On TV writing

“The feature world, which I remain involved in, is not a medium, generally, where you’re able to write about character in the depth I like to write about character.  There are characters now on ER whose growth I’ve been writing about for years. … And subject matter is different in television.  The kinds of things we can write about seriously are more appealing than most of what you’re offered to do in features.” — John Wells, ER, The West Wing.  From Pamela Douglas’ “Writing the TV Drama Series.”

Ms. Douglas, former writer for Ghostwriter and Star Trek: TNG among others, expresses much the same opinion in her book.  On the surface, it makes perfect sense.  Movies usually don’t run much longer than two hours, while television shows can last, in some cases, hundreds of hours, so of course we get to know TV characters better.  It’s logical.  Almost obvious.  Except it’s false.

Do I know Jack Shephard from Lost or George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life better?  George Bailey, easily.  Which titular character has more depth: Veronica Mars or Annie Hall?  Tough call; one could argue either convincingly, but I would side with the latter.

Most enlightened people have by now acknowledged that TV is pretty great and getting better.  But for TV writers to argue that television is all about character and real life and Important Social Issues while film is about masturbatory fantasies for 12-year old boys is self-serving, dishonest, and requires extreme selective memory.

Yes, TV shows have more time to work with.  But they also lack a captive audience, and can’t risk losing viewers.  With a traditional four act structure (3 commercial breaks), shows must build to climaxes or major story turns every 10 to 15 minutes, assuming there’s no tag or teaser.  Some modern shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Lost have a full six acts, so that none last for much more than 8 minutes.  When you’re trying to cram 5 major turns into every episode, who has time for characterization?  And, indeed, when characters are being forced to make all these Big Decisions several times a week, how can they maintain coherence?  (HBO shows may not have this problem, but the six or so Sopranos episodes I’ve watched have shown such a complete lack of dramatic structure that the freedom, in that case, is actually a hindrance.)

There’s also the issue of stopping points.  Feature writers know they only have about 120 pages to work with, so they select only those moments most integral to their characters’ personalities.  TV series last as long as they can.  While a handful of great shows were cancelled before fulfilling their potential (Firefly, Freaks and Geeks), most drag on longer than they perhaps should.  Veronica Mars explored its characters pretty fully in its first season and had to awkwardly create more mysteries to continue.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer came to its logical conclusion at the end of season three.  Gilmore Girls managed a great four year run before it started recycling old arguments and was forced to have Rory and Lorelai act out of character to keep the drama fresh.  That’s not to say any of these series turned bad, necessarily; rather, exploring the growth of Veronica, Buffy and Lorelai wasn’t the writers’ main concern when certain choices were made.  Keeping the series alive comes first.

In the end, arguing about depth of character seems a bit ridiculous, because a good story, no matter what its length, will reveal as much character as necessary.  The play ‘night, Mother lasts only 90 minutes and takes place in real time.  How much could we possibly learn about Jessie and Thelma in that time?  Exactly as much as we need to know.


3 Responses to “On TV writing”

  1. YLlama Says:

    As far as traditional series are concerned, I think you have a strong point. But the miniseries, as well as the film series, may not fall victim to the same sort of criticism. Compare the 2005 film version of Pride & Prejudice with the 1995 BBC miniseries. While the former is certainly an excellent film, the latter, in part because could provide a slower pace (127 minutes vs. 300 minutes), is by far the superior work. Compare also Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films to late 70s animated Lord of the Rings. Among other factors, Jackson’s series succeeds because it has more time in which to tell the story.

    Which is not to say more is always better. But I think some of the problems you’re describing stem from the indeterminacy of the length, not the serial structure.

  2. Roger Taylor Says:

    I believe the indeterminacy of length is most of the problem. Certainly a longer work has the *potential* to explore characters more in depth, even if it isn’t realistically possible at this time. Your examples, it should be noted, were books first, which means the story was being condensed in all cases. Obviously the less shrinkage the better.

  3. FelixP Says:

    “Do I know Jack Shephard from Lost or George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life better? George Bailey, easily.”

    that’s a bad analogy, telling the Lost-ies life stories a little at a time is part of the way the series works, it’s not a failure of the medium.

    But I find myself in some agreement with this idea. If I watch 100 hours of well-acted and well-written TV, I get to know these characters better than any in 2 hours of a well-acted and well-written movie. Sure, there may be places where it seems the TV characters act “out of character”, but people do change in real life. Give us more time to see characters and we get to know them better.

    So TV has a greater _potential_ for character development than movies, simply because it can go on for longer. of course, it often fails at this; which is why I know Barton Fink better than Phoebe from Friends.

    btw, it’s interesting that you both bring LotR as support, given that Jackson spent lots more screen time on things that got single chapters in the books (Helm’s Deep and Pelennor Fields)

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