What’s in a name? For TV shows, a lot.
As about 40 new scripted series drop this fall, from “The Good Cop” to “I Feel Bad,” I’ve been thinking about good titles and bad titles. It’s a tricky art, coming up with the right name for your show, especially when it is released alongside so many others in the peak season of the Peak TV era. You need to balance a jumble of considerations. Is the title commercially viable? Is it true to the content of the show? Is it pronounceable enough to engender word-of-mouth buzz? Will it endure, if the show goes on for many seasons?
All you need to do is scan the one-season wonder lists to find a few examples of fine shows that, in retrospect, seem doomed because of their lousy names. Among the most famous examples is a 2010 FX series called “Terriers,” a sweetly unconventional story about a pair of flawed private investigators, Donald Logue’s alcoholic former cop and Michael Raymond-James’s ex-con. Steeped in its San Diego location, the show was a sharp dual character study as these overgrown boys come of age. But the title indicated none of this, and even if you were watching the show, you probably wouldn’t have grasped why creator Ted Griffin chose it. Only after I’d read Griffin’s explanation in the LA Times — that the men were “scrappy, scruffy, un-intimidating but unrelenting, tenacious, indefatigable” like the dogs — did I understand.
Perhaps “Terriers” would have failed anyway, but still, it was a lousy title.
I’m convinced that one of my favorite one-season wonders, “Downward Dog,” could have done better if it HAD been named “Terriers,” or something dog-related. The 2017 ABC comedy was about a devoted — too devoted? — dog named Martin, who isn’t particularly delighted that his owner, played by Allison Tolman, has a new boyfriend and a demanding job. It was sweet, wise, and original, and it had absolutely nothing to do with yoga. It lasted one season. Other good shows with oddly random titles: “Happy Endings,” “Love Monkey,” and “Better Off Ted,” which ought to have been a hit.
Some titles are unwieldy and fail the word-of-mouth test. I imagine someone wanting to tell a friend to watch ABC’s two-season series “Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23” and saying something like “You should watch that ‘B’ show, or whatever it’s called, with James van der Beek.” As a wry book title, “How to Live With Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life)” would work, maybe. As an ABC show title, it’s abominable. Sometimes if they’re lucky, the clunky titles get nicknamed. I’m expecting “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” Netflix’s likable “Riverdale”-adjacent drama, to morph into “Sabrina.” Likewise, Netflix’s genial upcoming old-guy comedy, whose name, “The Kominsky Method,” is kind of awkward to say, will probably become “Michael Douglas’s show.”
Some of my favorite titles avoid the clunky approach in favor of a single word. I’m not crazy about the soapy new NBC drama “Manifest,” but the title is intriguing, especially when you realize it’s about a plane that loses five years between takeoff and landing. There’s the plane’s manifest, of course, but there’s also the way the passengers’ side effects slowly become manifest. Netflix’s likable “Wanderlust” is also admirably concise, as it follows Toni Collette’s therapist through a period of marital and sexual stasis and dissatisfaction.
Sometimes an ordinary single word can be transformed into a perfect title. “Friends,” for example, turned out to be on the mark; the word became culturally iconic. But if the show had failed, I can imagine some blaming it on the generic title. “Girls,” “Lost,” “House,” “Mom,” “Scandal” — they all managed to work beautifully over the long run, triumphing over their ordinariness. I’m hoping the wonderful Amazon comedy starring Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph, which was given the vague single-word name “Forever,” will follow suit. Somehow, the title of Dick Wolf’s new CBS series “FBI,” though, doesn’t promise to rise above. It simply seems lazy and forgettable, just like the show itself. Netflix’s endearing “Love,” too, never succeeded in bringing distinction to its extremely broad name.
Just as you want to catch attention with your title, you also want to make sure it’s durable over the long run. Fox’s “The Last Man on Earth” had its charms, but it quickly became wildly inaccurate. The same goes for Fox’s “New Girl,” whose heroine was no longer new by the end of the first season. You know the titular character in the CW’s “Jane the Virgin”? Let’s just say the only truth that remains in the title is that her name is still Jane.
At least those names have originality. “The Kids Are Alright,” ABC’s new comedy set in an Irish-Catholic family amid the changes of the 1970s, is also the name of a high profile, Oscar-nominated 2010 movie. It may well confuse viewers into thinking the show is an adaptation of the movie. NBC’s “New Amsterdam” seems to be inviting misunderstanding, too. The predictable medical drama, whose action escalates almost absurdly, shares a name with a 2008 Fox series that starred Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as an immortal detective. I guess NBC thinks “New Amsterdam” is too good a title to let go of; I don’t.
I guess the easiest shows to name are the reboots, of which there are so many these days. “Magnum PI,” “Murphy Brown,” “Charmed” — without their old titles, they are nothing. Even if a show’s premise has been re-thought, even if the characters are entirely different from the originals, that title delivers a sense of reflected glory and nostalgia. In those cases, the name is the name of the game.