So the 2018 Emmy nominations just came out, and while it can be tempting to groan or scoff at the repeat nominees (Game of Thrones – again?!, Handmaid’s Tale – again?!) it is a credit to these shows that they are able to sustain excellence, season after season. While it’s certainly more fun to fawn over the actors that we love, or even the high-profile “showrunners”, keeping a show performing at a high level really comes down to the writing team, more than anything. How many shows over the years started strong, then trailed off in later seasons, unable to satisfyingly deliver on their central storyline (Twin Peaks and Lost come to mind). Today we attempt to recognize recent TV shows that have stayed strong and compelling, largely due to their excellent writing.
I have a soft spot for writing, although I’ve mostly focused on film-based screenplays over the years. I was the kind of film geek that bought bound screenplays at comic book stores in Boston years ago – I still have a box of them in my basement. I never gave TV writing as much thought, however, but thinking about it now, I actually think writing for multiple seasons of a TV series might be harder, and even more critical to the success of a show. Especially with social media and the ability to easily rewatch episodes, fans of shows scrutinize every element – crying foul at the smallest errors or oversights in the story. For example, people got all up in arms because characters were moving about in Westeros too quickly during the last season of GoT. Really? This is what we are criticizing? Think of the immense web of details – lineage, backstories, times when characters intersected 6 seasons ago, etc. – that GoT writers have to keep track of. And beyond continuity, the biggest challenge writers face is not only keeping it fresh with new material but finding ways to up-the-ante with drama, action or comedy for each season. Here are three shows that I think have excelled at writing and staying strong.
Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
I apologize in advance if I’ve referenced this story already in our blog, but DJ and I had a chance to talk to Richard Hatch (Apollo of the original 1979 series) at a sci-fi show in the mid-late 90’s. We talked about screenwriting for a bit, and he said he had something in the works for a new Battlestar Galactica project. I kind of thought he was blowing smoke at the time, but who knew that a high-quality and groundbreaking series would come out of revisiting what was a beloved, but honestly fairly cheesy Star Wars rip-off TV show in the late 70’s. The rebooted series took on a much grittier and reality-based look, which many sci-fi reboots to – and not always to a positive effect, but what made this series different was the vision of creator Ronald D. Moore and his writing team. In four seasons they took on practically every -ism you can think of: imperialism, sexism, racism, terrorism, extremism, fascism, militarism, etc. along with politics, religion (and how the two mix), A. I., the role of technology in our society, the endless cycle of war, and so much more. Equal to the variety of themes were the many three-dimensional and well-developed characters in a large ensemble cast that must have been a challenge for the writers to knit together in the storyline without it getting fragmented and confusing. Where else have you seen a sci-fi movie or TV series with a female president dying of cancer? Yes, there were moments where the series seemed to get lost in the rabbit hole of “what does it mean to be human?”, but I’d rather a show reach too far than play down to the audience. I think that’s what made the series groundbreaking – it refused to play it safe and proved to other showrunners that you didn’t need to stay within the traditional confines of your genre. [By the way, Mr. Hatch, sorry for doubting you, and you were great on the new series as Tom Zarek – the former terrorist turned politician, just one of many complex characters on the show.]
DJ: Honestly I remembered the conversation with Hatch differently in that I didn’t think it was this particular incarnation of Galactica that he was trying to do something with it but unfortunately we will never know. I did enjoy this show but there was some uneveness from episode to episode.
Veep (2012 – present)
Evidently, due to timing, Veep is sitting out the Emmy’s this year, but historically, Julia Louise-Dreyfuss has been the Emmy queen of recent years for her performance. The acclaim is justified, but the show would collapse around her without the sharp writing that goes into every episode. Considering it’s a half-hour show, there are a lot of supporting characters to write material for, and every scene/line has to be impactful because a character might only get 5-10 minutes of screen time in an episode. I was impressed particularly with last season when (spoiler alert) when Selina Meyer is no longer the veep or in office at all – sending most of her support team scattered to the winds. Yet, the writers still kept it acerbically funny and found ways to create relevant storylines for all of the supporting cast – and even the recurring guest star roles on the show. Even when the congressional run of Jonah Ryan threatened to push credibility too far, somehow they made it work (and the real-life US election results of 2016 certainly helped reset what was considered credible). It’s a remarkably whirlwind of rapid, stinging dialogue that propels the show – which would probably be exhausting if it were an hour long. This last season was as funny as the first, which is no small feat for the sixth season of a show.
DJ: What makes this show great is that there is no stretching to 22 episodes, HBO allows a show to be full tilt all the time, no filler. The absurdity of this show is what makes it great, no situation is too weird because the show is written so well.
The Untold History of the United States (2012)
So most people don’t think of documentaries when they think of great writing, but while some documentaries are indeed mostly compilations of interviews, others rely heavily on a script/narration. Untold History… is a documentary series of 12 episodes that cover aspects of US History from World War I through the first Obama administration. It’s an amazingly ambitious effort to tackle such a huge topic, and it required accomplished and disciplined writing to present new information while addressing the prevailing wisdom of most Americans regarding recent history. The writers (Oliver Stone, American University historian Peter J. Kuznick, and British screenwriter Matt Graham) go far beyond debunking traditional school textbook mythology. They are less interested in whether past presidents actually chopped down cherry trees and more about the social and political forces of the 20th century and how they pushed us to where we are now. Let’s be honest, history can be dry and boring, but this series is so compelling and well-written, you will find yourself wanting to binge watch it as you crave to see what happens in the next chapter of our country. In the end, you may not feel so great about how recent American history has played out, but now more than ever, this is essential viewing for anyone that claims to love the USA.
DJ: Never thought much of a show like this for its writing but I suppose you are right, there is writing involved. They made a companion book to it which is pretty good as well. With the world today it makes me want to revisit.
I watch a ton of TV and a lot of it is not for its writing, to name a few: Blindspot, Hawaii 5-0, Gotham, Kevin Can Wait, and the CW Superfriends shows. All entertaining in their own way but I constantly question choices, rip apart plot holes, or grimace at bad and lazy writing. The dialogue often makes no sense. Unfortunately, some of the great story ideas are ripped apart by bad execution. I know everyone raves about some of the programmings of Hulu, HBO, and Netflix but I took a different approach showcasing three gems from the three main networks to highlight that once in a while ABC, NBC, and CBS can hit lightning in a bottle.
The Good Place (2016-present)
It’s very rare to get a well-written sitcom these days. Honestly, that has always been the case. For every All in the Family, there is a Small Wonder. So when looking through the dreck of Man With a Plan or Dr. Ken, I was surprised to find the enjoyable, Kristen Bell comedy, A Good Place. Michel Schur created A Good Place in 2016 and with his writing team has created a smart, witty, and inventive sit-com like no other. Set in the after-life, Bell’s character Eleanor Shellstrop believes she was sent to the good place instead of the bad one due to a clerical error and now her goal is to lie and fit right in. Schur has created a fantastical world where he and his writers can create just about anything. Within that, they still have to write well-crafted jokes which they do. The ability not to be able to swear in the “good place” allows for lines like “Motherforker!” which reminds me of Battlestar Galactica’s “frack”, which is a fun device. The show also has Bell who delivers the writing with ease, she is a great comedic actress that goes all in. It helps also to have recently Emmy nominated Ted Danson as her co-star. Semi-reoccurring characters from Adam Scott and Jason Mantzoukas (who might just adlib every show he is in) add to the fun. This premise could get old but the writers have engineered two believable majors twists that have changed up the show, often not something seen in a sitcom.
MG: I haven’t seen it. Your description doesn’t entice me to do so. I’ve been burned by so much garbage on the broadcast networks I don’t see the point of giving them a chance when there is so much good content elsewhere that I can’t even keep up with.
Person of Interest (2011-2016)
One of my favorite shows of the 2000’s was the J.J. Abrams-produced show Person of Interest. I started watching this based on two other Abrams series Lost and Fringe. Although he produced he was not the creator or the main writer, this was Jonathan Nolan. Nolan centered the show around Lost alum Michael Emerson, a mysterious man who has a machine that spits out social security numbers of “persons of interest” people who may be a killer or may be killed. Emersons’ Finch finds a down on his luck former CIA agent played by Jim Caviezel to help stop the crime from happening. That is really the cliff notes version. The first season or two is written more as a procedural of the week ala CSI or NCIS but with the knowledge of a bigger mythology. The remaining seasons balance both and unlike Lost come to a satisfying conclusion. The writing is sharp and is built on the relationship of these two men whose personalities are on opposite ends. The supporting characters, played by Kevin Chapman, Taraji P. Henson, Sarah Shahi and my favorite Joss Whedon player, Amy Acker, are well developed with flashbacks and pieces that come back into play later. It was a show that did not get enough credit which I guess is because it got lumped into the CBS bigger picture of cookie cutter shows. It currently streams on Netflix.
MG: Haven’t seen this either. My parents like this show, though. To be honest, they are the only people I know, other than you, that still watch a substantial amount of shows on ABC, NBC, or CBS. Last month I set them up with Hulu, though, and my Dad said he loves it.
Happy Endings (2011-2013)
I was not of the mindset to choose two sitcoms in my selections but I felt compelled to pick the cult favorite comedy Happy Endings. Happy Endings was ABC’s answer or successor to Friends. Created and written by David Caspe it centered around six friends, who hang out. Three girls, three guys, two of them used to date, two of them are currently married, one is gay, etc…Like a lot of the world, I loved Friends and still do today, so I did not want to see a copycat version. I wrote this show off immediately but when I hear a sitcom is getting good reviews I feel the need to check it out, it’s only 22 minutes right? I loved it almost immediately and was the only comedy at the time that I had to see on the night it was shown, which was how I use to feel about Seinfeld. The comedy writing on this show is a masterclass, it’s snappy and very fast. The actors deliver it at the speed it is written, Caspe stuffs a ton of jokes into its 22 minutes. All six of the actors, Damon Wayons Jr.(has the pedigree), Elisha Cuthbert, Eliza Coupe, Adam Pally, Zachary Knighton, and the great Casey Wilson were up to the task and similar to the best TV ensembles were the perfect mix. The cultists are still pushing for a revival, if Murphy Brown and Last Man Standing can get one why not this right?
MG: You are 3-3 on shows I haven’t seen.