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TV Scribes Learn to Shoot From the Hip

Showrunners find it’s crucial to stay flexible as they craft series’ twists and turns

Dwight Eisenhower learned an essential lesson during World War II: “Plans are useless, but planning is essential.”

In that respect, Ike probably would have made a helluva showrunner.

A longform series may play seamlessly, but odds are its writers have been agile at deviating from initial plans.

Showrunners typically kick off with what “The Americans” (FX, pictured) creator Joe Weisberg calls “the Super Duper Master Document,” full of unifying themes and anticipated character journeys. Matthew Weiner would brief his “Mad Men” (AMC) staff for two or three introductory days, while Graham Yost would share his ideas with “Justified” (FX) actors each July.

Once production starts, though, TV writers find something almost always arises that presses them to shift gears.

“Sometimes that’s something surprising and unexpected and immediately satisfying,” says “The Americans” writer-producer Joel Fields. “And sometimes it’s just some kind of challenge that hits. Either way, you have to be open to continuing on and making it work.”

TV’s marching orders are thus designed to lay out long-range strategies, rather than detail tactical assaults.

“You can’t be really bound by (your plans), because you start to write certain stories, and some are really good, you know? But others seem duller than you thought they would be,” says Julian Fellowes of PBS’ “Downton Abbey.” “The whole thing is kind of a work in progress until you’ve finished and shot it, to be honest.”

A writers’ room can become an ER during filming. “You’d get the call from the set and we’d pitch on a problem for 15 or 30 minutes and come up with a solution,” Yost says.

When an actor playing a corrupt sheriff wouldn’t cut his hair, the staff cut his role in half, allowing someone with the right look to take the requisite beating. To free another thesp for his daughter’s college tour, “we just brought in another character we had used earlier. We’d sort of adapt on the fly.”

The real magic occurs when a staff is encouraged outright to veer off in truly unanticipated ways. “We had faith that we would head down a path and somehow the rest of it would reveal itself,” he says. The final confrontation between “Justified” antagonists “hadn’t really been conceived until the last couple of months, breaking that story in the room.”

Weiner dubs the process “calling audibles,” imagining his scribes like football players getting into formation. Whenever “Mad Men” story cards were posted on the big board, “inevitably there would be an episode around No. 6 or 7 where we’d leave a hole and say, ‘Let’s give ourselves some leeway here.’ ”

What’s more, he insists, those were the most important episodes of the series. “(They were) crucial to the story as a rumination on what we’d been doing. And they were never planned.”

Fellowes calls his own “audibles,” as when actor Kevin Doyle “made this almost tragic figure out of Molesley, a servant for whom everything seemingly inevitably went wrong despite all his efforts. There was a sort of gallantry in him I found very touching.” Instead of suffering dismissal when his master died, Molesley was kept around, eventually displaying unexpected heroism in this season’s final episodes.

A series’ bane, “Mad Men” writer-producer Janet Leahy believes, is “fear on the part of the showrunner that they won’t be able to get through the season. So they plow ahead and try to make the premise work, as opposed to backing up to find out what isn’t working.”

Nevertheless, she maintains, “if a story doesn’t want to be told a certain way and you’re trying to wedge it into your paradigm, it comes out false. And that’s bad television.”

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