Top TV Drama Showrunners Ruminate on Life, Death, and Their Workloads

How do you spot a successful TV drama showrunner? Look for somebody “on the verge of bad health and insanity.” We’re guessing that isn’t what the folks who bring us “Writers on the Verge” mean. Or is it?

by Lacey Rose

A gathering of top showrunners can quickly devolve into a type of therapy session about dealing with audience pressures and network demands. But when this sextet — The Looming Tower’s Dan Futterman, 50; Power’s Courtney Kemp, 41; The Crown’s Peter Morgan, 55; The Handmaid‘s Tale’s Bruce Miller, 53; The Good Doctor’s David Shore, 58; and The Chi’sLena Waithe, 33 — gathered on a late-April morning for The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual Drama Showrunner Roundtable, it managed to avoid the usual subjects of writerly angst, save some musings from Morgan, who lamented a U.K. system that doesn’t nurture writers rooms as well as U.S. shows do.

“You can’t find people in the U.K. [to write on your show]; everybody’s got their own show,” he explains. “And we’re in this era now of boom TV, so the most inexperienced, fledgling writers have got two or three shows on, and it’s like, ‘But he’s only 18.'” When it’s suggested, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that by the time The Crown reaches the season about Meghan Markle, he’ll have had time to groom a room of writers, Morgan laughs: “I give you my word. I will not get to the Meghan Markle season.”

Over the course of an hour, the group talked instead about the value of writers room debates, the politics of who can tell what story, the future of pay parity and the lengths each of them is willing to go to for the sake of a truly safe set.

BRUCE MILLER The one that comes to mind is when I had a pitch that we were going to do a female genital mutilation story on Handmaid’s Tale. You don’t even know how to word anything, I’m just dancing around it as much as my upbringing would allow — and then you realize you’re doing it to Rory Gilmore! [Alexis Bledel starred in The Gilmore Girls before Handmaid’s.] But it was fine for them [at Hulu]; they loved it. I still haven’t recovered. I’m turning bright red just thinking about it.

COURTNEY KEMP I was very, very fortunate because the first show I ever pitched was Power.

LENA WAITHE Overachiever!

KEMP Yeah, I walked into the room with 50 Cent and, at that time, [the late music executive] Chris Lighty. It was like a hundred dudes and me. There were no other women. Everyone would sit down, and the people on the other side would go, “OK, so who am I listening to?” And I’d go, “Me, the girl from Connecticut, I’m going to pitch you the drug-dealing show.” It’s not a funny story, but it does speak to how much has changed, even in the past five years.

PETER MORGAN There isn’t such a culture of pitching in the U.K., so I pitched The Crown but really only to one or two people. [Of course,] when I wrote Frost/Nixon for the screen, I had a dozen unsuccessful pitches. Everybody thought it was a catastrophe….

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More of ‘The Elements of Style’

A couple of days ago on TVWriter™ we mentioned the famous writing guide The Elements of Style in a perceptive article by Chuck Greenlee, a writer and student.

Today, for those who may think we didn’t emphasize the book enough, (yo, you know who you are and so do any intelligence agents reading our email) we bring you another perspective on Messers Strunk and White:

And if that still isn’t enough, here’s – well, here’s the wholemother-!@#ing book. And you don’t even have to read it:

Fault that one. We dares ya!

Is This THE Most Common Rookie TV Writing Mistake?

Although TV and film comedy writer-producer/playwright/baseball announcer extraordinaire Ken Levine’s funny and perceptive blog posts often show up in TVWriter™’s Writing & Showbiz NewsFeed, we haven’t featured him on this site for awhile.

But this one is just too, too, too right on important to let slip by:

A Common Rookie Writing Mistake
by Ken Levine




DETECTIVE 1: Are you Mrs. Hanson?

WOMAN: Yes. What’s this about?

DETECTIVE 1: I’m Detective Green. This is Detective Brown. We’re from the LAPD.

WOMAN: Oh.  Really?

DETECTIVE 1: Yes, ma’am.

WOMAN: Well… can I see some ID?

DETECTIVE 2: Yes, ma’am.

They both root around their pockets and pull out ID. She scans it.

WOMAN: Okay… I suppose.

DETECTIVE 2: You have a daughter named Mindy?


DETECTIVE 1: Is she home?

WOMAN: No. What is this about?

DETECTIVE 2: You’re aware that a student was killed Wednesday night at the Westfield Mall?

WOMAN: Yes, it was horrible.

DETECTIVE 1: A tragedy, yes’ ma’am.

WOMAN: But what does Mindy have to do with it?

DETECTIVE 2: We think she might have a notebook that the victim gave her that might shed some light on just who did this.

WOMAN: Oh my.

DETECTIVE 1: Do you mind if we come in and take a look?


DETECTIVE 2: Yes, ma’am.

WOMAN:  Well, Mindy’s not home.

DETECTIVE 1:  That’s okay. Can we come in?

WOMAN: I don’t know.  Do you have a warrant?

DETECTIVE 1: No, but your daughter is not a suspect. This is just a piece of evidence that might help us solve the puzzle.

WOMAN: Still… I… Maybe I should call my lawyer.

DETECTIVE 2: Seriously, we just want to see if this notebook exists.

WOMAN: Let me call Mindy.



WOMAN: Mindy, this is Mom. There are two detectives here wanting to go through your room to see if you have a notebook belonging to that boy who was killed at the mall? (long beat, to Detectives) She says she doesn’t have it.

DETECTIVE 1: We just want to take a look.

DETECTIVE 2: Is there anything she’s hiding that she doesn’t want us to see?

WOMAN: (on phone) Mindy, they said is there anything you’re hiding that you don’t want them to see? (beat, to Detectives) No.

DETECTIVE 2: Then can we just look around?

WOMAN: (on phone) Then can they just look around? (long beat, to Detectives) Okay.

DETECTIVE 2: Thank you.

WOMAN: (on phone) Okay, Mindy. I’ll tell you what happened. Bye. (hangs up).

DETECTIVE 1: So can we come in?

WOMAN: Oh, yes. Please.

DETECTIVE 2: Thank you.

WOMAN: Can I get you something to drink?

DETECTIVE 1: No, we’re fine.


Okay, now let me suggest an alternate scene. Instead of the above scenario, you just go straight to this:



WOMAN: Okay, this is Mindy’s room, Detectives. But she said you’re not going to find any notebook.

I think you can see what I’m getting at. There’s a rule of writing: Get into scenes as late as you can and get out of them as early as you can.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read scripts from young writers that have versions (usually longer) of the first scene. Let’s be blunt. It’s boring. Nothing happens. People just talk. Often in circles.  Or they wait. Or….

Read it all on Ken Levine’s peerless blog

TV Writer-Producer Nell Scovell Talks Career

…And the lady definitely is worth listening too (even if she does also – OMG! – direct). Here’s some straight talk from the creator of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and writer for The Simpsons, Late Night with David Letterman and many more :

Ms. Scovell’s memoir, Just the Funn Parts:…And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood boys’ Club is ready and waiting for you to buy it HERE

TV Writing Goes to College

We admit it. The headlinel on this post may be a bit misleading. Television writing has, after all, been a major area of study for more than at least a couple of decades now (our own LB taught it at The College Formerly Named The College of Santa Fe in Santa Fe, New Mexico in the early 1990s), but this article coming from a web page dedicated to  college student work, is perhaps the most knowledgeable one – and certainly the hippest – to come from a student yet:

Florida State University, where at the time this article was written, its writer was spending a whole lotta time

3 Television Shows Every Aspiring Writer Should Watch
by Eliana Dubosar

For writers, inspiration can come from any and every facet of life, including their surroundings, the people they interact with on a daily basis and sources of entertainment.

Although there are many movies that follow the lives of individuals trying to make it in the journalistic or publishing world, many of them tend to paint a perfect picture, tying up conclusions in a bow. Something that I learned in an introduction to creative writing course is that this is not always the case, and sometimes it’s perfectly fine to leave some questions unanswered.

For that reason, certain television shows tend to provide a better source of inspiration for aspiring writers, not only through their storylines, but also through the ways in which the shows are written. So, writers, grab a notebook and a pen and see what you can learn from these television shows.

 1. “Jane the Virgin”

Written in a manner similar to a telenovela (or a Spanish-language soap opera), much of what makes “Jane the Virgin” a resource for writers comes from its unique structure.

The way in which the narration is written, and spoken, presents the audience with even more information to keep them hooked on the show. Although the actual way in which the show is written is important, Jane as a character is where many aspiring writers can pull lessons from.

While much of the series thus far has dealt with Jane’s love life — mainly her relationships with Michael, Rafael and now Adam — it is her journey to become a novelist that is something many can learn from.

In the earlier seasons of the show, Jane worked hard to create her master’s thesis, working with two separate advisors and taking all their notes into consideration when making revisions. One of Jane’s largest challenges with this was the fact that her thesis was a romance novel and the advisor she worked with was a feminist professor that didn’t necessarily believe in romance.

As a result, Jane learned how to work with someone who may not have shared her ideals, while sticking to her guns the whole way through, which is something many writers can learn from.

In the most recent season of “Jane the Virgin,” which takes place years after the death of Jane’s husband, Michael, Jane’s novel gets published. The novel, “Snow Falling,” is a piece in which the setting is in the early 1900s but is a loose retelling of Jane’s time with Michael.

After countless back-and-forth’s with her editor, something all writers are bound to go through before seeing their work take shape, Jane’s dream of becoming a published writer turns into a reality. Once again, the show reminds viewers to never give up, constantly pursue their creative vision and follow through with their projects….

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