PrimeTime: I Can Write Better Than the Crap on TV! (… Can’t I?)

This week, I want to focus on an interesting comment from CCW, who responded a couple weeks ago to our discussion of whether or not screenwriters must live in L.A. (which generated a ton of great posts and emails, which I’ll continue to respond to over the coming days and weeks) …

CCW writes:

It strikes me as awfully silly that I never get a chance at something I could do a really good job at, better than a lot of the lame scripts I watch productions of every night on TV …

I love comments like this because …

A) It’s passionate … and if you’re going to be a writer, you need to have passion. B) It’s confident … and if you’re going to be a professional writer, you need to have confidence in your own abilities. And C) It’s naively misguided … and it’s this very naiveté which often keeps talented writers from succeeding.

CCW, first of all, I have no doubt you could do a GREAT job writing television scripts, maybe even a better job than people currently on staff.

But to look at shows you see on TV each night and place all the blame on their “lame scripts,” or the writers who wrote them, reveals a lack of understanding about how TV shows are written and made — and this lack of understanding is what keeps many people from breaking in.

I have a friend who used to write on Lost, and while I was a HUGE fan of the show, I used to give him shit about plot holes, logic bumps, things that didn’t make sense (especially in seasons two and three, which weren’t great).

His response? “You think we don’t know that? You think there’s anything you can say, any criticism you can levy, that we haven’t already beaten ourselves up about?”

Lost ABC TV show J.J. Abrams

The only thing harder than getting off the island ... is writing an episode about it.

I think this holds true for virtually every show on television. It’s easy to watch a show and say, “That dialogue’s ludicrous,” or “The characters are vapid and unbelievable,” or “The stories have gotten too boring and repetitive.”

And I guarantee you, 99 percent of the time, the writers — if they were sitting next to you — would say, “We know. You’re totally right.” (Every show I’ve worked on, we’ve known exactly what the flaws and weaknesses were: what jokes didn’t work, what plot holes existed, which stories or sketches fell flat …)

So, you ask, why don’t they make the scripts better?

Are they just untalented writers? Are showrunners not hiring the best people for the job?

No, of course not. In fact, I find professional TV writers are some of the most talented, intelligent, articulate, well-read people I’ve ever met.

This isn’t to say there aren’t bad scripts out there. There are. Plenty. But TV scripts aren’t written in a vacuum, and there are scores of factors affecting an episode’s final script … and many are out of the writers’ control. For instance …

Imagine you (and your show’s writing staff) have just finished writing the greatest episode of television ever. The script is perfect: funny, poignant, thoughtful, provocative. It’s about to go into production, but right now — on the page — it’s pure literature.

Here are things that could affect it …

Money budget pie slice cash dollarsBUDGET. Perhaps your episode’s climactic scene takes place during a convention at a fancy resort … or on a submarine … or in a rain forest. After budgeting the episode, the line producer calculates there’s not enough money to shoot the scene as written: It would require expensive location fees, extras, more equipment, special lights or cameras, insurance, travel time. However, perhaps the scene could be rewritten to take place during an intimate wedding at a local country club? Or on a dock? Or in a condo? Obviously, this rewrite changes not only the tenor of the climax, but some of the beats and story leading up to it, forcing the writers to change the brilliant script they’ve written. Maybe they can change the climax and maintain the episode’s brilliance … or maybe it’ll be a little less brilliant, but at least it’s produce-able.

TIME. After the show’s recent budget debacle, you’ve done a careful job making sure all your scenes take place Time Hour glassin affordable locations. However, the line producer now realizes there’s not time to shoot in every location you’ve specified. (It’s only a six-day shoot.) Could some of the locations be combined or eliminated? For example, Scene 27 — a spooky murder scene — takes place on the beach at midnight. Scene 43 — a romantic reunion — takes place at a carnival during the day. Both scenes involve the same characters — could they both be shot at the carnival? Obviously, moving a creepy murder from a dark beach to a mid-day carnival changes the scene … and several scenes preceding and following … but at least it’s now produce-able.

ACTORS. Great care is taken to cast the most appropriate actor for each role … but sometimes, even the best actor doesn’t deliver. In best cases, this actor can be replaced with someone new. But there’s often no time or money to make this happen. Perhaps you write for The Good Wife, where you’ve hired a skilled actress to play a visiting attorney — a pivotal guest role — but once you start shooting, you realize she can’t pull it off. Or maybe you write for The Middle, and you’ve hired a hilarious actor to play a bullying neighbor — also a pivotal guest role — but the guy can’t be intimidating.

What do you do? Rewrite. Sometimes you can change the character’s function and/or dialogue without compromising story. Other times, you must re-conceive the entire narrative. Maybe you turn the intimidating bully into a hapless house guest. Maybe you shrink this actor’s role and make the bully a different character. Maybe you move most of the bully’s action off-screen. Whatever you do, you have little time. With a drama, which shoots over several days, you may have a few hours or days. With a multi-camera comedy, which shoots in a single night, you may have only a few minutes (which is why, during multi-camera shoots, writers stand on stage, punching up scenes as they’re being shot).

(Conversely, the reverse also happens. Sometimes you hire an actor who turns out to be terrific — extra funny, super scary, surprisingly endearing — in which case, writers may race to give them more material.)

EDITING. Good editors, like good writers, are masters of story, and they know how to piece together episodes to make a story as tight and powerful as possible. But they also make decisions that can change, improve, or harm a story. Perhaps an actor’s performance isn’t strong enough; an editor may need to cut around the performance to shrink the actor’s screen time. Obviously, this can affect a story … so the editor invents other ways to convey important information. Can he use ADR to give lines to another character? Can he construct a flashback to fill in plot holes? Other times, an episode runs long, or an important conversation feels slow, and the editor must trim to make the show air-able. Sometimes an editor simply doesn’t have strong enough footage to compile an episode the way the writers and director envisioned. The team then works together to come up with a new way to tell the stories; perhaps they rearrange the structure, or eliminate a B-story, or agree to let certain loose ends remain untied.

NETWORK AND STUDIO NOTES. For better or worse, network and studio executives give script-altering notes for a multitude of reasons. Many are purely subjective/creative; an exec is bumped by a story, plot point, line, or joke they want fixed. Other times, they’ve learned audiences love a certain character — like Glee’s Sue Sylvester or Brittany — so they want to give that character more lines and stories. (The reverse also happens: Audiences hate a character, even someone who was initially pivotal to the show, so the writers must pull back on giving him/her material.) Perhaps a specific scene works beautifully, yet Standards & Practices (S&P) wants to change a potentially offensive bit, or a B-story that could leave the company legally vulnerable. Maybe research has found stories based around weddings rate high for the network … so even though your episode has nothing to do with weddings, execs want your story to include a wedding or proposal. Or maybe the network has a new “product integration” deal with Nike or Colgate, and they need you to work shoes or toothpaste into your story.

These notes may seem ridiculous and counter-productive, but it’s the writers’ job to address them … either by embracing them directly or finding an acceptable compromise. Never can writers simply disregard notes they dislike or disagree with; their job is to serve the network and studio paying their checks.

Kaley Cuoco CBS

Smart may be the new sexy... but not when it's in a cast.

OTHER RANDOM FACTORS. When I worked on The Wanda Sykes Show, we’d planned a great sketch as the opening bit for our premiere episode … only to see Jimmy Kimmel Live! do an almost identical piece two days before the shoot. The Big Bang Theory had to revamp storylines when series regular Kaley Cuoco fell off a horse and broke her foot. Other shows have dealt with actors getting pregnant … getting fired … episode orders getting shortened or lengthened, affecting serialized storylines. And there are hundreds of other issues that can derail or affect a script.

Perhaps most importantly — when trying to deal with all of these factors, TV writers have very little time — often only a few days or hours.

So you may indeed have written the greatest episode of television ever, but it suddenly needs to be rewritten to accommodate new storylines, different locations, smaller budgets, unexpected actors, and your executives’ notes …

… and your deadline is tonight.

Now understand …

None of this is an attempt to “excuse” bad writing.

I’m simply pointing out that it’s one thing to sit on your couch, watch TV, and criticize bad writing, it’s another to actually understand why that writing may be the way it is. Likewise, it’s one thing to a write a brilliant spec of How I Met Your Mother … it’s another to write an actual episode, and maintain its brilliance as it runs the gauntlet of things that can derail it.

Once you look at it this way, you realize it’s not only a miracle TV ever gets made, it’s an even bigger miracle (or testament to the genius of great producers) that we actually have amazing shows like Mad Men, Dexter, The Sopranos, Modern Family, Breaking Bad, 30 Rock, Damages, Glee, House, Louis, The Wire, Arrested Development, The Office, Monk, Desperate Housewives, 24, The Walking Dead, Parks and Rec.

A TV writer’s job, after all, is NOT to dream up the best stories possible, tell them well, and then bring them to life.

A TV writer’s job is to dream up the best stories possible within the creative and practical confines of the show, tell them as well as they can in a set amount of time, and then bring them to life with their given resources and limitations.

So, CCW, this is another reason why it’s important for aspiring TV writers to work in the business (which usually requires living in L.A.).

Sure, showrunners are looking for talented, visionary storytellers … but they’re also looking for people who understand the processes and challenges of professional television, writers who can operate successfully in writers rooms … and on set … and in production offices. If you don’t have these experiences, you may not be disqualified from a TV writing job … but you’re certainly at a disadvantage next to people who do.

Anyway — THANK YOU for reading … and writing … and if you — or anyone else — have more questions and comments, please feel free to post them below … or email me at chad@chadgervich.com.

3 thoughts on “PrimeTime: I Can Write Better Than the Crap on TV! (… Can’t I?)

  1. David

    Wow. I love this article. It completely paints a picture of what happens to a script and -if possible- made my love for television even fonder. And in a masochistic way, kind of made me want to be a series writer. I love deadlines!

  2. Mac

    Excellent article. Reminds me of an online comment I saw following a review of a show I’d written;
    “If someone gave me a sheet of paper and a pen, I know I could write better dialogue than that.”
    Umm. . ? The good news is that these items are available and (competitively priced) at many outlets.
    It’s entirely possible the commentator could write better dialogue than on the TV show, it’s just that if they’re waiting for someone to provide them with the pen and paper, it will never happen. Even if they are furnished with these items, the point is not whether, given the time, space and control over the material, they could do better. The point is
    (because of the reasons you’ve listed) whether they can write (or re-write) entire scenes in a skanky trailer while everyone else is getting breakfast and the time to start shooting is fast approaching.
    It might not be a dazzling scene, it mean even be a bad scene, and any viewer has every right to say so – but, under the circumstances, would the viewer “who could do better” had been able to come up with any scene at all?
    Anyway, great article – reading this kind of thing helps to keep the vein in my forehead from exploding.

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