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By Kevin Nelson · January 3, 2022
It seems like television series just keep getting better year after year — and this year was no different. Shows like Succession, Reservation Dogs, and Yellowjackets kept viewers binging through entire seasons or impatiently waiting for weekly episode drops, and in a year like the one we’ve had, it’s not hard to see why.
So, as we close the book on 2021 and all of the challenges it came with, let’s take a look at the scripts of some of our favorite TV series — ones that entertained us, fascinated us, and inspired us to become better writers ourselves.
Here is our list of the Best TV Scripts of 2021.
Created and directed by Barry Jenkins, the mini-series is an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel. The script, written by Jenkins & Jacqueline Hoyt, delivers prose that paints visual poetry, complete with a dreamy magical realism that blends perfectly with historical fiction like an old spiritual. Their passion for the story is evident in the words on the page.
The series captures the emotional journey of the characters as we meet them at their low point. The world they’re escaping from is a stark reality from the world that they are escaping to. The characters’ journeys rise from that low point as they push forward on their exodus to freedom.
Jenkins told Rolling Stone:
Download the script
“Through all the brutality and degradation, these people managed to preserve moments of joy, of ecstasy, of beauty. And in order to truthfully convey the weight of those things, we also had to portray the hard images…I felt like if we started in a place where you understood the realities of the institution of slavery, then you understand what’s at stake, [and] when the promised land is reached, just how beautiful that must’ve felt.”
The pilot of WandaVision, written by showrunner Jac Schaeffer, is written in the style of a 1950s black & white multicam sitcom, as indicated on the title page. Schaeffer follows the act structures of shows like Leave It to Beaver and I Love Lucy, which is a main title (complete with theme song), two acts, and a tag that shatters the reality of everything you just watched.
In Episode 8, Previously On, written by Laura Donney, it’s indicated on the title page that the style of the episode is Marvel Cinematic. There are no act breaks aside from the post-credit tag, so it’s formatted like a thirty-minute short film. This is the episode with the incredible line that sent a shiver down every writer’s spine. It’s interesting to note that the line wasn’t presented as a question, but a statement.
“And what is grief if not love persevering.”Download the script
Written by Steve Martin & John Hoffman, Only Murders in the Building is everything that you’d come to expect from the mind of Steve Martin. It’s a satirical look at the true crime podcast fad where any old schmoe can grab a recorder and become a sleuth. In this case, it’s Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez. The pilot script is laced with Martin’s signature dry style. The two main characters are introduced like this:
IN THE STAIRWELL — STEVE and MARTY (whom we’ll come to know) frantically run down the stairs in terrified, escape-mode.
STEVE AND MARTY
If you love Steve Martin’s humor like I do, you just gotta read it. Whom we’ll come to know? Come on, Steve. Oh, and it’s a murder mystery too!Download the script
Created by Molly Smith Metzler, Maid is a limited drama series that follows a young mother struggling to escape the abuse of her hometown. She moves into a shelter with her daughter and fights for custody while working a menial job until finally she and her daughter have the chance to escape. It’s a sobering real-life account inspired by Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive.
As noted on the second title page, the entire script is told from the main character’s point of view. The character can even direct the narrative — it’s her show. So if the character wants to throw the reader into a flashback, it’s done in bold italics. It’s clear Molly Smith Metzler has complete control throughout the pilot.Download the script
Developed by Saladin K. Patterson, The Wonder Years is a great reimagining of the classic 1988 series. Set during the same years as the original, Patterson gives voice to a generation of black children who came of age during a turbulent time. The privilege afforded to the cast of the original series allowed them to largely ignore the realities felt by Black Americans.
Patterson shows the parallels between The Civil Rights Era and now, showing that although things may change, they largely remain the same. Also, he is able to relate the events of the past with a new generation of viewers.
The opening scene of the pilot is clever in how it sucks you in with all of the issues that we’re facing in the present day, before revealing that the boy riding his bike is in Alabama, 1968. The voiceover, sibling love/hate relationship, and the love between parents and children provide a nostalgic nod to the original series.Download the script
The White Lotus, created, written, and directed by Mike White is a social satire about a sunny resort with shady guests. The rich primarily vacationers bring their heavy baggage with them — and all of their privilege too. They cause a wake of destruction…including death. Several of the lives of the resort workers are ruined while the rich vacationers literally get away with murder and go back to their lives. There are multiple storylines that all come to a conclusion.
The pilot opens by revealing that someone died, so as all the drama unfolds you still have that information lingering somewhere in the back of your mind. As always, watch for the MacGuffin.Download the script
Created by Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky, Hacks is about an aging comedy legend whose cushy Vegas residency is threatened because of her inability to fill the seats. Against her wishes, her manager hires a younger writer to help her stay relevant.
The younger writer takes the job because it’s the only gig she can get after being canceled over a problematic tweet. Neither character wants to embrace the other, but they both need each other in order to achieve their goals. Once they get going, their dialogue is great for its barbs and backhanded slaps. Deborah, the older diva comedian, would be a fun character to write. She says what most are too afraid to say (or are smart not to).Download the script
The title might hurt my ego a little bit, but this series created by showrunner Valerie Armstrong is amazing. The pilot takes place within the two realities that protagonist Allison lives in, each captured from a different psychological perspective. Armstrong uses simple formatting to signify two different modes of television storytelling: multicam and single cam.
To separate the expectations of a sitcom from the reality of life, Armstrong uses a note on the second title page informing the reader that all italicized scenes are meant to be multicam. It spoofs the sitcom style of the fifties that romanticized a patriarchal household without hiding the actual abuse Allison endures despite the facade.
All non-italicized scenes are moments away from her constraining and abusive relationship where Allison can be herself and get a breath of fresh air. The single cam is an intimate look into her true reality — which isn’t nearly as glamorous as it seems. It’s a great read if you want to learn how to blend storytelling styles.Download the script
Ghosts is a fun half-hour sitcom adapted and developed from the BBC series of the same name by Joe Port & Joe Wiseman. It’s an ensemble comedy with some wickedly funny characters.
A second title page is used as a character reference, breaking the characters into two groups: the living and the dead. The descriptions of the ghosts set the tone with humor off the bat. The script follows the structure of a single cam sitcom, complete with a cold open, main titles, and three acts. As any strong pilot will do, the action ends with a scream — making the reader want to know what happens next.Download the script
Created and written by Brad Ingelsby, Mare of Easttown had everyone raving. It struck a chord because of the hyper-realistic depiction of a dogged detective on her last leg. The location being set in a small town immediately opened every character up to being a suspect, while also showing the effects that social pressure can have when everyone knows each other’s business.
Ingelsby’s introduction of Mare caused a lot of uproar on Screenwriting Twitter for being a massive chunk of text. The thing is — it’s great writing.
This lends credence to the old saying, “If it’s good, who gives a damn?”Download the script
Developed by Jim Mickle, Sweet Tooth is an adaptation of the comic book by Jeff Lemire. The endearing fantasy drama series is a welcomed departure from most post-apocalyptic fare. Mickle and Lemire decided to soften the tone of the series from the comic book because they felt that the genre was oversaturated with dark dystopian depictions of the future.
The series was filmed during the pandemic so production halted more than once. Being that the subject of Sweet Tooth is the collapse of society in the wake of a worldwide pandemic, the shift in tone was pivotal. Instead of audiences feeling worse than they already did, they were provided with a glimpse of hope for the future.Download the script
Streaming has become commonplace and home entertainment reigns supreme. With so many streaming platforms available, it’s nearly impossible to catch all of the great shows that were released this past year. We’re in a golden age of television and it’s a great time to be a viewer. As more diverse voices step up for their long overdue time in the spotlight, the future’s looking bright. I’m here for all of it.
Want to read some other great scripts from 2021? Check out these awesome titles!