In Defense of "Bad TV Writing"

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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).