Thursday, February 6th, 2014
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What America Needs Now Is A Successful Television Heist Show


Television loves conventions. That's why we have a million police procedurals, law procedurals, medical procedurals, murder mysteries, spy shows. And yet there's never been a successful, straightforward heist show. BUT THERE SHOULD BE.

When I say "a straightforward heist show," here's what I mean:

The planner/planners has/have an idea for a theft. A group of collaborators is assembled. A plan is formulated. We learn about the security, the problems to be overcome during the theft. We do not necessarily have to learn (in fact, we usually don't learn) exactly how the theft will be done, but we're given clues that will make the theft's intricacies make sense after it's done. We meet the adversary: sometimes a bad guy, a gangster or something, but sometimes a good guy, like a cop. After all, the heist crew is, objectively, made up of bad guys.

Then the theft is carried out. Something goes wrong, usually; maybe a double-cross, maybe just bad luck. Then the thieves have to figure out how to fix whatever went wrong, and attempt to get away with, preferably, whatever they were trying to steal, but with only their freedom is just fine too.

Nobody's managed to do a show like this and have it last very long. "Thief," an Emmy-winning miniseries on FX from 2006, had laughably low ratings and wasn't renewed. "Heist," also from 2006, was cancelled after five episodes. There are shows with nods to the heist formula—con man shows, spy shows, mystery shows, some episodes of general crime-based shows like "Breaking Bad"—but no straight-up heist show has ever cracked the television puzzle. The newest attempt is a web series called "Caper," which is about superhero burglars, so, you know, let's reserve judgment, but.

The heist is a very specific and strict formula, perhaps even more strict than the procedurals that litter our TVs. Would anyone watch that same structure, six or 10 or 12 or 22 times over the course of a season? I mean, I would, but nobody else would, and I wouldn't blame anyone for that. But! What hasn't really been done is a season-long heist. Why not stretch it out? Spend a couple episodes assembling a crew. Maybe one of the needed crew members is in jail, so the proto-crew needs to do a little heist to break him out. Fun episode! Then spend another few episodes creating the plan, figuring out what the obstacles are. That'll require a bunch of little heists! The crew will have to get the right equipment, get people undercover in the right places, figure out the layouts, sneak in and out of places. Unexpected developments should be expected.

Then there's the heist itself, which should take place with a good few episodes left in the season, because oh man, someone is going to double-cross someone else, or the loot is going to be not as expected, or the getaway is going to fall apart. I don't know. I'm not going to write the whole thing for you, you lazy TV writers. This is just a skeleton proposal.

Then at the end of the season, the crew gets away with it. Or doesn't. Next season can start all over again.

Who do I have to call to get this to happen?

12 Comments / Post A Comment

Don't Push (#259,800)

White Collar is sort of a Police Procedural/Heist hybrid. Surprised you didn't mention it.

Aler (#259,802)

"Prison Break" followed almost this exact formula, and was a pretty fun show for the first season. Turned out not to be sustainable…

I would watch the hell out of this show.

I was about to mention how much this could draw from the "Parker" books, but then I saw you tagged out Donald Westlake, so you sneaky bastard, Dan.

Anyway, the structure might be even more effective if you employ a single character, like Westlake did with the titular Parker, who's in all the seasons to give the audience a common thread of reference. That way, you can get away with recruiting entirely new "supporting" casts each season / heist because the audience has some sense of continuity. Actually, the joy of heists is that every character usually has equal agency — there are no "supporting" roles, per se, in the best ones.

For that reason, you'd have to make sure that your common-thread character doesn't become too dominant, but again Parker is a nice example of this — sometimes he plans and directs the heists, sometimes he gets recruited into ones that are already in motion, sometimes he's forced to improvise a heist in reaction to some external event, etc.

Westlake is a model of variations on the straightforward "let's watch the heist unfold" script, too — sometimes he runs them straight from the beginning, but sometimes he'll start out with the heist's aftermath and go in both directions, or he'll switch to another character's perspective halfway through to show a parallel narrative of events, and so on. All these would translate beautifully into episodic TV.

Yeah, let's do this thing.

tewhalen (#259,803)

I think you're talking about Leverage, which ran from 2008-2012 on TNT, and which you can stream on Netflix.

BadUncle (#153)

Just as long as they're swanky heists. With Lola Heatherton.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

I have a friend who HATES heist movies. Once we tricked him into going to see The Inside Man by telling him it was a romantic comedy (we even made up a sketch of the plot). Unfortunately, after we arrived at the theater we realized it didn't open until the next day.

tscola (#259,811)

As tewhalen says, there was Leverage, which had a successful five year run on TNT.

There was also It Takes a Thief, a 1968 series that starred Robert Wagner and Fred Astaire(!)

Not to mention Mission Impossible.

migraineheadache (#1,866)

@tscola I feel like the A-Team pulled off a few heists in their time.

CLIFF (#259,812)

You cut out one important part of the heist genre: the post-heist getaway or group implosion.

The getaway—fence the goods, cover your trail, get some distance, disassociate from anyone else involved, etc. When it's a group heist you have the whole Simple Plan paranoia meltdown mixed in.

So, in a 10 episode run (this is on HBO, right?), I see it breaking down like this:
Ep 1-4: Conception, assemble the team, plan the heist
Ep 5–6: Execution
Ep 7-10: Escape

I've been thinking about this for a while. My life is great, though.

Screen Name (#2,416)

I think a good heist show would be about a top group of heist artists (heisters?) who devise a plan for the perfect heist. "This is the perfect heist," Nemo, the leader, says. The rest of the team agrees, if not perfect, it's at least a pretty good heist. Then they go get beers at the Rusty Stirrup where Jenny works. Jenny's really sexy. Also, she works for Donnie and the bad heist guys and signals the bad heist team that Nemo and his heisters are sitting at the bar drinking beer and just shooting the shit. Donnie's heist team springs into action and heists Nemo's plans for the perfect heist. When they get back to their heist hangout, Donnie unfolds the plans and is like, "What the hell is this?" Eddie, his brawny assistant, smashes the TV and screams "It's nothing but gibberish!" Then Nemo, who has been hiding in the corner lights a match and says, "It's not gibberish, Donnie. It's code." Then he laughs. Donnie's brawny assistant, Eddie, looks at Nemo menacingly but Nemo gives a little signal like a "whoop whoop!" and his heist team rappels down from the ceiling and takes back their plans. "This isn't over, Nemo," Donnie yells. But Nemo just ignores him and he and the team go back to the Rusty Stirrup to celebrate by drinking beer and shooting the shit. Nemo gives the plans to Jenny to "keep in a safe place." Because she's so sexy it never even occurs to him she could be working for Donnie, which she is. Jenny immediately takes the plans into the backroom at the Rusty Stirrup and hands the plans to Donnie, but Donnie's like, "It's no use, Jenny, without the code this plan is gibberish." Jenny takes the plans back and looks at them. "This isn't a code," she says. "It's just some of the words are jumbled up." Just then Nemo, who's been hiding in the corner lights a match and laughs, "Ok, it's not really a code, I'm just dyslexic." Eddie, who looks really brawny in this scene, takes out a taser and says he's going to tase Nemo, but first Nemo says "whoop whoop" and then his team rappels down from the ceiling and knocks the taser out of Eddie's hands and takes back the plans for the really good heist. Jenny, looking so sexy, runs over to Nemo and says she didn't really mean to double-cross him and Nemo gives her a kiss and says, "I know, baby. Damn, you are so sexy." Then they go back to the bar to drink beer and shoot the shit. This is just the first episode.

@Screen Name: I wish I could like this more than once.

LEVERAGE lasted 5 seasons. Surprised it was overlooked.

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