Every great project begins with a writer, and maybe that’s why no major guilds’ awards delivered more nominations to freshmen TV series this year than the WGA.
The guild’s lovefest with new small-screen titles begins with a category specifically designed to honor writers for their work on a first-year show: the new-series category.
The nominees include four fresh shows that have been racking up noms, and some wins, across various guild awards — FX’s “Atlanta,” Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” NBC’s “This Is Us,” and HBO’s “Westworld” — and also includes FX’s critically hailed “Better Things,” which has largely flown under the radar with other groups.
But even beyond that category, first-year series made a big showing. “Atlanta” is up for comedy series writing against returning nominees “Silicon Valley,” “Transparent,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and “Veep,” while “Stranger Things” and “Westworld” are up for drama series writing opposite “The Americans,” “Better Call Saul,” and “Game of Thrones.”
“This Is Us” is the only freshman drama to nab a nomination in the individual episode category, a contest dominated by AMC’s sophomore “Saul,” which landed a very impressive three noms.
For “This Is Us” writer Vera Herbert, who penned nominated episode “The Trip,” the recognition came as a thrilling surprise.
“One of the writers came in [the writers’ room] and said, ‘Hey, we were nominated! You were nominated!’ I was like, ‘What’s going on?,”’ she says. “We were excited about it because it’s tough for a network show to break in in those spots.”
The time-jumping family drama has been the breakout hit of the 2016-17 season, and Herbert’s episode, the ninth installment, bowed as the show was turning into a true juggernaut.
Immediately following the dramatic events of a Thanksgiving hour, “The Trip” was the first episode to bring the show’s three adult siblings — played by Sterling K. Brown, Justin Hartley, and Chrissy Metz — to the same place at the same time.
“It took us probably the longest of any episode to break in the writers room,” Herbert says. “We kept going through different versions of it, trying to find something to address all the storylines we had teed up in the Thanksgiving episode. [‘The Trip’] really felt like the whole team had contributed a lot to it.”
While the show was already a hit when the episode aired, the process of writing it fell at a more delicate time: right at the start of production.
Writers were in and out of the room, and creator Dan Fogelman had new post-production duties to ensure the show was finding its groove.
Herbert says “The Trip” took a full month to break, but the effort clearly paid off both in fan reaction and the WGA nomination.
And “This Is Us” continues to hook viewers with its refreshing mix of intimate family portraits and a unique structure that allows for dramatic reveals over multiple timelines.
“I think we were all worried it would become the show where every week there’s a huge mic drop moment,” Herbert says. “But the network and audiences have let it be what it is. Some of those episodes have big cliffhangers and twists, and some of them are smaller and just allowed to explore the characters and the emotions.
“We feel very very excited to get to tell these smaller family stories that are optimistic and not all about death or murder on TV. It’s a dream job for all of us.”
Over in the comedy episode field, the WGA Awards welcomed even more newcomers. While two of the nomination slots went to Netflix’s sophomore “Schmidt,” the competition includes an installment of “Atlanta,” the pilot of Amazon’s “One Mississippi,” an episode of ABC’s family comedy “Speechless,” and — perhaps quirkiest of all — Fox’s live action/animation hybrid “Son of Zorn.”
Dan Mintz penned the nominated “Zorn” installment “A Taste of Zephyria,” in which oafish hero Zorn, voiced by Jason Sudeikis, deals with prejudice directed at people from his cartoon homeland Zephyria.
Mintz says the episode “really touches on the heart of Zorn’s cluelessness. He is such a privileged white male who doesn’t see things from anyone else’s point of view. Then to see him see himself as a minority is really fun to play.”
While “Zorn” has performed decently for Fox this season, it hasn’t been a high-profile breakout like “This Is Us,” making it all the more impressive the WGA singled it out with a nomination.
The writing process is also considerably different — having an animated lead character requires more lead time than usual in live action, but also provides a built in safety net.
If a story point isn’t quite working or needs to be clarifiedit’s easy to tweak Zorn’s lines after everything else has been shot.
Mintz says the biggest challenge of season one was landing on the right tone. “How heightened or grounded is it? That really kept going back and forth.
“When we started we were very much about making it grounded,” he says. “We kept saying we want every episode to be something that could happen on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ except it happens in this crazy world. And then we kind of felt like that wasn’t taking advantage enough of what we could do with the show, We kept going back and forth, eventually settling on a course everyone’s happy with.”
Like Herbert, Mintz says his nominated script was very much a group effort for the writing staff.
“It’s a very collaborative process,” he says of writing for “Zorn,” which was created by Reed Agnew and Eli Jorné, and counts the hot team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, plus showrunner Sally Bradford McKenna among its exec producers.
“I feel a little guilty claiming credit for this nomination, but I’ll take it. You have to take blame when your episode is bad, so you can take credit when it’s good.”