks all over the meek male characters, who all seem to cower in their presence.

Lesson: Each character must have unique traits. All women are not strong. All men are not meek. Just as all characters are not beautiful or handsome. They’re individuals with their own quirks, strengths, flaws, etc.

The main character and her best friend are particularly annoying. I won’t get too deep into their backstory. Briefly, they both loved the same man (MC’s husband) who dies by the hand of a serial killer.

Now, either the writer knows nothing about women, or he lives in a dream world, because these two badass women move past the fact that they were sleeping with the same guy and open a PI business together.

Seriously? I don’t about you, but if another woman slept with my husband right before he died, we certainly wouldn’t become best friends and business partners. I’d hunt her for the rest of my life.

Ahem.

Lesson: If you know nothing about cheating or loss, ask someone who does.

Early on there was some mention that the MC was on the force at one point. Husband dies. She gains a new best friend, and the two women open a PI business to chase the serial killer who killed Mr. Wonderful. But because she’s so tough she walks all over the Sheriff and his deputies. And soon, he hands her a badge. On her first day, she’s basically running the whole department.

Now, I’m all for a strong female lead, but come on!

Keep in mind, she still owns half the PI business. Conflict of interest? Nah. In fact, she interviews more criminals with her best friend (who is not law enforcement) than she does with her meek male partner. And get this — she and her PI partner both have the power to make deals with criminals, like no jail time if you give up so-and-so. What??? There’s no DA is this story world? Apparently not.

Warrants also don’t exist, unless the writer needs to buy time. Otherwise, if she wants to kick in a door, she does. She even fights much larger male characters and wins every single time. Oh, and she puts out APBs instead of BOLOs.

Lesson #1: An APB and BOLO are two different things. An All Points Bulletin (APB) might be released when there’s a prison break and they want “all points” to get the message. A Be On the Look Out (BOLO) is more traditional these days for when a specific person and/or vehicle is wanted in connection with a crime.

Same goes for 187 to indicate a homicide. It’s a gang term not used by law enforcement with the exception of California. California operates differently than the rest of the country, so check with local law enforcement.

Lesson #2: Do your homework, writers! If you’re unsure if they use APB or BOLO, call and ask. Most departments will happily answer questions from writers.

Lesson #3: Characters must fail, or they become ridiculous and unrealistic. There’s also no character arc without failure. These characters have not changed one iota from the first episode to the last.

Lesson #4: There are laws in this country, and the vast majority of law enforcement work within the law. Can a cop character cut corners once in a while? Within reason, I suppose, but they cannot blatantly disregard the law entirely.

Let’s talk about the serial killer character for a moment. He could not be more stereotyped with Mommy issues, etc. Another eye roll character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. And—surprise, surprise—a dirty cop is protecting him. At the end of season one, the cop dies. But fear not! He’s back in season two. Can anyone guess how?

Anyone? Anyone?

He’s a twin, of course. A twin, I might add, that no one knew about…until the writer needed an easy way to continue the series.

Lesson: Whatever solution first pops into your mind is a cop-out. Dig deeper and work for a solution that isn’t eye-roll-worthy.

It gets worse. The twin brother gets shot—in the head!—and is still able to flee before capture. Gotta continue the series, right? Wrong. If you kill a character, that’s it. You don’t get to magically move the bullet to his shoulder because it’s convenient.

Lesson: You cannot perform medical miracles to suit your story. Unless you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy.

Now, I will say, I haven’t read the novels, nor will I after sitting through the series while pounding out notes on my phone. It’s possible the film industry destroyed the novels. I doubt it because the author consults on set, but maybe the books aren’t as ridiculous.

I keep watching for two reasons:

  1. My husband I have a blast making fun of it. 🙂
  2. We can learn just as much from bad series as we can from good ones. Maybe more.

If you’ve figured out the series, please don’t mention the title.

If you enjoy strong and snarky female leads (not cardboard cutouts who never fail), check out WINGS OF MAYHEM, Book 1 of the Mayhem Series.

FREE on Amazon.

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About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire and writes two psychological thriller series, Mayhem Series and Grafton County Series (Tirgearr Publishing) and is the true crime/narrative nonfiction author of PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND: True Stories of Violent Vixens and Murderous Matriarchs (Rowman & Littlefield Group). Sue teaches a virtual course about serial killers for EdAdvance in CT and a condensed version for her fellow Sisters In Crime. She's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on DiscoveryID (due to air in 2023). Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

47 thoughts on “What Writers Can Learn from Bad TV Adaptations

  1. Sue, I know which series you described. You are spot on about the points you illustrated, especially the fact that every single female, from the PIs to the criminals, is superior to the men in their environments, stronger, better looking, and more effective. Yet, they do have one weakness: they get involved romantically with the wrong men–that is so stereotypical.

    Good idea to dissect and take notes on what not to do.

    • Right! I forgot the part about them falling into bed with Mr. Wrong. The show irks me to no end. As we watch, I keep telling my husband what’s going to happen in the next scene, and I’m right every time. It’s so predictable.

      • Something else about this series relates to the recent post about including pets and how they box in the detective: in the first few episodes, one of the superwoman PIs had a child she doted on. Then the child disappeared from the show. She never even mentions him. I guess his presence made it too difficult for her to go crime solving.

        • OMG, I forgot about the son! Yeah, she was Mother of the Year at first, then…nothing. How about when the partner’s father was killed in the PI office, yet no one bothers to pull the surveillance tapes right away without a warrant. What??? They own the biz!

  2. I haven’t watched TV in eons so I don’t know the series referenced, but I wouldn’t want to after reading that description. From what you describe it’s not just doing things that do not suspend disbelief, but doing so MANY. Growing up on 70’s and 80’s TV, there may have been occasions where a cop gave an informant a pass without hauling them in, for example, but overall, for television, you found the scenarios and the characters believable.

    Yesterday while brainstorming further into a story I was thinking about this believability issue with our bad guy. As we’ve discussed here many times, a bad guy thinks they’re right and justified in their own eyes, but they still have to be believable characters.

    What you discuss here also brings up a question for me and I’ve set myself the task this week of searching the TKZ archives to see what info there is on it–when people are doing a series (in this case for books) how far in advance & in what level of detail do they plan character growth, arcs, and scenarios so they do not find themselves in a pinch, such as the scenario you mentioned above with their needing to be a cliche twin, etc.

    Bad examples are indeed good teachers.

    • Great question, Brenda. Each book must have its own character arc. In a series, the character who appears in, say, Book 5, should be changed in some way from the character in Book 1, because they’ve learned from their mistakes in previous books. I don’t do much pre-planning for the overarching character arc that spans the series. It flows naturally from book to book as the character grows. Hope that helps!

  3. Sue,

    Yes, bad shows are a hoot. Try to watch Pray for the Wildcats with William Shatner and Andy Griffith without laughing. It’s a priceless lesson in what NOT to do as a writer.

    And this: “Whatever solution first pops into your mind is a cop-out.” So true. Sadly, it took me a while to learn that lesson.

  4. Good morning, Sue. Interesting post. I watch very little TV, other than the news and a movie on Saturday night. And this series you describe sounds like a “recent” creation, like “recent” movies, in which all is “correct.” We’ve learned to look for the old movies. Much more enjoyable.

    Thanks for the tip on free for Wings of Mayhem. I look forward to reading it.

    Have a wonderful week!

    • Mornin’, Steve! We’ve found some excellent novel series adaptations on the net-streaming channels. This is not one of them. LOL

      Thanks. Hope you have a wonderful week, as well!

  5. Sue, you just gave me another reason not to watch TV ;).

    Sounds like the show is pandering to misandrists (I had to look up the opposite of misogynist).

    Thanks for the warning! Have a great day writing multi-layered, non-cartoonish characters.

  6. Good morning, Sue. I don’t know the series you’re describing, but it’s interesting that you called it “popular.” That makes me think the audience is looking for something other than a realistic and well-crafted story. (I guess TV series writers have figured this out.)

    I’m always surprised at how different movies or TV series are from the books they’re based on. John le Carre said, “Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.”

  7. Sue, this is brilliant. You summed up the problem in what seems to be half of what I’ve started to watch in the last year and never finished. Thanks! Have a great week!

  8. Good morning, Sue. This is a fantastic mini-class in what not to do with characterization and police procedure. I have no idea of what show your example was. Googling failed to bring it up, though I did find several great lists of best serial killer thriller TV shows. Not my cup of tea, I’m much more on the cozy side of mystery, but for those who enjoy these kinds of thrillers, there’s a lot out there to watch.

    I think genre makes a big difference here, too, in how some of these things are handled. If the novel or television series goes for gritty-grounded in reality, then having PIs be able to get people out of jail time seems pretty much impossible. (Heck, it’s a stretch in cozies, too). A lot of cozies, on the other hand, strike me as comedy mysteries, and in comedy, straying at least a bit outside the lines of realism goes with the territory. No, I don’t think in real life police detectives would ask a bookstore owner (as is happening in the cozy I’m currently reading,) or a mystery writer, as in a famous TV cozy show, to figure out who did it, but it works in light comedy mystery. At least for me 🙂

    Not at all in thriller, as you so well illustrated.

    Thanks for a fun and insightful post that gets the week off to a great start!

  9. “Characters must fail, or they become ridiculous and unrealistic. There’s also no character arc without failure. These characters have not changed one iota from the first episode to the last.”

    I agree with this, but Jack Reacher and his tens of millions of fans say hello.

    And ….

    “You cannot perform medical miracles to suit your story.”

    I agree with this as well, but we live in a contemporary crime fiction universe in which a) characters are routinely shot in the shoulder; and b) go right on reloading, accurately shooting, hand-to-hand combating carrying heavy things, trekking for miles or working through complicated strategies or tactics. This is an accepted trope of the genre, and apparently authors and publishers are united in their belief that shoulders are fluffy, friendly pincushions for bullets that never cause any damage that debilitates in the moment and never lingers for longer than it takes other characters to marinate in awe of their superhumanity.

    • Hahaha. Touche, Jim! Reacher doesn’t change.

      The magic bullet pissed me off because the character was shot in the head at first. We even went back to that scene to make sure we’d seen the bullet hole between the eyes (another perfect shot from the MC). Yet, in the next scene, all of a sudden it’s a shoulder wound. Craziness!

  10. Loved your comment about medical miracles. I used to refer to those as spontaneous and divine acts of those who wish they were God.

  11. Personally, I like a “strong, badass, snarky” female lead. Heck, I wrote one in my series Force of Habit (if it is not blasphemous to have a strong, badass, snarky nun. Ahem). But to work they need to have weaknesses as well as strengths, and a good dose of inner conflict. Sounds like this series misses that. As you stress, “there’s no character arc without failure.”

  12. The thud-and-blunder TV genre is not the only one suffering from this Invasion of the Story Snatchers. Writers of all sorts are cranking out teachy-preachy scripts. Even beloved children’s stories are being distorted to follow the latest cultural cliché. We’re overrun by this Attack of the Mary Sues, where Art is clearly far less of a consideration than the moment’s 𝘥𝘦 𝘳𝘪𝘨𝘶𝘦𝘶𝘳 trope.

  13. Y’all have outdone yourselves this morning! Great post and comments.

    Having work experience in law enforcement and in medicine, I routinely pick apart whatever Invasion of the Story Snatchers program we’re watching. My husband gets kinda tired of it, though. 🙂

    My pet peeves (only two of many) are: the good guy or gal who gets thrown head first into a concrete wall and immediately bounces back up and with one punch puts the bad guy down; and, the 12-15 cops advancing on the bad guys’ hideout, each carrying a rifle or handgun pointed squarely at the back of the cop in front of him or her.

    Sheesh! Call me picky, but never saw either in the real, wicked world . . .

  14. Oh that series sounds like one of the reasons I cut the cable cord and no longer have TV. No thanks! (And this is coming from someone who watched all of Castle & Rookie because I just love Nathan Fillion THAT much.)
    I have a badass female character in my fantasy series, but she (and all other characters) have flaws, make mistakes, and grow. I couldn’t imagine any of them being so horribly tropey.
    That “tropeness” (I just made up a word?) is so horribly prevalent in TV crime dramas to the point that they all seem like spoofs! My husband & I would make fun of it the same as you back when we used to watch NCIS. The villain was always introduced near the beginning, there was always witty banter all the way up to a door…even if it was a tense situation! Main characters had magic that either made bad guys aim like Storm Troopers (badly) or they healed miraculously.
    And most irritating to me, was the director’s quirk that let characters give their entire spiel…and only THEN, like magic, would another character arrive with breaking news!
    I wonder if any of this is taught as Do Not Do in film classes?

    • I remember it well, Cyn. We watched NCIS every week! Ugh, can’t even imagine watching it now. I love Nathan too, but couldn’t get behind the Rookie. He’ll always be Castle to me. 😊

  15. Spot on, Sue. I stopped watching after the first season. The only reason I started in the first place was that I like the actor who played Mr. Wonderful husband. He was a main player in the advertising for the show, featured on the series poster and trailers, so I believed he’d be a main character throughout the series. Nope. Died in 1st or 2nd episode. So irritating.

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