- Nobody with a Good Script Needs to Be Justified
In a 2008 interview with Powells Books, novelist Richard Price was asked if his work writing for HBO's The Wire (2002–2008) had influenced his approach to his latest novel, Lush Life. "No, not at all. TV does not influence novels—at least with me, it doesn't."1 Sixteen years earlier, on an episode of Seinfeld (NBC, 1989–1998) titled "The Virgin," George tries to pick up a woman in a bar by suggesting that he writes for television:
What do I do? Well actually, I'm a writer. In fact, I'm writing a comedy pilot for NBC right now.Woman:
A sitcom? How can you write that crap? Carol, this guy's writing a sitcom.Carol:
A sitcom? Come on, let's go. (They leave.)Woman:
A sitcom. Can you imagine? And he actually tried to use it to hit on me!
It's Not TV?
What these two examples have in common is a commitment to understanding television fiction writing—whether comedy or drama—as a lesser endeavor. Even when the writing on a series is deemed to be extraordinarily good, as it was on The Wire, it is often appreciated in terms not specific to television. A particularly suggestive trope of many critics is to describe a well-written program as "novelistic." Most illustrative of this trend is an essay Charles McGrath wrote in the New York Times Magazine celebrating the string of quality hour-long dramas on network television in the mid- 1990s (a group which he categorized as "prime-time novels"):
[O]n television these days, if you listen hard enough, you can often hear dialogue of writerly quality—dialogue, that is, that's good enough to be in a book. And there are ways in which TV has actually taken over some of the roles that books used to fill. A few of the more inventive TV series, for example, have [End Page 153] become for our era the equivalent of the serial novel, unfolding epic stories installment by installment, and sweeping all of us up in shared anxiety and in a lot of group sighing and head shaking over what fate or (it's the same thing) the author has in store.2
By highlighting the extraordinariness of these "writerly" stories that are "good enough to be in a book," McGrath diminishes the majority of television fiction writing by highlighting the surprising quality of a small handful of series capable of rising above the fray. And even then, they do so only by approximating more prestigious cultural forms.3
In this essay, I want to explore what television fiction writing—as a particular and ordinary set of activities—can tell us about what John Corner has called the "cultural dynamics" specific to television.4 Corner describes these "cultural dynamics" as a matter of both centrifugal and centripetal forces at work. Corner ascribes the centripetal nature of television to the medium's ability to process "a wide range of established and emerging cultural features manifest in other areas," while the medium's centrifugal nature accounts for its reach—its ability to interpret these features and then project them "to the widest boundaries of the culture."5 In what follows I focus on two areas that make television writing a distinct set of cultural practices: the series structure of television storytelling, and television writing as a particular kind of negotiated activity. To investigate the nature of this negotiated activity, I have interviewed several working television writers, who have tried to help me understand the contexts within which they do the work they do.6
Well, Actually, It Is TV: Series Structure, Familiar Characters, and Drama
In contrast to the view that quality television must be understood or justified in relation to other media, I offer examples of "ordinary" elements of commercial television writing and producing shared by all series regardless of quality. As a way of illustrating how these elements help shape the particular cultural dynamics of television, I focus on the question of how writers and producers approach cultural politics in their series. Each of the writers...