What’s in a name? Everything, when it comes to a television show. Its title is its calling card — it can entice someone to tune in — or turn them off completely. And judging by the recent glut of series labeled “good” — from “The Good Place” to “The Good Doctor,” from “Good Girls” to “Good Girls Revolt” — it can also stir up a bit of marketplace confusion. But maybe it’s a good problem to have.
“Coming up with a title is one of the most challenging things we do,” ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey said during the Television Critics Assn.’s winter press tour in January.
At the time, ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff “Station 19,” about the first responders who work at that Seattle firehouse, was still untitled. The show, which falls under the Shondaland banner and comes from showrunner Stacy McKee, was picked up to series in May 2017 as an untitled spinoff. It was given a March premiere date on the Alphabet’s TCA day in January, and its title was finally revealed a few weeks later.
“Speaking from the marketing perspective, we broach titles in partnership with programming and research starting with development,” says Erin Weir, senior vice president of marketing strategy at ABC Entertainment. “A strong title is unique and memorable, easy to pronounce, and a fit with the show content and tone.”
ABC also has “The Good Doctor,” which is just one of the “good” shows populating the airwaves. The titular doctor there, played by Freddie Highmore, is both good at his job and a genuinely good person. Executive producer David Shore says he does believe it helps a show when the title perfectly reflects what the show is about so the audience “knows what they are getting.” But he admits he wasn’t entirely sold on this title for his new series at first.
“I didn’t want the ‘the’ in the title in the beginning,” Shore says. “My thinking was, to me it’s slightly more a question and broader without the ‘the’ — it becomes more about ‘What does it mean to be a good doctor?’ instead of ‘This show is about this guy who is a good doctor.’ I wanted it to be broader and about all of the doctors on the show.”
Then there’s the matter of NBC’s “The Good Place,” which bowed in 2016. At first glance, it seemed the title was literally describing the setting of the show as Eleanor (Kristen Bell) learned she had died but somehow made it to the coveted area in the afterlife for those who had dedicated their lives to selflessness. But the twist at the end of the first season revealed that the title wasn’t so literal after all, though, as the location Eleanor found herself in was actually an experiment designed to torture humans who had not actually qualified for the real “good place.”
|ABC did not settle on “Station 19’s” title until almost a year after the show was announced, and just weeks ahead of its series premiere date.|
“‘The Good Place’ is all story. It’s brilliantly conceived, and it’s a very specific style. This is not a sitcom that takes place in the afterlife, this is ‘The Good Place,’ and you’re meant to believe [the place] is real, even if it’s not [literal],” series star Ted Danson points out.
Similarly, TNT’s “Good Behavior,” which is executive produced by Chad Hodge, delivers a more nuanced interpretation of the word. Although Letty, the con artist at the heart of the show, has good intentions, her actions are often anything but.
“When the story starts, Letty has just gotten out of prison on ‘good behavior’ and one day it just hit me that [that] could be a great ironic title for the show — because, of course, most of what we see is bad behavior. It’s a story about a con-woman who is trying to be good, but failing over and over,” Hodge says. “I love the irony in the title.”
While Hodge acknowledges that some first-time viewers might turn on his show with different expectations for the story given the title, he notes the most important thing is that they are intrigued enough by the title to watch and talk about it at all.
“A title just needs to make you do a double-take. It needs to make you wonder. It doesn’t need to explain anything. It just needs to make you go, ‘Hmm…’” he says.
Jenna Bans’ “Good Girls,” which launched earlier this year on NBC, comes with its own sense of irony. While the implication at first is of women who never do anything wrong, the core characters actually rob a grocery store in the pilot.
“‘Good’ has so many meanings,” Bans said at NBC’s TCA day in January. “Are they good at what they start doing in the pilot … which is sort of embarking on this life of criminal activity? Yeah, they’re kind of good at it, so it works on that level. And it also sort of contradicts the image of this perfect wife and mother that’s just going to stay quiet and sort of follow the rules and not raise her voice and not make a stink about anything, so it was sort of a play on that. [The title] encapsulates everything we’re really trying to say with the show.”
Arguably, CBS law drama “The Good Wife” started this trend in 2009, and its CBS All Access spinoff “The Good Fight” is continuing it further.
While “Good Fight” co-creators Robert King and Michelle King admit that in the beginning the title was selected in great part to keep the new series branded to its predecessor, “with the election of President Trump, the title took on a deeper resonance for the characters,” they say. Now it not only is a driving force for the main title sequence but for many of the stories within the show, as well.
“A title just needs to make you do a double-take. It needs to make you wonder. it doesn’t need to explain anything.”
“We always meant the title ironically. ‘Good Wife’ is the public persona of the main character, but throughout the seasons, we see her turn toward the ‘bad.’ Similarly, you’re supposed to wonder whether ‘The Good Fight’ is really that much of a good fight. In what ways do people in pursuing altruistic ends become corrupted?” the Kings say.
As an invitation to watch the series, the Kings admit that “The Good Wife” always spoke to potential female viewers more than male — so much so that they share that creative executives at the network went through a lot of other options (“One in fact was ‘Scandal!’ ”) on the eve of the pickup. But ultimately, what won out was what they felt was the most “thematically descriptive.”
Anything beyond the creative behind the title — including how “hashtag friendly” it is and marketplace competition — is more often than not left up to executives to work on during the run-up to premiere.
“Titles are tracked competitively so we do make an effort to avoid similar titles within the same premiere window whenever possible,” Weir says, noting that although they were “of course” aware of the number of “good” series when launching “The Good Doctor,” research showed the title was a strong enough fit and performing well with test consumers that it was worth using anyway.
“There is no hard and fast rule,” Weir says. “As long as we are hitting the bull’s eye on unique, memorable and fit with concept, there are many paths to success.”