On Tuesday night, Variety’s annual “Night in the Writers’ Room” assembled an eclectic array of scribes from the worlds of comedy and drama for an in-depth discussion at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. Variety TV critic Brian Lowry moderated the Drama Q&A, which discussed the challenges of ending a series, the appeal of cable over broadcast networks, and how platforms like Netflix have impacted the way writers construct their stories.
The drama panel participants included “Fargo” showrunner Noah Hawley, “Parenthood” creator Jason Katims, “White Collar” and “Graceland’s” Jeff Eastin, “Mad Men” writer Erin Levy, “Elementary” exec producer Rob Doherty and “Pretty Little Liars” scribe Oliver Goldstick.
While the panelists’ work spans both broadcast and basic cable, they all agreed that a cable model of 13-16 episodes was far preferable to the grind of 22 installments generally preferred by the major networks.
“Coming off my very first show, which was 22 episodes, those last seven just break you, they just mess you up,” Eastin laughed. “At about 17 you’re like, ‘Why did we do this? This show can’t continue, clearly.'”
Doherty wondered whether the Emmy voting system would be more interesting if the categories were grouped into shortform and longform entries, as opposed to measuring a 22-episode drama like “The Good Wife” against a 10-episode show like “Game of Thrones.” Eastin agreed that would be far more interesting — if perhaps even more complicated.
Goldstick pointed out that “Pretty Little Liars” typically shoots 25 episodes a year, which makes it impossible for a single writer to pen the entire season alone before lensing begins, as Hawley did for “Fargo.” But cable’s additional lead time before the show airs isn’t the only thing the writers covet.
“The one thing that makes me envious (about pay cable) is the ability to cast a spell, because we are interrupted by commercials. It fosters not the greatest writing; you have contrivances to get act breaks — now there’s five of them; there used to be three,” Goldstick recalled. “Even watching ‘The Sopranos’ years ago, I was jealous that they could tell a story and you not be interrupted. There was that ability to keep an audience there and they never lost that moment.”
The producers of both “Fargo” and “Mad Men” eschew act breaks during the writing process so as not to interrupt the flow of the narrative.
“We break the story as if there are no commercial breaks and they’re put in in post — it’s worked for us,” Levy laughed, when Doherty pointed out that “Mad Men” seems to cut to commercials whenever the mood strikes them, as opposed to when a dramatic moment dictates. “I also feel like a lot of people are watching television by recording it and fast-forwarding through the commercials anyway, or getting it on DVD or Netflix.”
Hawley agreed, “For the writers who have always (written toward act breaks), it kind of breaks your brain a little bit (to stop). Suddenly you’re not creating these artificial drama points, you’re just telling the story in order — it’s such a relief. I don’t believe people turn the channel just because the last thing they saw before the commercial wasn’t some crazy thing like ‘they found another body!'”
The drama participants also admitted that they were all intrigued by the idea of six-episode seasons as demonstrated by SundanceTV’s “Rectify” and “The Red Road.”
“It’s like a novel; it’s a challenge that most writers would want to embrace, and you’re hoping sometimes you’d have more than six episodes because it’s a story that might require more than six episodes, but nevertheless, you have a starting point and a finishing point that’s very contained, and you can know where you’re going,” Goldstick observed.
“It’s just a different animal, to have all your scripts written before you start shooting; to break the whole season before you start writing; to know in episode one what your endgame is so you’re laying that foundation,” Hawley said. “The episodes are going to be more satisfying because they’re adding up to the end of the story, which in my case is a 10-hour movie — we’re not doing another season with these characters. And so that feeds into the filmmaking … you can really start to build an imagery as opposed to ‘we need a good case this week and a good case next week and we’re going to lay in a serialized relationship storyline.”
Eastin’s “White Collar” was given a six-episode order for its upcoming final season, and he admitted “the approach was completely different — we really treated it as a limited series.”
The forthcoming seasons of “Parenthood” and “Mad Men” will also be their last, and Levy admitted that it was “a new challenge” to approach the end of the AMC drama.
“Being able to have the ending and know you’re finished leaves this really great moment for the writers, because you’re finishing your series and you know exactly what’s going to happen and there are never going to be any stories after that, so you’re going to throw everything you have left,” she said. “Whereas in previous seasons maybe you were like, ‘We’ll do that next season.’ We had an interesting thing where it’s a 14-episode season, but seven just aired now, seven are airing next year, so we had to really choose what were the most important stories to tell.”
Katims concurred, “I’m starting the final season of ‘Parenthood,’ and we have 13 episodes, so it’s a little bit closer to the cable model than the normal network model. The first thing I said to the writers when we started the room last week was ‘what a gift this is, to be able to give the show an ending.’ Especially in the network world … you’re doing a season and you don’t know whether it’s going to be the last season and you have to hedge your bets.”
He added, “To be able to give the show the ending that you want to give it and that you feel is the best thing, I think that’s great not only for the people doing it, it’s also really good for television, because … the fans of the show are able to feel like they’ve been told the entire story, and that they get a real ending. It fulfills a contract that you have with the people who watch the show.”
Still, even if a showrunner has a dream ending mapped out from the very beginning, there’s no guarantee that they’ll stick to their original plan, as Eastin explained: “With ‘White Collar,’ when we heard, ‘You can do an ending,’ I sat down with Matt Bomer and Tim DeKay and I said, ‘Guys, when I pitched the series, the first day, I had an ending in mind,’ and I pitched it to them and I emoted and I said, ‘What do you think?’ and they looked at each other and said, ‘Man, that sucks.’ So we talked about it and said it might’ve made sense then, but we’ve so evolved, so we sat down and we ultimately found one that we really liked. So things change.”
“Fargo” was designed as a standalone series in the same vein as “American Horror Story” and “True Detective,” and Hawley admitted that he found that liberating.
“It’s really exciting in this day and age that the length of the story dictates the length of the show, as opposed to the other way around,” he said. “(With) ‘Lost,’ obviously those guys had a finite amount of story and were forced to stretch it out over a period of time. If it was today and they came in and said, ‘We crashed on the island and we’ve got about three seasons in us,’ it would be great, let’s do that … It used to be for writers that that six seasons and a movie thing, that’s the holy grail as writers – your series goes eight, 10 seasons, you’re set for life. I don’t want to do the same thing 10 years in a row; I think it’s an exciting time for writers where that doesn’t have to be the model — you can do something short-lived that’s critically acclaimed and then go off and do something else. It’s riskier, you have to continually come up with new stories, but I find that exciting.”
Every writer has to struggle with different restrictions in tone or length or budget, and for Doherty, the main challenge is giving both of his stars some time off, when audiences tune in for the Holmes and Watson dynamic. “It’s so hard to split them; we have a certain obligation to show this historic and very important partnership, but that can be hell on Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, who can’t be in every single scene of every single episode or it’ll wear them down,” he said. “Given the size of the orders, we have to make… not difficult choices as far as how we distribute the weight, but it dictates structure a lot… You have to find a way to get each of them out approximately a quarter to one-third of each show.”
The scribes all admitted to having binge-watched something, and the brave new world of online streaming and the audience’s insatiable appetite for content is “like this dream that doesn’t end — or nightmare, depending on your taste,” according to Goldstick: “When I started writing television, you could not write serialized television unless you were working in the daytime world. You did anthology, closed-ended, you never had the luxury of serialization and cliffhangers that we do. Now we’re very aware that young people do watch these shows four in a row … and can write to that.”
Between limited series, Netflix and smaller outlets, there’s “so much more potential creatively,” said Katims. “It changes the way you have to think about what a show is from the very beginning when you’re thinking about creating a show. There are more possibilities. It doesn’t have to be a show that has the same characters for seven years and you do X amount of episodes. That model is great for being able to get talent on board that you never would’ve gotten before, because certain actors wouldn’t make that commitment of time. Now you can say, ‘It’s eight episodes and that’s it.'”
Eastin admitted that he often checks fan reactions on Twitter to see what is working narratively and what isn’t, while Hawley said he appreciates the level of discourse surrounding TV shows these days.
“We used to have Pauline Kael in the New Yorker talking about movies, and now… I worked really hard to build a lot of subtext and thematic work into the show and I’m amazed at, the next day, (fans) really pick everything up and they’re talking about things,” he observed. “There’s such a sophistication to television now in the dialogue, and people really want to spend more than the hour it takes to watch the show; they really want to think about it, and they want you to write a show that they can spend more time on. That’s really satisfying.”
Still, Hawley had a somewhat cynical reason for why he believes audiences like smarter shows these days: “I think people used to read ‘War and Peace’ and now they don’t; now they sit around with their tablets and watch ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ or whatever, and they want the things that they watch to be better so that they can feel better about themselves for watching it,” he suggested. “You’re like ‘I blew the weekend on “Breaking Bad,”‘ but the quality of that show is so amazing that it’s not like ‘I watched “Naked and Afraid” for 17 episodes.’ It just happens to be at a moment where it’s a great business model for all these new channels that need to distinguish themselves. The brand is quality now, which is different than it was before.”
Of course, if that means smarter, more ambitious television for viewers, and more networks willing to invest in the brand of “quality,” everybody wins.