Old TV rule was to avoid series about wordsmithing
When TV writer-producer Tom Kapinos moved to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter, he immediately learned the industry’s Golden Rule.
“Don’t write about being a writer,” he says. “That’s the first rookie mistake you make.”
It’s ironic, then, that the first TV creation of the former “Dawson’s Creek” showrunner is “Californication,” Showtime’s skein about a blocked novelist struggling to win back his family and write his next project. In fact, in a business that is supposed to shy away from talking about itself, “Californication” is one of several recent series in which writers are writing about writers.
Most, like ABC’s recent “October Road,” come and go with little fanfare. A few, like “Californication” and NBC’s “30 Rock,” garner attention. But for the most part, writers, producers, execs — and let’s face it, audiences — avoid shows about writers.
“Writing is difficult to make dramatic,” says “30 Rock” exec producer Robert Carlock. “It’s necessarily quiet, solitary and internal. When you have 21 minutes to tell three stories, you can’t spend a lot of time on the purely internal. People have to act.”
So what’s behind the proliferation of shows about writers? Are writers getting more introspective? Execs more accepting? Audiences more interested?
“Over the last few years, networks have been moving into more adventurous territory,” says Showtime exec veep of original programming Gary Levine. “They’re willing to do a show that’s not franchise-driven … cops, doctors, lawyers … (and) that frees them to go into territory like a writer.”
Levine also notes that, as with traditional franchises, writer-based shows focus on more than occupational processes. After all, we don’t just follow the lead characters of “House” or “Boston Legal” to work; we invest in their personal lives and relationships. Why should writers be different?
“We think of (“30 Rock”) as an office comedy that happens to be at a more exotic office,” Carlock says. “We try to tell stories about co-workers, personal lives and frustrations about the job rather than the job of writing.”
Likewise, “Californication” generates stories from Hank Moody’s soapy, sexy relationships.
“I (don’t) do much that revolves around writing,” Kapinos says. “It’s more about the fact that he wants the mother of his child back, his relationship with his daughter and women that come in and out of his life.”
In that case, if TV’s fictional writers can have lives as dramatic as Meredith Grey’s and the docs from “Grey’s Anatomy,” shouldn’t they be as successful? The answer, unfortunately, has been no.
“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” 2006’s most highly anticipated show among critics, premiered to 13.1 million viewers but eventually nosedived to 3.9 million, 500,000 fewer than the recent “Secret Talents of the Stars,” which lasted one episode on CBS. ABC’s “October Road” launched with 13.9 million viewers, then bottomed out with 4 million.
Even “30 Rock” averaged only 5.8 million viewers its first season, landing 102nd in Nielsen’s 2006-07 TV rankings, and has been stuck with similar audience numbers in its second season despite winning a comedy series Emmy. Perhaps audiences crave weekly life-and-death stakes, but whatever the reason, shows featuring writers haven’t drawn the audiences of other types of shows.
“Californication” illustrates the conundrum. It is Showtime’s highest-rated freshman series ever with almost 2 million viewers per week — a number that would be disastrous to a broadcaster. So while “Californication” is a triumph for premium cable, it underscores the commercial risk of writing about writers.
“The career of writing is (not) a story engine,” Levine admits. “But I think … people are doing riskier, darker, more interesting material, and … as long as networks are opening up, it does allow all kinds of vocations to come into play and not be trapped in the land of procedurals.”