How Not to Look at a TV Series

Okay, so this is kind of a long post. I wrote it as an article for an academic journal that was preparing an issue on what academics now call “arc TV,” which is possibly the worst way to refer to a series since the invention of the word “dramedy.” (Or maybe that should be the “word” dramedy..) My essential point was that while it’s great to have this booming art form being taken seriously, it does no one any good unless those who are writing about it actually know what they’re talking about.

Apparently, this didn’t go over well with the editorial board, and they declined to publish.

But it still seems important to me — not just because it’s fun to stick it to the Charles Emerson Winchester’s of the world, but because there is so much misunderstanding about the real nature of TV storytelling, even among many of us who do it. If we understand how a series works, it becomes a lot easier to design a pilot for one.

And that reminds me, there are still a couple of places left in my intensive weekend course, Writing a Pilot That Can Fly. It’s happening June 21 – 23 and it’s brought to you by the terrific people at Writing Pad in fabulous downtown LA. Two days and an evening devoted to developing your pilot… along with post-course consultation at several key stages of the writing. It’s a small group, so you’ll get plenty of individual attention… For more information, check out Writing Pad’s listing here.

And now, without further ado…

The availability of entire series for streaming is changing the way we watch television, and the way we watch is changing the way we think about television series. As we move smoothly from the end credits of a cliff-hanging season finale into the main titles of the subsequent year’s opening resolution, we stop seeing each episode as a dramatic work on its own and start looking at it as a new chapter in a longer whole.

That, in turn, leads us to imagine the series we are watching as a coherent narrative, designed to have a beginning, a middle and, most important, an end.  It is not just fans who adopt this belief; it is spreading to academia, as evidenced by a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Thomas Doherty, chair of the American Studies program at Brandeis University, which compares the best of contemporary television to the works of “Dickens and Dreiser, Trollope and Wharton.”

But this belief, while increasingly popular, is almost universally wrong. To hold it requires us to ignore the ways in which television shows are conceived, commissioned, produced and aired. It is possible that with original series being created specifically for streaming – and more specifically for bingeing – by new outlets like Netflix and Amazon there will come a time when serial dramas are conceived as single, unified works of art. But until that time arrives, it does not aid our understanding of the art form to appreciate it based on qualities it does not share with the works to which we compare it.

If there is a single fact that disproves the idea of television drama as novel, it is this: With the rare exception of that handful of hit shows that are able to negotiate their end date one or more seasons in advance, showrunners never know how long they will have to tell their stories. A novelist draws up an outline, and then spends as many or as few words translating that into fiction as desired. A TV drama can be cancelled or extended at any point in a season. This makes it impossible for a showrunner to plan a complete narrative. There is little point in aiming for an end point in season five when you might be cancelled after only two years, or when you might, as happened with the 1980s serialized hospital drama St. Elsewhere, resolve all your conflicts at the end of the fifth season only to find your show renewed for a sixth.

Does this mean that serialized television dramas should not be taken as seriously as the novels to which they are now increasingly compared? Absolutely not. The best of them are, in Dr. Doherty’s words, “thick on character and dense in plot line, spanning generations and tribal networks and crisscrossing the currents of personal life and professional duty.” But if we are to treat these new works of art with the respect they deserve, we must do it through an understanding of their own form, not through the lens of another.

That said, it can be helpful to draw a comparison between these new serialized dramas and the greatest works of another medium. But that medium is not the novels of Trollope and Wharton; it’s this:

Jazz improvisation, as described by a critic at the website A Passion for Jazz, is “the process of spontaneously creating fresh melodies over the continuously repeating cycle of chord changes of a tune. The improviser may depend on the contours of the original tune, or solely on the possibilities of the chords’ harmonies.”

A television drama works in much the same way, with reiterations of conflicts and themes substituting for the cycle of chord changes and episodic storylines taking the place of the fresh melodies created from them. In the TV business those chord changes are called the show’s franchise.

In the case of Breaking Bad, for example, the central conflicts all revolve around the idea of a law-abiding high school chemistry teacher who, diagnosed with terminal cancer, becomes a meth manufacturer to provide for his family. Over the course of five seasons, the series has seen its protagonist Walter White evolve from a low-level dealer to a child-murdering drug lord. It’s easy to look at this and see a well-constructed, coherent narrative behind the growth, and to expect that creator Vince Gilligan plotted out Walt’s rise and fall from the very beginning, much as Mario Puzo would have done for Michael Corleone when writing his novel The Godfather.

But to hold on to that assumption we have to ignore everything Gilligan has ever said about the show and about his process. Even as he and his writing staff were plotting the last handful of episodes, he insisted that he still didn’t know how to end the series. “We are in a decidedly undecided state,” Gilligan told Rolling Stone reporter Brian Hiatt in September, 2012. “There’s an undercurrent of tension – related to how we feel about the terrible prospect of ending it badly.”

If there is not a structured storyline driving the series, how does it manage to seem so coherent? One might as well ask how Kind of Blue could end up being considered as “a defining moment of 20th century music” (Pape) when the musicians were given only a set of scales that would define the parameters of their improvisation before the recording session. Breaking Bad’s conflicts and themes repeat: the primary motif finds Walt’s ignorance about the drug world leading him into trouble; to extricate himself he finds the inner resources that lead him to a new level of brutality; these brutal actions succeed and bring him to a more elevated part of the drug business; his ignorance of this new level leads him into trouble again. Lesser strains find Walt torn between his desire to protect his wife and son and the contempt he comes to feel for their ordinary lives and struggling with partner Jesse to balance their criminality with a sense of humanity. Over and over these chords play, and the episodic storylines take off from them. Each new “melody” is pitched at a more dangerous level than the last, giving the viewer the sense of a designed plot spiral, when it is in fact new iterations of the same themes building on what has just been done.

This style of story generation is hardly unique to Breaking Bad. When writers pitch ideas to a network, they’re almost never for a multi-year plot with a defined beginning, middle and end. They pitch a set of conflicts they believe are sufficiently complex that they can be explored over and over through the course of a hundred episodes.

This is the case with almost all TV series, no matter how complex or intricate they are. Lost, more than any other show in recent history, was designed to look like a closed-ended narrative; it set up in its pilot not a situation to be explored – a Nucky Thompson looking to expand his power in Atlantic City; a group of survivors constantly evading an army of zombies – but a problem that demanded a solution: What is the secret of this island? The show held its audience spellbound for seven years as each new episode gradually teased out tiny bits of information about the secrets behind the mysteries of the Hatch and the Smoke Monster and The Others. Every solution raised three more questions; fans spent hours studying an increasingly dense mythology, searching for clues to the ultimate answer.

But the ultimate answer was that there was no ultimate answer.  If Lost had been written as a novel, the author almost certainly would have started with a solution and worked backwards, designing a series of clues that would lead to its revelation. But Lost didn’t even start with a writer. It began with a network executive’s desire for a show about castaways on a desert island. A first writer turned in an unsatisfactory script, and was replaced late in the development season by J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof. They wrote the pilot quickly and, as Lindelof has said, with only the faintest idea of what was going to happen on the island, or why. With such a limited amount of time to pull their project together, they chose to focus on fleshing out the characters instead of the mythology.

And while mid-series interviews with the showrunners –  Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, who stepped in when Abrams left the series to make movies – suggested that there was a plan behind everything, the truth turned out to be just the opposite. Lindelof later told critic Alan Sepinwall that during the pilot, he had mapped out “none of it, to be honest with you.” The odd incidents were not subtle clues leading up to an eventual payoff. They couldn’t be, because no one had an idea what they would be leading towards.

But this was not simply a matter of time pressure. Lindelof has stated that he does not believe in planning a show out too far in the future. “I personally believe that it’s hubris to plot out what the second and third and fourth seasons of a show are. You have to have a sense of where you want to go, but at the same time, you have to put your eye on the ball and write the season that you’re writing.” (Most of these showrunner quotes come from Alan Sepinwall’s terrifically entertaining and informative book The Revolution Was Televised, a must-have for anyone interested in contemporary TV drama.)

Why should this be? To answer that, we must look past the way concepts are created to the timeframe under which almost every series is produced.  When a series is ordered by a network, the showrunner is generally given two or three months to assemble a writing staff and start plotting out stories. Many will use part of this time to map out a story arc that will play out over the course of the number of episodes ordered.

No matter how this time is spent, there is one constant across all series: There is not enough of it to write, or even conceive a detailed plot for, the entire season.  When production commences, it’s considered ideal to have as many as six scripts in various stages of completion. That is six out of a possible ten or 13 or 22 that will be required. And while the staff continues to produce scripts while the show is shooting, the pace of production – generally eight days per episode – will always outstrip script generation, and sometime in the middle of the season there will exist no scripts beyond the one currently in pre-production.

This, of course, does not negate the possibility of an overall narrative plan.  After all, a construction crew, no matter how far behind schedule, does not abandon the architect’s plans simply to make up lost time. But once a show is in production, the finished episodes will inevitably change the way the showrunner approaches the writing of subsequent scripts. The pilot sets the chords for the series; almost everything after is improvisation, and many of the new melodies will spring from what is learned through production.

Sometimes this improvisation is driven by necessity. Breaking Bad’s Gus Fring was not intended to be the leader of an international drug cartel until creator Gilligan realized that he needed a force to stop The Cousins, the twin assassins he had created in the third season’s opening episode; Fring’s fixer Mike, who would become a series regular after Gilligan saw Jonathan Banks in what was supposed to be a one-shot appearance, was created only because Bob Odenkirk, who played Walt and Jesse’s lawyer, had a scheduling conflict when it came time to shoot a key episode and the writers needed a character to carry out his plot function.

More often, though, such improvisation is driven by a showrunner looking at episodes and being able to judge what works and what doesn’t.  Much of The Good Wife’s fourth season was planned around a storyline featuring the newly introduced character of investigator Kalinda Sharma’s dangerous ex-husband. But when showrunners Robert and Michelle King discovered that audiences hated the character and the story, they brought it to a quick and abrupt end after only four episodes featuring him had aired.

The best improvisations are the ones that come when a showrunner hears a melody he had never expected. Vince Gilligan had originally intended to kill off the character of Jesse Pinkman at the end of the show’s first, seven-episode season. But by the second episode he was so impressed by Aaron Paul’s performance in the role and his rapport with lead Bryan Cranston he decided to let Jesse live.  That relationship would become the emotional center of the series, and anyone watching would assume that this was the plan all along.

Some showrunners are so enthralled with improvisation that they refuse to plan out even what will happen within a single episode. David Milch, creator of Deadwood, would shoot episodes without scripts, instead conceiving and writing a day’s shooting only one day in advance. “You have to look at the actors and take the resources that are available to you. It’s like making soup. Sometimes, you’ve got to see what’s there,” Milch has said. A great deal of the writing sessions, according to Jody Worth, another writer on the show, was “pulling together threads that may or may not have existed in what we had intended.”  Milch himself had another way of looking at the process: “It was like getting great musicians to do solos.”

As a writer who has spent a quarter of a century producing dramatic television (although not anything as ambitious as those mentioned here), I am delighted to see my artistic medium finally receiving its share of academic respect. I believe there is much to be gained in a discussion of the present and future of modern serial television. But such a discussion must start with an understanding of what these shows actually are, and not what we would like them to be.

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