Red Right Hand: TITLE TBD
*He is not a secret agent. Not at all.

 

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File this under stuff nobody really cares about, but I accord way too much thought to.



I give a lot of thought to titles when I'm writing. Sometimes it shows, sometimes not so much. In fact, I generally have a hard time getting started if I don't have a title. Certainly, I obsess to ridiculous degree when writing a spec pilot to get the series name just right. That being the case, I'm glad that the standard is to just title the pilot episode "Pilot."* When I'm writing a regular series spec, I put a lot of thought into titles.

So I hate it when TV series have titles that are just...wrong. Fanciful titles that don't match the tone of the show. Titles that are just cheap jokes. Titles that reference some insignificant part of the story or are essentially titles for the C or D plot. Hate these things. And I know that, in most cases, 92% of the viewing public has no idea what the title of a episode is. Few series actually put the title up on screen and fewer people even let the title register when they do happen to see it, say on their DVR info box or something. I, however am paying attention.

So it bugged the snot out of me that Life on Mars (US) titled their third episode, which concerned the hatred received by returning Vietnam vets and attitudes toward homosexuality, "My Maharishi is Bigger Than Your Maharishi" apparently in reference to subplot, actually just a piece of a subplot. It sounds like a sitcom title, not a crime drama title. It sounds like some lame Bochco series title.

Bochco has some of the worst titles. NYPD Blue for instance was riddled with puns, stupid rhymes and juvenile attempts at humor. A couple of years ago, when he and his family took over Commander In Chief from Rod Lurie (and promptly took one of that years highest rated debuts and ground it into a directionless paste) replaced the titling pattern of "First ______" and immediately put the stamp of crap on it by giving their first episode the title "Rubie Doubidoux and the Brown Bound Express." It referred to a a forced throw-away Scooby-Doo joke and was was essentially a half-formed E-plot.

Is it rally so difficult to put some thought into it. Some titles may not be flashy but they means something when looked at in conjunction with the episode. For instance, I gave a lot of thought to the title for my House script and landed on "Two Certainties." Doesn't sound like much (but does fit in with the House title style), but the story revolves around both the patient's and House's desperation to avoid death and how in the case of the latter, it directly resulted in a tax investigation. Death and taxes. So, I referenced the Ben Franklin quote "In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, but death and taxes."

I do like a good obscure title though. The X-Files had this down. Whether it was a word in a foreign language, on archaic term or a direct reference to some small (but vital) item from the plot, their sparked the imagination.

Sometimes a word sparks my imagination and the title begets the story. This happened most recently with my Mad Men spec. When I was brainstorming ideas, I looked at what was going on int he word at the time I was setting the story (between first and second seasons). I noticed this was when the Soviets beat us into manned space flight with the Vostok mission. I wanted to use the title "Vostok." Mad Men also has a penchant for cool titles that have resonance with the story but are indirect (though not all, my favorite being "Shoot" which references Betty's return to modeling at her flipping out and using a BB gun on the neighbor's birds). I launched (no pun intended) off the idea of failure as motivation to achieve, much as the US's failure to get man in space first just further fired their collective resolve.

And while you might not think I would, I do like the practice of patterned titles, as mentioned earlier in reference to Commander In Chief. The most obvious example today being the Chuck titles that begin "Chuck Vs." La Femme Nikita had an odd pattern in that each season, all the titles used a number of words equal to the season number, so when they ended in the fifth year, the titles were all five years. Imagine if it didn't get cancelled.

Patterns amuse me when I'm writing a spec for such a series. It sparks the imagination to fill in the blank. "Chuck Vs. Your Los Angeles Lakers," "Chuck Vs. William Shatner," "Chuck Vs. Predator."

I had a devil of a time with the Dexter titles. I could have used a pattern there, until I just stumbled on the play on words "Setting Son" that addressed my script's dealing with both matters of suicide and daddy issues.

And also, in reference to titling specs, it annoys me when I read someone's spec (or even just am made aware of it) and they do not adhere to the titling style of the series it goes to. In writing specs we're expected to do it the way they do it as much as humanly possible, down to their format quirks and all, so I think that should extend to the title. Get into that headspace all the way. Your Smallville spec has to have a one-word title (though really, a Smallville spec?).

So Life on Mars, step it up. While it's not an eye grabber, I might have called that episode "Brothers In Arms." It plays off male relationships, especially the strong military aspect, it hits Gene's dedication to fellow vets as well. My favorite titles hit more than one thing in an episode.

Also worth noting, UK Life on Mars had no episode titles.

*Though on one occasion I was able to use the title "Pilot" as though it were a real title, as a helicopter pilot was central to the plot.
©2016 Michael Patrick Sullivan