Downside of signature shows is stereotyping
A few years back, Ronald D. Moore was eyeing his next career move after a successful decade writing and producing for the “Star Trek” television franchise.
But as far as his chances of finding work outside the sci-fi genre were concerned, he might as well have plied his trade at Astro Burger.
“When I left ‘Star Trek,’ it was kind of a rude awakening,” recalls Moore, now a “Battlestar Galactica” executive producer. “It turned out that my agent said, ‘Would you mind specing something?’ I said, ‘Huh?’ He said, ‘No one will read a “Star Trek.'”
To this day, writer typecasting remains alive and well in Hollywood, and the burden rests on scribes to find their way out.
“If you’ve got the versatility, there’s nothing like demonstration,” says “House” co-executive producer Doris Egan, who came to Hollywood as a science-fiction novelist. “I suspect what typecasting exists is simply the forlorn effort of showrunners to narrow down the inundation of scripts to a readable level in the time they’ve got.”
Adds “Veronica Mars” showrunner Rob Thomas: “No one’s going to offer me a procedural drama or a half-hour. If I wanted to run a comedy, I’d have to write and be successful in comedy.”
So even an industry veteran faces the prospect of writing a spec. The upside is, the higher you are up the food chain in any genre, the more sense it makes for you to write a fresh spec pilot as opposed to a spec script for an existing show, which is the common path baby writers take to break in.
But even the highest level of achievement in a genre can be an albatross.
“The better you are in whatever genre you started in, the harder it is to cross over,” says “Men in Trees” showrunner Jenny Bicks. “If you are the top comedy guy, it makes it harder to see you in anything but that.”
Conversely, work on a poorly received show can kick the legs out from under you.
“I think the hardest gulf to cross is the one between bad quality and good quality,” Egan says. “It’s risking a career setback, I think, if you take a job on a show that’s seen as inferior or not cool — especially if that’s all you’ve got on your resume.”
Still, there are exceptions to the typecasting rule, and jobseekers are well served to remain cognizant of them. When Moore was hiring writers for “Battlestar,” he didn’t limit himself to fantasy specialists.
“We were looking for people whose chops were in drama,” he says. “We really had pitched the series and were dedicated to the idea that the show was drama first and science fiction second. … There were several people that first and second season that had never worked on a science-fiction series before.”
Ultimately, writers trying to broaden their horizons can benefit if their next career move looks like a natural evolution rather than a sudden left turn from, say, “Law & Order” to “Lost.”
“Leap of Faith,” “Sex and the City” and “Men in Trees” have their differences, but also enough in common to have allowed Bicks to move seamlessly from one to the next.
In retrospect, Bicks says she considers her genre to be romantic comedy, and she has no desire to bust out.
“I can track emotions,” she says. “I can’t track bombs.”
Thomas echoes the notion that there’s something to be said for being a specialist.
“Certainly, if you’re successful in one genre, you’re going to get opportunities to continue to pursue that genre, which can be great,” Thomas says. “Opportunities would be the flip side of saying ‘pigeonholed.’ “