Conversations with America’s Top Producers of Television Drama

In stark contrast to the plethora of interview collections catering to aspiring screenwriters and would-be film critics, there's a dearth of material on the market about the craft of writing and producing television. "TV Creators" fills that void.

With:
By James L. Longworth Jr.

In stark contrast to the plethora of interview collections catering to aspiring screenwriters and would-be film critics, there’s a dearth of material on the market about the craft of writing and producing television. “TV Creators” fills that void. Ironically, most of the TV creators featured in the compilation admit they set out to be filmmakers and fell into TV only when their initial plans didn’t work out.

At its best, “TV Creators” provides insider insight into the process of making TV. Longworth manages to get the top-notch TV creators he interviews to let down their guard and reveal what’s really on their mind.

Deriding networks’ reliance on the pilot process, Dick Wolf recalls that nobody liked “ER” when they saw the pilot. Tom Fontana posits that if he’d created “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” “She would have been raped by the second episode.” John Masius vents about why he walked away from “Touched by an Angel” after it turned from dark musings on mortality to soft-core evangelism; Barry Levinson bemoans the lack of creativity among network execs; and David Chase discusses the autobiographical mother-son elements of “The Sopranos.”

The introductory passages to the interviews, however, are less insightful. Fawning in his praise of the auteurs, Longworth compares Levinson to both Thomas Jefferson and Orson Welles and audaciously concludes, “Levinson kicks Welles’ butt.”

Longworth’s worshipful treatment of his subjects does them a disservice; the hyperbole only mocks their real accomplishments. He likens Steven Bochco to “part Andrew Jackson, part P.T. Barnum, and part (famed UCLA basketball coach) John Wooden … Jacksonian in his democratic approach to programming, Bochco’s face may never grace a 20-dollar bill, but he has changed the face of television drama forever, and, for that, he is an American legend.”

While his prose tends toward the overwrought, Longworth — a veteran producer of TV documentaries and public affairs programming — has clearly done his research and is not afraid to ask the tough questions (“Is ‘ER’ really worth $13 million an episode?”). Even more impressively, he gets his subjects to answer frankly.

In one especially moving passage, Masius discusses the irony of developing a character on “St. Elsewhere” who has to deal with his son’s autism — years before Masius and his wife would struggle to raise two autistic sons. The show “Providence,” which deals with personal tragedy and unpredictable life changes, apparently was the product of that struggle.

In such revealing moments, Longworth gets to the core of the emotional turmoil that often drives good TV.

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