TV Writers vs. Early Pickups [updated May 26]

Gray Jones (me) with Chuck co-creator Chris Fedak
Gray Jones (me) with Chuck co-creator Chris Fedak

Time to dust off my blog.

In case this is the first time you’re visiting, I’m a reality TV editor / writer located in Toronto, Canada. I have a great love of scripted shows, and in particular of NBC’s Chuck, about which I host one of the world’s leading podcasts, “Chuck vs. the Podcast.” I have met all of Chuck’s writers personally, shared meals with them, seen where they work, and personally interviewed all of them at least once (except for Josh Schwartz – still working on that one).

On to the network news this week…

Overall, I’m incredibly excited.  Most of my favorite shows are back — in particular, “Chuck,” “V,” and “Smallville” all could have been axed because of low ratings, but their respective networks have thankfully considered more than just the Neilsen numbers.

The only sad omission for me was “Heroes,” but that was not unexpected. It wasn’t just the ratings… As happened with “Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles,” my Monday night TV group had gradually lost interest in Heroes long before the ratings declined. That said, I followed it to the end, and would be very happy if NBC tied up the series with a 2 or 4 hour TV movie, as has been rumored.

Also, I have a long list of new series that I’m eager to check out. “The Cape” (NBC) looks promising, and not just because of Summer Glau. “Undercovers” (NBC), about a spy couple, created by Josh Reims and J.J. Abrams? Oh, yeah! I loved the quirky movie “Outsourced,” and am eager to see what NBC can do with this story in series form. I’m a sucker for superheroes, so ABC’s “No Ordinary Family” is a no-brainer for me, particularly since my favorite TV writer, Ali Adler, will be involved.

But isn’t Ali Adler one of the key writers for Chuck? Ay, there’s the rub.

In fall 2009, it was announced that Scott Rosenbaum, one of the senior writers and executive producers for Chuck, was selected by ABC to become the new showrunner for V, starting with the 5th episode. Great call, by the way – with Skeeter at the helm it has quickly become one of my favorite shows.

Then, on Thursday of this week, we found out that another senior writer and executive producer, Matt Miller, would be leaving Chuck to be the showrunner for another WB-produced show, “Human Target.” Great news for Human Target! But for Chuck?

Well, at least we have senior writer and executive producer Ali Adler… oops! On Friday, Ali broke the news that in the void before NBC announced Chuck’s fate, she had accepted ABC’s offer to write for No Ordinary Family. She says it was very tough, and she will miss her Chuck family and the devoted fans.

One other Chuck writer was in a similar position… Phil Klemmer.  When Chuck’s demo ratings dropped to 1.9, renewal wasn’t looking very good. It was a very hard decision to make, but when a job offer came from another show (NBC’s “Undercovers”), he had to go with the “bird in the hand.”

Gray Jones (me) with Chuck writer Phil Klemmer
Gray Jones (me) with Chuck writer Phil Klemmer

Before we continue, please read this enlightening article by Nellie Andreeva on the effect of early pickups on writing staffs.

So should we fault the writers?

Let’s consider the landscape, particularly for a writer on one of the many shows in the bubble range. Even a critically acclaimed or well-rated show can be canceled or have its budget cut. In pilot season, writers take home stacks of pilot scripts, trying to get a sense of which shows they could aim for if they lose their job. When the time comes, they will have to think very quickly, because if they make the wrong decision, they could A) take a job on a show that only lasts a few episodes, or B) wait too long and miss out completely. If the latter happens, they may have to wait as much as a whole year for the next viable staffing season.

Not only that, but when a writer is offered a job on another show, there is a long line of other writers waiting to take that same position. There is usually a ticking clock on the offer, and if that clock runs out, the job instantly goes to someone else.

Writing salaries may seem high, but so is the cost of living in Los Angeles. These writers have mortgages, car loans, health care costs, and mouths to feed just like the rest of us. Imagine going a year without work? It’s not like these writers can go on Craigslist or look at job websites to find a job.

A case in point is Chuck. It was one of the last renewals to be announced. With two straight weeks of 1.9 ratings and strong new pilots getting buzz, renewal was never a sure thing. NBC could not promise jobs to the writers before announcing their decision. Should these writers have waited for the upfronts on May 17th? By then, the clocks would have run out on their offers long before, almost all of the staff positions would have been filled, and they would’ve had at best slim pickings.

I’ve got a family to support. I know what I would do in that situation. Wouldn’t you?

So should we fault the networks?

Well… I’ll let you decide this on your own. As for me, I try to look at the positive. Chuck could have been canceled completely! Is that what we would’ve wanted? And who knows what goes on behind closed doors. If NBC had been pressured to an early decision, that decision might easily have been “No.”

Where the magic happens - Chuck writers room
Where the magic happens – Chuck writers room

So where does that leave us? Let’s consider three things.

Firstly, new writers can bring much needed freshness to the table.  My favorite episode of Heroes was written by a writer’s assistant who had never written an episode of TV before. Rafe Judkins and Lauren LeFranc had only written a few episodes of the short-lived “My Own Worst Enemy,” and yet their first and second episodes of Chuck, “Chuck vs. the Tic Tac” and “Chuck vs. the Honeymooners,” are two of my favorite episodes of season three (“Honeymooners” is in my top 5 for the whole series).

Secondly, it is part of a TV writer’s job description to write within the style & tone of a series and the voices of the characters. In order even to get the job, they have to show spec scripts that demonstrate these abilities.

Thirdly, the TV writing process is very collaborative, and has many fail-safes. First, a whole room of writers discuss the arcs of the characters and mythology for a season, and ideas for the various episodes. Then, they work together to “break” the stories into acts, sequences, scenes, and even beats within scenes. Next, individual writers are assigned to write drafts, and these drafts are brought back into the writers room for critiques and rewriting. Along the way, all the executive producers have a hand in running the room, which includes shaping and rewriting, giving notes on drafts, etc. Finally, there is the all-important showrunner pass, where the executive producer acting as showrunner will go through the script to tweak the dialogue so that it is consistent with the way the characters have spoken from the beginning. And that’s before the network and talented directors and creative departments weigh in. Then there’s a read-through with the cast, who can offer even more suggestions.

Do individual writers have strengths and weaknesses? Absolutely. However, if you look back at episodes of a well-written show, you will find that each writer can write for each character, and even experienced writers have stronger and weaker episodes. Once the collaboration is complete, the average viewer (stress “average”) can tell little difference between episodes written by different writers.

Do I have favorite writers? Yes. I will certainly miss Ali Adler. However, as Chuck fan Nicola Burke said, “LeJudkins. Dare I say it, they could be the new Ali 2.0.” I don’t think Rafe Judkins and Lauren LeFranc could replace Ali, but I can honestly say I’m just as excited now for a “LeJudkins” episode as I am for an Ali episode.

The next generation - Rafe Judkins and Lauren LeFranc
The next generation – Rafe Judkins and Lauren LeFranc

I’m sad to see these writers go. But I’m eager to see what new writers will bring to the table. And most of all, I’m ecstatic that we have more Chuck to look forward to.

Let’s keep up our support more than ever! If you want to ensure this doesn’t happen again, the only thing you can do is help get the ratings up. Please watch live, and tell all your friends to do the same! During the hiatus, let’s host viewing marathons, use social media, buy lots of copies of the three seasons on DVD to loan or give to our friends and family, and get as many new eyes on the TV as we can for when Chuck returns this fall!

The cup is half full. Actually, from my perspective, it’s a lot more than half.

– – – – – – –

[updated May 15, 2010, 7:15pm with details about Phil Klemmer]

[updated May 26, 2010, 4:15pm with more details about Phil Klemmer (NBC “Undercovers”)]

[Click here for a fun interview we had with Rafe Judkins and Lauren LeFranc on the podcast.]

Follow me on Twitter: @GrayJones