The Writers' Room: TV Review

An often insightful survey course about collaborative TV writing, fit for fans and casual viewers alike.

Academy Award-winning writer Jim Rash hosts this Sundance Channel series, which looks at the creative process behind hit shows like "Breaking Bad," "New Girl" and more.

The Sundance Channel's new roundtable series The Writers' Room presents a weekly behind-the-scenes discussion about the creative process of some of television's best shows. The well-chosen lineup (including Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, New Girl, Parks and Recreation, American Horror Story and more) runs the gamut of formats from across cable and broadcast platforms. Over the short course of half an hour, host Jim Rash (Oscar-winning writer, who is also an actor and director) hones the conversation among the writers and actors about their creative process, sometimes with illuminating results.

Though Rash says at one point, "this is my [James] Lipton moment," the overall tone of The Writers' Room is much frothier than Inside the Actor's Studio, and Rash's main job is getting the excited creatives to talk about specific aspects of their work instead of just allowing them to banter with inside jokes. Rash does an admirable job of realigning the conversation to the politics of a series, or, in lighter moments, who writes the most jokes (does anyone keep a tally?) and the occasional what-if such as, "what would the show be like if it had been on broadcast television?" Facts about the featured writers pop up during each episode at the bottom of the screen, as do quirky morsels about the show and celebrity tidbits from Entertainment Weekly, co-presenter of The Writers' Room, which also inserts editor Jess Cagle at the end of each discussion for a nebulous segment called "The Last Word." 

The show's short format keeps the pace moving quickly, but it also means that not everyone at the table gets to speak (particularly when there's a large team, like for Breaking Bad, as opposed to the representatives for Parks and Recreation, who number at a more manageable four.) Though there are mild spoilers for some of the drama plots, overall the conversation stays general. This means fans who are looking to delve deeper into their favorite characters or scenes from a beloved show may feel that Writers' Room comes up short, though its survey approach also means that there's value in watching episodes for series viewers may not watch or even like. 

Every once and awhile amid the amiable banter, though, there erupts a great insight, like when Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation) says, "when you fail together, you are kind of in love for life." New Girl creator Liz Meriwether also talked about how she had to learn to work within the collaborative arena of television writing, while another writer commented on how New Girl is really made in post-production, making it (to paraphrase) "another interpretation" of the material. All of the guests acknowledge their luck in still being on the air (or in the case of Breaking Bad, both making it on the air in the first place and being able to end when they wanted to), expressing, too, the difficulties of their work. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan even said he occasionally thought he and the rest of the writers should all "Heaven's Gate it" when they had reached a spot they couldn't figure out how to emerge from, which prompted a pop-up that basically explained, "mass suicide!"

The Writers' Room is a fun look at the mostly unknown faces who have created some of the best shows on TV, though The Writers' Room might not have been wrong to expand the format and really delve deep into the nuances of the creative process of the specifics of certain shows, even at the risk of alienating viewers who weren't intense fans. Still, the approach they have amounts to a worthwhile 101 course on how television shows are conceived. In one of the best moments, Rash instigates a live brainstorming session with the writers of New Girl, which ends up spawning a legitimately good series of ideas to potentially use for an upcoming episode. Just like that, viewers get to share in that experience of joy, that elusive feeling that something really good was just created here.