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.
Comedy Scribes Talk Shop at Variety's Night in the Writers' Room
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 â¦ 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."