Everything – within reason – that we’ve all wanted to know about how some of the top shows on TV are written today. Let’s put it together for showrunners Eric Newman, Jill Soloway, and Alec Berg, not to mention the kindly folk at The Guardian.
by Tim Adams
Every age creates its signature way of telling and consuming stories. The Jacobeans had the blood and lust of popular tragedy. The Victorians had the great social novel. The 1960s had new journalism. The chosen form of our own age is the downloaded serial drama. While the energy and ambition of screenwriters was for nearly a century invested in two-hour feature films, for the past 10 years, ever since The Wire and The Sopranos and The West Wing showed what might be possible, it has been in the 10-hour arcs, and annual seasons of streamed drama.
Those shows – Scandi-noir, Game of Thrones (and its progeny), Breaking Bad and the rest – have created a new kind of relation between creators and viewers. The stories are made not only for total immersion, but also presuppose the potential for binge-watching. Since Netflix started uploading whole series, days and nights are lost to the “just one more episode” of unfolding dramas, in the way that we might once have been invited to lose ourselves in books.
The idea of bingeing on drama has some negative connotations, but the facts suggest that far from seeing this habit as time wasted, we tend to think of it as fulfilling in the way that time devoted to great fiction always was. In 2013, Netflixdid a study into why 73% of viewers felt overwhelming feelings of comfort when immersed in these dramas. The company sent an anthropologist, Grant McCracken, into viewers’ homes to discover the reasons for this: “TV viewers are no longer zoning out as a way to forget about their day, they are tuning in, on their own schedule, to a different world. Getting immersed in multiple episodes or even multiple seasons of a show over a few weeks is a new kind of escapism that is especially welcome.” The usual attention deficit of the internet was replaced by something more complex and satisfying.
The huge demand for such shows and the intense rivalry between Netflix and Amazon, in particular, to create has led to a new kind of mythologised creative space: the writers’ room. The creative pressures of producing multiple series of 10-hour dramas in short order have changed the dynamic of traditional scriptwriting practice. Rather than pairs of writers, or single auteurs, the collective and the collaborative is not only prized but essential.
As favourite shows build their own addictive fanbases – more fragmented than the audience for broadcast TV ever was, but often more cultishly engaged – the writers’ room, the place where the drama begins and ends, has become the subject of intense curiosity and scrutiny. The room is largely an American creation, a development of the comedy bunkhouses that produce The Simpsons or Saturday Night Live. Inevitably there are websites and blogs and memes devoted to gossip about these sacred and profane spaces, places to get a fix of favourite dramas before the next series is uploaded. Some shows – Orange Is the New Blackand The Good Wife pioneered the practice – provide the backstory to the genesis and creation scenes in live Twitter feeds, with whiteboards and interview links and photos.
What they mostly reveal is that having ideas – even in groups – and writing them up into scripts is no less painful and laborious than it ever was, but that it now has a kind of endless forward motion….