The TV writer’s voice: should it be different or the same?

David Mamet

Today’s TV musing is about writers. Now it can’t have escaped your notice but fiction doesn’t emerge fully formed from the sea onto our TV screens – there are these people called writers who create all the words and deeds depicted in dramas, comedies and even some ‘reality’ TV shows.

No two writers are the same, of course, each usually having their own ‘voice’ – a way of writing dialogue, a way of developing and introducing characters, a way of plotting that is unique to them. But on a TV show, that isn’t always a good thing.

On a serial or long-running show, sometimes you don’t want individual writers’ scripts to stand out from the others; you want them all more or less the same because you have ongoing character arcs, back story, established forms of behaviour for the protagonists and so on. If a writer’s script stands out, it’s probably because it’s inconsistent with the other episodes, which you don’t usually want.

On many TV shows, there is a special role specifically for making sure scripts all mesh together nicely. In the UK, that’s the script editor; in the US, it’s usually the ‘show runners’ or exec producers – who unlike their film counterparts are typically writers who have ascended the career ladder.

Of course, there can be problems when the script editor/exec producer also writes scripts, because there’s no one there to check their work for consistency and because they typically give themselves more latitude than they do to other writers. It’s not always the case: you’d be hard-pressed to work out which Lost scripts are by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, which Mad Men scripts are by Matthew Weiner.

But take The Unit, for example. One of the exec producers on that is David Mamet. Yes, the David Mamet – the award-winning playwright and screenwriter who wrote Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-plow, The Verdict and Wag The Dog, to name but a few classics. Who’s going to edit his stuff, let alone himself?

So whenever Mamet writes a script for The Unit, it’s always massively at odds with all the other scripts and contains an overload of his usual obsessions (martial arts, con tricks, overly manly behaviour). Surprisingly, they’re never as good as the scripts by the other producers, sister Lynn Mamet and Eric L Haney, on whose book the show was based.

Callan is another show that comes to mind. Creator James Mitchell resolutely refused to acknowledge there had been any character development in between his contributions to the four series, so whenever he wrote a script, every character immediately reverted back to the behaviours and relationships they’d exhibited in the original pilot play.

Yet there are some shows where different voices are tolerated and allowed. Take Doctor Who. Although show runner/exec producer Russell T Davies can rewrite up to 60% of a script created by one of the other writers, you can still usually tell when Gareth Roberts or Steven Moffat is writing the week’s episode – or when it’s one of his own. And that’s actually a great delight.

So today’s question: how much should individual writers’ voices be heard on TV shows – does it depend on the type of show and is the reason it’s tolerated on some shows because there are only a few decent writers on the show and we just notice when there are some good episodes for a change?

Advertisements