In Defense of "Bad TV Writing"

Hey, guys—

Wanted to take a moment and respond to an interesting comment posted recently from reader JNG.

First of all– thank you, JNG, for the comment!  I LOVE it when people comment here, and I’m always hoping/trying to get people to chat and discuss creative, business, social, or political issues concerning the world of television.  So I really appreciate your comment, and I hope it’s a conversation starter!

For the rest of you– JNG responded to my post about Amanda the Aspiring TV Writer’s blog, and here is what he/she writes…

“No wonder most TV writing is so bad. When writers spend their formative years working within the industry itself–rather than actually experiencing life in the outside world–it’s hardly surprising that they have nothing interesting to say about that outside world.  Dick Wolf was right. It’s a shame that TV has constructed barriers to entry that ensure its continued mediocrity.”

I thought this was an interesting point… because I think JNG is very right… and also very wrong.

I completely agree with JNG… great writing comes from great living, and the best writers are those who spend as much time experiencing as much life as possible, then use those experiences to fuel their writing.  I think this applies to ANY art… painting, sculpture, acting, photography.  Art is a comment on and expression of the human condition and the world around us, and the more you know about the world and humanity, the more you have to say about it.  Using myself as an example, I went from undergrad right into a graduate writing program, and I’ll be honest… I sometimes think my writing would have been helped more by traveling the world, or working as a deep sea fisherman, or farming lentils, or any number of things that would’ve dropped me into interesting places and situations.

Having said that, I’m also not sure one person’s life experiences are more valuable than another.  I once read a saying that I often think about, and it went something like this: “As an artist, it’s not what you choose to look at in the world, it’s how you choose to look at it.”  And I think that’s probably very true.  Living life is important, but it’s less about where you go, what you do, and who you meet… than how you experience what’s available to you.

Now, while I agree that writers—both individually and as a collective—should always be striving to improve, here’s where I DISAGREE with JNG

“No wonder most TV writing is so bad… It’s a shame that TV has constructed barriers to entry that ensure its continued mediocrity.”

The thing is, JNG: I actually think there’s a TON of OUTSTANDING writing on television right now.  In fact, I think television right now—and over the last few years—has had more brilliant writing than at any other time in its history.  I mean, just think about shows that have been on over the last few years: The Sopranos, Mad Men, Family Guy, Lost, The Office, Grey’s Anatomy, House, 24, The West Wing, Arrested Development, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Monk, The Wire, The Simpsons, Sex & The City, Six Feet Under, 30 Rock… the list goes on.

This isn’t to say there haven’t been some wonderfully written shows in other times (The Twilight Zone, Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, Hill Street Blues…).  And it’s not to say there aren’t some horrible shows on TV right now.  And it’s not to say even today’s great shows haven’t had some not-great episodes, arcs, or even entire seasons.  But I would venture to say there are more top-notch shows on TV right now than top-notch movies in the theater.  And if you compared the good-shows-to-bad-shows ratio to good-movies-to-bad-movies ratios… TV shows would win.  (Which isn’t necessarily to use “well, there’s bad writing in other mediums” as an excuse; it’s just to say, “I think bad writing exists in EVERY medium, TV included, but I think we happen to have a lot of strong, creative writing on TV right now.”)

As for the “constructed barriers to entry that ensure [TV’s] continued mediocrity,” I agree that there ARE barriers, unfortunately, that keep out some talented writers.  But I think that’s also a function of the fact that TV-writing is usually about much, much more than writing.  In other words, television has more factors than any other medium which affect what you perceive as a show’s “writing.”

In almost any other medium, a writer can sit in his office, pour stories onto paper, deliver them to a producer or publisher, and not be bothered with them again.  This couldn’t be LESS true in TV writing.  (Also, I know this is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea.)

Not only is TV writing intensely and necessarily social, but there are a million non-writing factors which affect the “writing” that appears on screen.  

For example, a writer (or writing staff) might write a BRILLIANT story, or story arc, about a new character.  They then cast a brilliant, talented actress to play the role.  But then the actress, who was stunning in her audition, shows up to shoot her scenes… and she can’t pull it off.  For whatever reason, she’s not funny… or she’s not convincing… or she’s unlikable.  Suddenly, the writers must rewrite the entire role, often on-stage as production continues, so the schedule doesn’t get thrown off.  This not only changes the character, but it has ripple affects into all the stories and characters around it.  And suddenly, when the story appears on screen, the writing is no longer as brilliant as it once was.

Or… a writer might write a terrific scene that takes place on a creepy boat dock in the middle of the night.  But when it comes time to shoot the scene, the production can’t afford the dock.  Or it won’t fit into the schedule.  And the best solution is to rewrite the scene so it can be shot at a location already being used… like a golf course in the middle of the day.  So the scene must be rewritten, as well as possible, to accommodate the change and still keep the scene’s intent.  Obviously, this not only changes the scene itself, it changes everything around it.  And suddenly, when it appears on screen, the writing doesn’t seem as brilliant.

Or… a writer might write a wonderfully complex action sequence, a perfect example of pacing, tension, and build.  All the locations are available.  All the resources are ready.  But then, once the crew is on set, they find the sequence is more complex than they had thought.  Or a traffic accident slows them down.  Or it rains.  Or an actor is late.  And suddenly, they don’t have time to shoot the entire sequence the way it should’ve been shot.  The best solution?… Do a quick rewrite, simplifying the sequence.  The result still works… just not as well as the original.  And suddenly, the brilliant writing doesn’t seem so brilliant.

Now, obviously, these kinds of challenges arrive in any collaborative production mediu
m: film, theater, etc.  But here’s the difference…

A film shoot can be stopped or postponed in order to fix problems.  Not so in television.  A TV show—once it’s up and running—must churn out new episodes EVERY SINGLE WEEK.  It’s a train racing forward, full speed ahead, and it can’t be stopped.  (Some of you may have read about 24 and Dollhouse recently stopping to fix script problems… but these shows, while in production, aren’t on the air yet… so they have some wiggle room.)

These examples illustrate why TV writing is often the product of much more than just the “writing”… and why it’s tough to truly assess a show’s writing based only on what you see on screen.  Sure, there’s bad writing… and the writers deserve some of the blame for it.  But TV writing also goes through so many layers and filters that “bad” writing isn’t always the result of bad writers.

But these examples also illuminate why barriers to entry are so high for TV writers.  The good ones do much more than just write.  Most take on “producer” responsibilities as well, helping with casting, supervising on set, working with designers, etc.  The best become showrunners, overseeing virtually every aspect of a show’s production.  But even those lower on the food chain are writer-producers… and those who aren’t, those who do nothing more than just “write,” rarely excel very far.

As a result, “the constructed barriers to entry” help weed out those who can’t hack it as a bona fide writer-producer.  Working in the industry gives young writers—like Amanda the Aspiring TV Writer herself—experience in the business… experience in production, relationships with writers and directors and designers, opportunities to read scripts, visit sets, or participate in development meetings, etc.  Sure, it’s all industry-related experience that may not be “experience” in the “outside world,” but as a friend of mine who writes on Lost always says, “If you want to just sit in a room with a pad and pen and write, go be a novelist or a poet or a playwright… but you’re probably not cut out to be a TV writer.”  That’s not a slap in the face, it’s just a simple fact: different jobs take different skills, and writing for TV requires more than just words on paper.

Having said THAT, TV’s “barriers to entry” aren’t perfect… and I’m sure they do keep out some deserving writers.  But that just means you have to work harder.  No one said this would be easy… if it was, it wouldn’t be worth doing.

Anyway, that’s my long-winded response to JNG’s post, as well my defense of “bad” TV writing… and of all the Amandas working at agencies, studios, or networks in hopes of breaking into the writers room.  (Next week, I’ll be writing in defense of sweatshops and child labor.)

Feel free to respond (please!).  Agree, disagree, bash me, or extol my many virtues (and my great hair).

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6 thoughts on “In Defense of "Bad TV Writing"

  1. Tanya

    I find it funny how some really do forget how many factors go into television writing; when I first started studying screenwriting in general, it was fascinating to learn just how much of a collaborative effort it really is. It’s interesting that the average person is so quick to judge TV writing (I used to hear people talk about television this way all the time), when excellent films are more scarce right now than really good TV series (I agree with you on this one). 😀 Not to say that there couldn’t be some good films out there, but it’s really true that not-so-good writing is bound to happen in any medium, and you can’t really judge the whole industry based solely on that one factor. In fact, it probably says more about such writers who manage to excel in such an environment.

  2. Amanda

    Yowza!

    First off, I wonder about anybody who says "most TV writing is bad." Are you watching enough TV? How can you not be excited about current TV, especially with all the stuff going on in basic and premium cable? I am skeptical of people who want to join an industry that they scoff at and want to fix. You also have to realize all the constraints on television. I know a staff writer who says, "TV writing is being able to write when everything’s going wrong." Maybe you wrote a whole episode is about a corn maze and on the first day of shooting suddenly you can’t use the corn maze. You have 48 hours to write a brand new script. When you think about these things, as well as the whole development process and how few ideas end up going all the way through the pipeline, anything that gets on the air is pretty much a miracle.

    Second, I agree with you that you need to have life experiences to write ABOUT. But what if all you really want to do is be a writer? Why should I go be a cop or a doctor so that I may write about it later? Is that the guy you want operating on you? If you have the skills and desire to pursue another career, good for you. You’ll probably make a lot more money than I do. But then I wonder if you’re really passionate about TV writing – because there’s plenty of us who can’t imagine doing anything else. I disagree with the idea that working in the industry means I’m not living life. My job is not my entire life – and how sad I am for anyone who is 100% consumed with their career. My job has nothing to do with my friends or my family or my relationships – which are the things I would personally write about, anyway. I don’t want to write a cop show or doctor show or law show. It worked for David E Kelly, sure. But I’m trying to channel more Josh Schwartz. Perhaps my life should involve skillful accessorizing and texting my friends about scandalous trysts. 🙂

    We all know how hard it is to break into Hollywood. Working in the industry seems practical, no? If you’re an insurance salesman in Iowa or something, how do you intend to make contacts and get noticed?

  3. samuelwho

    I am a writer working as a comedy development assistant at a major television studio and this is the most important debate an aspiring writer can have as either you’ll question working in the industry or not working and wonder if the other choice would be better. I would argue that the only true experience for a television writer is working in television. Film can be experienced anywhere, especially now, where anyone can buy a video camera and shoot their script themselves. Television lives, and dies, in LA. To be a television writer, I would argue you have to be in it. Granted, you can get into it as a second career, it doesn’t have to be your first, but you do have to get in it. I agree with Chad – some of the best television writing has come on in recent years and it’s only getting better. I would argue that to improve upon that writing it’s necessary to be around those and with those who are doing that writing, watching what they’re watching, and reading what they’re reading. You cannot do that outside of one city in the world.

    Some of the biggest names didn’t start in television. However, the list that comes to mind has one defining trait: legal experience. Aaron Sorkin (West Wing), David E Kelly (Boston Legal), Dave Simon/Ed Burns (Wire) and David Shore (of House) spent their first career in a part of the legal/political world. Interestingly, many of the people I know who made the leap out here were going to make the leap into law school. I guess the question of whether I should’ve gone to law school instead of Hollywood was the other way around for them, but their work related experiences were in a way as limiting as mine and it’s reflected in their writing which is specific to the world they’ve experienced (with the exception of Shore, though by all accounts he himself is the basis for House’s bitter wit). I’m sure I’m missing a number – does anyone know any other very successful second-career writers?

    While I can’t site a statistic, I would say that a majority of working writers worked as assistants. It’s just the nature of the industry and the argument today is that the best way to get a job is to work as a working writer’s assistant. Being an assistant in Hollywood as a first career is not about the experience – it’s about the hope that your second career, as a writer in Hollywood, will start as soon as possible. Other first careers may yield different and arguably more rich experiences, but there’s no other career that can help an aspiring writer become a writer faster, especially in a business where writing samples have very short shelf lives compared to a novel or a feature. Joss Whedon is a third generation entertainment writer. JJ Abrams got into it early, so did Josh Schwartz. Greg Berlanti was a showrunner at 28, before David E Kelly even got in the door with a feature. I’m not saying age is that important, I’m just saying that if you want to live your dream, and you want to live it as soon as possible, than there is one career. If you have another career, be aware that your competition has this one.

    Regarding the quality of television writing and it’s relation to experience, television has become post-modern, as much about the experience of television as the experience of its characters. The best contemporary television writing knows the conventions of television, stealing from the best shows and creating with the best people. The most copies of those shows and the most people in television live in Los Angeles. Without living and breathing television, there wouldn’t be a 30 ROCK, MAD MEN or DAMAGES. Each of those shows stands on the shoulder of a previous show and knowing the history and working with the people who created those shows, as well as reading what’s being written to be the next new show, is the only way to experience television for an aspiring writer. While those shows aren’t the most watched and while they’re the most critically acclaimed, what’s important is that they’re the most talked about by the people who’s voice matter in television. I don’t think you can add your voice harmoniously to the chorus of television if you can’t hear it.

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