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New TV Scribes Face the Incredible Shrinking Writers’ Room

At a pre-Emmy breakfast last year, “Downton Abbey’s” architect Julian Fellowes expressed some amusement at the thought of a “writers’ room.”

“I don’t have as much ability to talk in our writers’ room because there’s only one person in our room: me,” he quipped.

While novelists have enjoyed a certain air of solitary mystery, American television has long relied on an it-takes-a-village approach to churning out 22 hours of TV a year. Yet that may be changing, reflecting a shift in the shape and ambition of series, while bringing with it certain implications for the traditional means of breaking into the business and learning to hone one’s craft.

Fellowes certainly has plenty of company in the U.K., where the TV-writer-as-auteur formula has flourished — in part because programs generally only received six-episode orders. As for the U.S., there’s also a history of writers with a singular vision, like David E. Kelley, “Deadwood’s” David Milch or “The West Wing’s” Aaron Sorkin, who might employ other scribes but were well known to essentially write (or rewrite) every word of their shows.

Still, TV is evolving, resulting in both more demanding and intricate programs and shorter orders (“limited” or “event” series became a key catchphrase this season), making it more plausible for a lone writer to implement a go-it-alone strategy.

Take HBO’s “True Detective,” an eight-episode series written and directed entirely by Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Joji Fukunaga, respectively. In an interview with Los Angeles magazine, Pizzolatto explained how he pounded out the script himself (roughly 500 pages worth, per his estimate), working in a room where the walls were covered with Post-It notes.

“That was part of the reason why I didn’t put together a writers’ room,” he said. “I just didn’t know how to explain to anybody what I had been doing.”

The fact “True Detective” invigorated a genre as old as television itself — and inspired imitators from fall 2014’s development roster — clearly felt like an endorsement of the theory providing talent with that sort of latitude can yield serious dividends.

The question is, where does TV go from there? In an age when binge-watching is a calculation, subscription-based viewing is on the rise and expectations run higher than ever, will the move be toward more better-contained options? And if so — and if other writers decide it’s easier to be a solo act than create a road map for advancing their visions — where will the next generation of writers cut their teeth?

When “True Detective” premiered, Forbes contributor Allen St. John called the show a “potential game changer” because of how it was made. “The fact that (Pizzolatto) and Fukunaga were able to pull it off so successfully is likely to encourage other networks to consider this single-writer, single-director model.”

Obviously, many shows still benefit from having a multitude of voices, and hands, to get the work done. Still, with some of TV’s most acclaimed shows bearing the novelistic mark of an individual, there’s a distinct possibility that the image we have of a writers’ room could potentially become a whole lot roomier.

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