What top TV writers watch on TV
Anyone looking for a barometer of what the industry considers its "best in show" need look no further than the nominees in Emmy's writing categories. Sure, there are acting, directing and show prizes, but the heart of any series lies in its writing. No matter how good any of the other areas are, without solid scribes, a show will collapse.
Take Sci Fi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica," which drew a surprise writing recognition nom this go-around after three seasons of coming up empty-handed in the major categories. Executive producer Ronald D. Moore has reason to feel more confident about this particular accolade: "I do know writers in town are fans of the show," he says.
Furthermore, just two other shows round out the drama writing category -- though they come from the big boys on the block. Moore's competitors are high-profile critics' faves Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse for the season finale of ABC's "Lost;" and David Chase, Terence Winter and Matthew Weiner for three separate entries of HBO's "The Sopranos."
It's much the same story for the comedy noms: There are only three shows represented -- Tina Fey and Robert Carlock for individual episodes of NBC's "30 Rock," Greg Daniels and Michael Schur for their respective episodes of NBC's "The Office," and writing team Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant for HBO's "Extras."
Unlike those in the acting and top series categories, writers aren't forced to view the top vote-getting entries en masse. Rather, they are expected to screen eligible submissions on their own, and only writers can vote for writers. But more than a few scribes admit to being too busy to find the time to watch. "Sadly, I haven't even seen the other two nominees," says one working comedy writer, who admitted to only having watched "The Office."
That means a fair number of voters are choosing based on perception and reputation, and as a result, the final selections tend to fall in line with that of media tastemakers and critics. This year's Television Critics Association Awards feted "The Sopranos," "The Office" and "30 Rock" -- all multiple-episode nominees making up half of this year's six series writing contenders.
Winter, executive producer of, and two-time writing Emmy winner for "Sopranos," says judging the work of other writers can be a frustrating experience. "That's the downside of what we do. We see behind the curtain and how the wheels turn," he says. "I spend all of my days constructing stories, so it's hard to watching something and not automatically begin to deconstruct it. I know when I'm being set up and what will happen the next 99 times out of 100."
Others who've been lucky enough to grab the prize say that this category offers some stiff competition. "Those are all funny shows," says "My Name Is Earl" creator/executive producer Greg Garcia, whose NBC show was shut out from the category this year. "There's not one episode nominated in the comedy category that I didn't laugh all the way through. I'm just going to have to try and remember when I laughed the hardest."
What does work for Winter is genuine shock. "What I enjoy is to be surprised, to walk away with the feeling that not in a million years would I have predicted what just happened," he says. Perhaps, then, he's likely to give a vote to the "Sopranos" series finale, which shocked virtually anyone who watched it. Says Winter, "I thought (Chase's ending) was brilliant."
Nancy Updike, a nominee for her "God's Close-up" episode of Showtime's "This American Life" in the nonfiction category, echoes Winter's thought: "I'm looking for the same thing in every category, which is to be surprised and dazzled," she says. (Writing is all in the family for Updike, who is distantly related to double Pulitzer Prize winner John, but she's "forgotten where" he is in the family tree.) "I want to see something new," she continues, "get a new idea or see a new image through the writing."
"Entourage" creator/executive producer Doug Ellin, who, like Garcia, was left out of the running this time after picking up a nom last year, says he judges by that indescribable "wow factor." "It has to be something that leaves me in awe, like 'The Wire,'" which despite near universal raves from critics and TV industryites alike, has only been nominated for a writing Emmy once.
A source of concern for some voters in years past has been weighing series pilots against regular episodes, also an issue in the director categories. This year, however, the issue is moot -- none of the nominated episodes are pilots -- but the subject still rankles. Sitcoms, in particular, which are generally written in a writers' room, are often the most collaborative efforts, and that should be honored, says Garcia, who won for the "Earl" pilot a year ago.
"Sometimes, you feel like it should be a staff award if it's not the pilot," he explains. "A pilot creates the whole world and is really the work of one person, so I personally lean that way."
"30 Rock" co-executive producer Carlock, however, says that on his series the collaboration is much more limited. Because of the single-camera nature of "Rock" -- each episode takes eight days to shoot -- staff writers are expected to solve problems on their own, leaving less time for groupthink. "Our process isn't designed around a room. It's certainly harder on the writers, because we don't have much time, but it's worked out nicely so far."
Good writing can also be judged at times by the acclaim a show garners outside the writing category itself. Well before the contenders were announced, "Entourage's" Ellin reportedly said that he specifically wrote the episode "The Resurrection," in which Johnny Drama faces a string of rejections before finding out his pilot is a ratings hit, to score actor Kevin Dillon an Emmy nomination.
Mission accomplished. The writing itself may not be up for an Emmy, but Ellin is happy it struck a chord. "We did something unexpected in this episode -- there's nothing over-the-top happening. It's just a hard dose of reality for Johnny. I got calls that people were 'uncomfortably moved,' so I was happy," he says.
"Battlestar's" Moore had thought the buzz wave had passed for the show; last season, he thought, was when they'd peaked. Reviews were glowing, the show won a prestigious Peabody Award, and the press covered the series as vigorously as they do broadcast hits like "Lost." But last year, despite an aggressive Emmy campaign, the show couldn't land a nom in any of the major categories. This year, it's up for both writing and directing.
His nominated episode, "Galactica's" two-hour Season 3 opener, bares both of the series' hallmarks -- big action and politically charged drama -- and Moore suspects that those elements may have had a part in the unexpected recognition.
Comedy writers by and large also look for strong story and character-driven elements in addition to laughs. "I look for a balance among the characters where the writer gets the most out of them," says Carlock.
"It's interesting to judge something for its writing -- I'd like to think it was a two-way street when you have someone like Alec Baldwin working for you," he adds. In his nominated "Jack-Tor" episode, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) realizes that her boss, Jack Donaghy (Baldwin), has zero onscreen presence. Meanwhile, Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) pretends he's illiterate to avoid having to read from cue cards.
But for the most part, writers are simply discriminating fans of sharp work. "I certainly love all the other nominated shows," says Carlock, who adds with a laugh, "but I'll hate them soon enough."
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