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Notes from the Wasteland : A writers medium (joss whedon mention)

Friday 3 March 2006, by Webmaster

In TV, the writer rules. But if your favorite show cranked out a stinker episode last week, don’t blame the individual named as writer for that episode. Instead, blame the head writer, also known as the showrunner. He or she oversees every detail, rewrites every script, and has final cut on every episode.

This week’s column attempts to explain how a handful of powerful and often talented writers are responsible for every aspect of the most successful scripted television shows. So if you hated the latest Gilmore Girls, don’t blame the freelance writer they hired to do that one script. Instead point the finger at creator/head writer/showrunner/Executive Producer Amy Sherman-Palladino. Likewise, give her credit for the episodes you love.

Most of what I say here will be true for both comedies and dramas, but there are differences. Today I’ll address mostly dramas, note the exceptions for comedies and save reality television for future discussion. (Yes, reality television has writers, but that’s fodder for several columns at least.)

Most of the credits you see at the beginning of any show are Hollywood code for “writer,” including (in order of powerfulness, from least to most) Story Editor, Executive Story Editor, Co-Producer, Producer, Consulting Producer, Co-Executive Producer, and the monarch of all, Executive Producer. Apparently the term “writer” wasn’t prestigious enough, and a hierarchy had to be established to properly massage the egos involved, so writers got producing titles.

At the highest levels, the writers are in fact producers, overseeing every aspect of a show, including writing the script, casting, budget, selecting a director, watching dailies, appeasing the studio and network, and overseeing the final cut. Of course, compromises must be made, particularly in network TV. But the decision on how and where to compromise rests with the head writer.

The head writer answers to the studio and network and can be fired by them. I’ve worked on shows that resembled Grand Central Station as head writers came and went. But that’s a big sign of a show in trouble. The tone of the series warps as each head writer steps forward, and viewers quickly tire of the lack of consistency. The most successful shows usually remain under the aegis of a single guiding light. When that guiding light leaves, usually to start up another show, like Joss Whedon leaving Buffy the Vampire Slayer to do Firefly or Ryan Murphy turning his focus from Nip/Tuck to his new movie, a discernable change takes place in tone.

As Terence Winter, Emmy-winning writer and Executive Producer for The Sopranos put it, in an article for Slate Magazine (www.slate.com):

“At the beginning of the year, David [Chase, series creator/showrunner] comes in with a broad-stroke outline for the entire season... The five writers [including Chase]...then sit around a conference table as a group, pitching additional story ideas and fleshing out David’s story arcs into episode outlines... When we finally agree and produce an outline, one of the writers will take it and go off and write the script...

“After the writer turns in a first draft, David will give his notes and the writer will go off for a second pass. When it’s going smoothly (the story works, the writing is sharp) there aren’t a lot of notes, and David lets the writer handle all the rewrites. On the rare occasion when the opposite is true, David will step in and take a pass himself. In addition to supervising the writing, there is nothing in the entire production of this series that escapes David’s eye-and I mean down to the smallest detail, be it a single word in a line of dialogue or the color of an actor’s socks.”

I’ve worked on six different television shows, and this is how it has worked, essentially, on every single one of them. The exception is how rare it is for Chase to completely rewrite a script. On most shows, the script is often taken away from the initial writer after the first draft and completely rewritten.

What Winter also implies is that successful television writers must learn quickly to write in the voice and idiom of the head writer. Good television writers find the voices of the characters as the showrunner defines them; they fulfill the showrunner’s outline and vision for the season, and they must submit to a complete rewrite without a quibble. It is no place for an individual writer’s voice, unless you’re the one in charge.

Directors in television, although important, are hired guns who must submit to the vision of the head writer. The demands of drama series television are such that no director can do episodes back to back. Different men and women are called in from one episode to another, yet a consistent tone must be maintained. (It’s different for comedies, which shoot on a less demanding schedule and allow the same director to be used many weeks in a row.) The head writer is usually on set with the director and has final cut. Well-known film director Walter Hill may have directed the pilot episode of Deadwood, but it was series creator David Milch who re-edited Hill’s footage to suit himself. For this reason, few top-notch film directors will do television. When Quentin Tarentino directed an episode of CSI, the show garnered a lot of publicity precisely because the situation was so unusual. Film directors, used to being kings in their own little world, are often loathe to give up control to the head writer.

Good actors are vital to the success of a show, and an actor’s fame can bring all kind of attention to a show that desperately needs it (witness how Heather Locklear’s arrival turned Melrose Place into a hit). However, few actors have control over the content of a show. Stars have been known to throw fits, deliberately act badly, and threaten to walk if a change is not made to suit. Usually the actor is thrown a small bone to preserve the appearance of power. I worked on one show where scripts were completely overhauled because of the lead actor. Turns out that was the show’s final season.

Likewise, studio and network executives often weigh in on specific elements of a script before it is shot. But the head writer usually addresses the notes s/he cares about the least, which appeases the executive without violating the head writer’s vision for that episode. A show forced to make substantial changes based on studio and network notes is usually in the hands of a weak head writer and headed for cancellation.

When the head writer on a show changes, it affects not only the style, but the quality of the show. A show might even better under a new head writer. I know fans of The West Wing who liked it better after creator Aaron Sorkin left and John Wells took over. Sorkin’s trademark whiz-bang banter disappeared from the characters’ mouths, storylines slowed down, and more personal themes were examined. Whether or not this makes the series better or worse is subjective, but the change occurred because John Wells deemed it so.

So if you love or hate a scripted TV show, now you know who to blame or to thank. JJ Abrams is responsible for both the terrifying first season finale of Lost, and for the lame recent episode where Sayid tortures a guy the same way he tortured Sawyer. Josh Scwartz snared your attention with the first season of The OC, then betrayed your trust with the lackadaisical second season. Just as the orchestra answers to the conductor, so does everyone on a scripted television series answer to the head writer. In the end it’s the head writer who must answer to you.