Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What makes a good TV series?

Bonanza, 4th Longest Running Series
What makes a good television series? You probably already guessed that I would say writing. Some might say exceptional characters, but writers define those characters. In fact, the characters are usually defined prior to casting. Actors audition to fill predefined roles. Actors? Without a quality script, even great actors phone it in.

Television writing is a team contact sport. A series can employ over a dozen writers and everyone knows you can’t manage writers. They always want to do something creative and a television series promises continuity. Writers are egotistical. Writers are inflexible. Most writers are slow and disdain deadlines. Television writers want celebrities to mouth their words, not the words of the writer sitting next to them. A room full of writers magnify these flaws exponentially.

Simpson's Writing Room
So again, what makes a good television series?  Not writing per se, but skillful management of a writing team. This is a tough job. The lead writer needs to define hard boundaries, yet encourage craftsmanship and creativity within those boundaries. 

Do you want to see a small example on how this is done? Read Writing for Bonanza: Seven Rules From 1968. Rule #7 summarizes the rules nicely: "What we do want is Western action and Western adventure, concerning a worthy and dramatic problem for the Cartwrights, and strong opponents. We want human drama built around a specific locale and specific period in the country’s history; simple, basic stories as seen through the eyes of Ben, Hoss, and Little Joe Cartwright, and Candy.”

After reading this article, it’s obvious that a key element of managing writers is clarity. Firm rules, stated firmly. Then let them have at it. 

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