6 Secrets to the Success of Autobiographical TV


We've seen plenty of semi-autobiographical shows in the past few years. This year, this pseudo-genre has transitioned from a trend to a mainstay in the TV marketplace. Autobiography anchors some of TV's boldest and funniest series. Here's why they get our attention, and keep it.

1. Increased Credibility

When we know the premise of a show is based on reality, we're willing to let it stretch believability a little farther. In the back of our minds exists the knowledge that some kernel of truth underlies everything that's happening on the screen. And while we understand that plenty of poetic license has usually been taken, knowing that something is based on the truth can make it feel more real. We're more apt to accept on-screen events as truth when we know they stem from someone's actual life experiences.

2. Network Politics

When a show is decidedly based around a single person's voice, experience, and perspective, that one person becomes a much more capable and influential showrunner. New shows often come under fire from networks even when successful. But when a show is based directly on someone's life, it tends to give a showrunner more clout when negotiating the future of said show. Lena Dunham, for example, is unlikely to be fired from Girls anytime soon, and retains a strong voice when it comes to deciding the direction her show will go in. Ultimately, this increased autonomy allows for more creative variance from other series, and gives audiences something more unique to get attached to.

3. More Relatable Characters

We relate to good characters because, regardless of their specific stories, there is always an underlying shared experience between them and their audience. When a show is based off a person's real life adventures, that person's emotional experience become the backbone of a show. This emotional translation is more important than the depiction of actual events; for example, in the pilot of Louie, when Louis CK tries to kiss his date she rejects him –  and then takes off in a random nearby helicopter. We never for a second believe that Louis CK has actually had this experience on a date. But we know, to him, that rejection can feel as painful and humiliating as having your date run away in a helicopter. We've had similar feelings of rejection at some point in our lives, and the specificity of the real life situation the creator can draw upon yields a more relatable emotional experience.

4. New Perspective

In many cases, autobiographical shows can give us a glimpse into a world we've never been exposed to. We don't really know what it's like to live the life of a stand-up comic (Louie) or to spend a year in a women's prison (Orange is the New Black), but these shows bring to light a new perspective on something foreign and alien. Even if an episode isn't perfectly accurate, we're still likely to feel like we're learning something new through what we're watching. This educational factor isn't enough to keep a bad show on the air forever, but it at least allows us to more easily forgive a lull in an otherwise good show.

5. Celebrity Proximity

The cult of celebrity rides as high as it ever has. Autobiographical shows both rise from and feed into that love of celebrity. Seeing Liz Lemon lets us feel like we know the pressures of putting on a live sketch comedy at 30 Rock. If we were to run into Chris Rock, we might feel like we already understand his childhood since it's inspired hours and hours of Everybody Hates Chris. This sense of understanding and connection that we think we share (even if we don't) with major celebrities makes a show feel a little more personal. Somewhere in the back of our minds, we get to say, "I  know that guy." This can trick us into being a little more loyal.

6. Kindred Expression

The autobiographical show centers around one character, who is based on a real person. Subconsciously, these real characters can make us feel as though someone might be able to understand our own experiences, too. When we see them on screen, we recognize that they are getting a chance to share their reality. Seeing a real person express their deepest feelings can resonate with us. These real characters – to some degree – speak for us. They make us feel like we, too, can be understood and share our experiences with the world, even if we never get to write our own autobiographical TV show.