Many TV showrunners, like chefs, or basketball coaches, delineate from a “tree” (please excuse the mixed metaphor, but I think you know what I’m getting at.)
That tree, in some ways, describes the writer’s journey and informs their process. I often wonder, especially concerning some of my favorite writers’ and showrunners’ work, what/who informed their work the most. I don’t spend a ton of time thinking about this, or trying to get the answers, because, honestly, I’ve probably already dived in to their influences (as long as it’s not pre-TWILIGHT ZONE, or unless it’s ultra-obscure foreign stuff.)
A few days back, Beau Willimon (creator/showrunner of Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS, one of the most outstanding shows out there) asked via Twitter:
“How many good TV dramas DON’T have:
- Guns and/or
- Killing and/or
Very few. We need to expand (our) storytelling.”
Beau’s question stuck with me. If I remember correctly, I can remember Beau saying in an interview, I think, how he, in a roundabout way, delineated from the Tom Fontana (ST. ELSEWHERE, HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET, OZ) tree? Or at least stated him as an influence? Indeed, I could be 100% wrong about this, I might be thinking about Vince Gilligan. I can’t remember.
In any event, I started thinking about Beau’s question. I wanted to contextualize his question too.
If one were to look on imdb, there’s not a whole lot there in the way of credits pre-HOUSE OF CARDS for Beau Willimon, which reminds me very much of myself (: and this tells me that Beau, much like the brilliant Mickey Fisher (EXTANT) is one of those guys that “emerged from nowhere and became a show creator.”
Yes, I know how ludicrous that is. NO ONE comes out of thin air to be a show creator. You’ve got to know your shit in a way that borders on RAINMAN-esque to get there. Especially if you’re not part of the Ivy League or USC or NYU mafia, like myself. It can take years and years and years of bad scripts, mediocre scripts, good scripts, then great scripts, to even get a couple of connections that will in turn, get your work noticed.
Connections are huge because you can’t make it alone in this business. You need someone to lead the charge. This is the hardest part, finding someone who believes, who will get you to your destination without ripping you off. The great writers, they’re usually somewhat socially awkward, but the conveyors see something in you, a spark. And then you have that one awesome project, pitched at exactly the right time, and a ton of people love it, and then, maybe, it happens, all while you’re hopefully already working on the next thing or two…
Whoa…that was something of a digression…the point is, to earn the credit of “show creator” there is a lot that must go right, at a lot of stages, for that man or woman.
Ten years ago my path, after writing many features, changed dramatically. I realized, via OZ and THE SOPRANOS, that serial TV drama was the future (which is now here) and so I wrote my first spec pilot in 2006. The show I wrote, and subsequently pitched, THE CLUB, I described as: “CHEERS, except it’s an R-rated 1 hour ensemble drama that takes place in LA.”
This was not a bad place for me to start. I actually still think, even 10 years later, the idea has some merit. Sure, ensembles are still, for the most part, despised by networks and EP’s alike. The logic is, without a central hero / anti-hero to root for, who is the audience going to latch on to or want to tune in to see? I don’t completely disagree, though I would ask, who was the hero of THE WIRE? Or, SKINS? Or, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA? Or, TWIN PEAKS?
The development guy and the TV director’s assistant who both read my very first draft of my very first TV pilot script each had another crushing critique. They said, “Nothing happens! I mean, the characters are cool, and their dialogue’s great, but there’s no cops, no lawyers, no violence, barely any drugs and a lot of sex. There’s no danger so there’s no drama. No one will watch this until there’s more violence and less sex.”
I’d counter that there was tons of conflict between the characters, and that the conflicts and the dilemmas the characters faced, THIS was what drove the drama, not fucking guns or the possibility of death. How many people face life-or-death circumstances on a daily basis, anyway?
Unfortunately for me, my readers were rooted in the default idea of what a TV drama needed to be, or needed to have. This default still exists to some extent in the US.
It was at this point that I knew I needed to “go back to film school” in a way. At San Francisco State, we’d done a good amount of film history, theory and got great technical training (thanks to Danny Glover and Annette Benning and other alums, we had the first non-linear editing bay of ANY film school… yes, I’m THAT old.) But TV storytelling was somewhat overlooked, by me anyway, as it was seen as a reject pile, the writers who weren’t good enough to be movie writers so they ended up in TV…
(Ah, the conceit of a know-it-all film school student…)
I was a novice and I knew it. So I dove in to anything and everything I could, anything that was at least considered above average. Stuff that had commentary I’d watch once all the way through for the enjoyment, then one more time to outline how they’d broken their story while listening to any/all DVD commentary. Thank God for those commentaries. I sort of went to the Tarantino school of TV in a way, using the Q method of checking out as much quality stuff possible (and some of the bad too, to know what NOT to do.)
I think my tree is pretty broad, because of this. Going way back to Rod Serling, to Bruce Paltrow, to Tom Fontana, to Shawn Ryan, to Dave Simon or to Ron Moore or… I could literally go on and on and on…
Anyway, I re-worked that pilot script so much that, while it did morph into something decent enough to get me meetings, it ultimately wasn’t a script I liked or a show that I believed in. One creative exec finally told me that this was a project I should try to pitch again in the future, because it’ll sell once I have some credits. Who knows?
Maybe she was right. Maybe someday I’ll follow her advice, but I don’t like dusting off my old stuff.
Okay, back to Beau’s question because I’ve been obsessing about shows and even reevaluating my approach. He reminded me that it has been a personal quest of mine to one day write a great drama that has hardly any guns, killing or cops. (I immediately thought of the original British version of HOUSE OF CARDS, as well as the outstanding STATE OF PLAY, when he posed the question.)
Some of my favorite shows ever, surprisingly to me, were not so hugely dependent on the gun, or on killing, or on cops, and perhaps, PERHAPS, using such tools may some day fall into the dreaded “lazy writing” box.
Without further ado, here are my favorites, a TOP 13 LIST of non-gun, non-killing, non-cop 1 hour dramas, including a few faves from the “old school.” Most of these shows are off the air now. Think of this list as one “season” of shows, lol.
- THE KNICK
- MR. ROBOT (guns & killing used, but definitely not relied on)
- THE WIRE (yes, there were cops, guns, killing, but this show had so much more going on driving the narrative)
- SKINS (the Brit version)
- DEADWOOD (some killing, but again, not relied on)
- BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (the reboot)
- THE WHITE SHADOW (I’m the son of a basketball coach, after all)
- HOUSE OF CARDS (US version)
- THE TWILIGHT ZONE
- THE PRISONER
- HALT & CATCH FIRE
- ST. ELSEWHERE
- QUANTUM LEAP
I think all of these shows are so great for wildly different reasons. All are NECESSARY viewing if you want to write TV in my opinion. A common thread of these shows’ success was their DEPENDENCE on the strength and depth of the characters, their relationships, and how well crafted the conflicts and dilemmas were. In fact, these shows are so dependent on character development THAT DOES NOT DEPEND ON guns or killing or being/evading cops, that, when those violent elements pop up in these shows, they’re that much more jarring and/or effective.
Beau Willimon is 100% correct, we DO need to expand our storytelling. We need some VU DEJA, so to speak. We must look at what we’ve seen before as if we are seeing it for the very first time.
Because, while there are certainly other shows that don’t make my list due to the fact that they have so much in the way of guns / cops / killing (and they may even be shows that I like more) I must now look at those shows with a more critical eye, as they may be more reliant on a default approach than I initially realized.