Yes, TV is still the home of the McDrama, the highly rated franchise shows such as “NCIS” and “CSI” whose writers just assemble the pieces. But that is far from the only story when it comes to scripted TV, which has become a haven for creatively ambitious writers who want to do more than play Lego.
For years now, TV has been flourishing as a writer’s medium, where writers are the central figures in the storytelling process. Once primarily controlled by producers and name-brand actors, TV has now fully adopted the writer-king model. The most acclaimed shows of our time, including “Mad Men,” “The Wire,” “Six Feet Under,” “Deadwood,” and “Breaking Bad,” have been driven almost exclusively by writers with distinct and original visions. Without these people, the “quality TV” revolution in recent years wouldn’t have occurred.
In movie-making, the writers are second or third or ninth to the director, but on TV, the writers are the auteurs. They come up with the layered dialogue, the depth of character, and the narrative direction of the shows that critics often compare to serialized Victorian novels. The big non-actor names in movies are directors such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Tim Burton; on TV, their equivalents are the writer-producers, such as Aaron Sorkin, Alan Ball, David E. Kelley, Shonda Rhimes, Matthew Weiner, David Milch, and David Chase. Very few people know the names of TV directors. The writers are the power sources who give the most long-winded of episode recappers many, many knots to untie. They’re the ones who infuse a single line spoken between father and daughter on “Mad Men” or a guy and his date on “Louie” with worlds of resonance.
Of course, writers have been critical in the history of the best TV. Norman Lear, anyone? The guy changed the sitcom in ways that still reverberate, pulling our real lives — our familial and moral conflicts, our politics, our social and economic situations — into the once-frivolous mainstream TV comedy. But he was an exception for a long time. Since David E. Kelley struck a note with “Ally McBeal” in 1997, followed by David Chase with “The Sopranos” in 1999, leading TV writers have become the norm, and cults of celebrity have grown around everyone from Joss Whedon of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof of “Lost” to Liz Meriwether of “New Girl.”
The dominance of TV writers has been noted before, and, beginning Monday night at 10, a new Sundance Channel series about TV writers, called “The Writers’ Room,” is going to take note of it again with lots of enthusiasm. Each week on “The Writers’ Room,” writer-actor Jim Rash, who won an Oscar for “The Descendants” with Nat Faxon, will interview the writers of a notable show, to give us a glimpse at how story lines are put together. He starts with Vince Gilligan and others from “Breaking Bad,” the smart, tense drama that returns for its last eight episodes on Aug. 11. Later on in the season, Rash will talk with writers from “Dexter,” “Game of Thrones,” and “Parks and Recreation,” among other shows.
“The Writers’ Room” serves as a reminder that, while brand name writers get all the credit, and have the greatest influence and the final word, they are often working with other writers. We know it’s an age of TV writers, and we hear from the likes of Matthew Weiner when they talk to the media about their intentions regarding specific episodes and seasons of their shows; but “The Writers’ Room” tries to give us a sense of the nuts and bolts of the TV writing process and how the collaboration works. It harkens back to the writers’ room on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” with Rob, Buddy, and Sally working together on the week’s script for “The Alan Brady Show.”
The familiarity among those in the writers’ room is clear on the Sundance series, as we hear about how members of the various writing staffs have shared ideas and tried out possible character twists on one another. The “Breaking Bad” writers talk about their extended conversation regarding the death of Jesse’s girlfriend. Should they have Walt kill her — or have Walt allow her to die of an overdose? Ultimately, they chose the latter, with Gilligan’s approval, and the result was one of the drama’s most pivotal and challenging moments. When we talk about what happened each week on the best shows, we are usually talking about the choices the writers have made.
The movies are a natural home for spectacle, star-driven vehicles, and easy-to-read characters, excepting a few Oscar season treats. TV, on the other hand, is more equipped for intimate storytelling. And that close level of storytelling usually comes down to the writers and the nuances they develop for the ongoing world they’re creating. TV writers are now unpacking complicated and ambiguous characters in fine detail, and revealing those characters’ chronic problems over time, in our living rooms. Unlike movie writers, whose broad concepts are more likely to survive the production process than their words, TV writers are bringing the kinds of continuity and direction that are essential to a long narrative journey. They are where a series starts, where it goes, and where it ends.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.