Writing and “The Prime-Time Novel”

15 Oct

I was really happy to read in the McGrath article, “The Triumph of the Prime-Time Novel”, his support of writers of television shows. So often it seems writers–especially TV writers—don’t get the credit they deserve. McGrath is right when he says that “TV is more of a writer’s medium than either movies or Broadway” (243) because, when you go to a movie or a Broadway show, you’re stuck there. You chose to see that movie or play and it’s the only choice you have for the next couple of hours. This situation is not the case with television. With TV, the viewer can flip through channels whenever he/she wants. If a movie in a theater is boring to you, you would probably still stay because,  one, you paid to see it, and, two, you specifically went out to see a movie and it would suck to just leave. However, if a TV show is boring, you can just change the channel! There needs to be something to keep the viewer interested–and attractive actors or pretty colors can only keep one interested for so long. The writing is what keeps viewers watching a show, so the industry is dependent on the writers. 

I don’t agree with McGrath, though, that weekly network dramas are the best written, “brand-new genre” of the “prime-time novel.” I personally believe that comedies, like sitcoms, are the best-written shows on network television (premium channel–HBO, Showtime–dramas are incredibly well written, but it is not fair to compare them because premium channel shows have abilities that network ones don’t). GOOD comedy is infinitely harder to write than drama–even the best drama. To get a viewer invested in a police or doctor drama all you need is some ominous background music and someone dying and a cop or doctor getting too personally involved, and a wrong accusation, then the right criminal gets caught/the dying person gets saved. Boom. Good drama. Police and doctor dramas are so incredibly formulaic they are essentially madlibs. Comedy, however, is so diverse and so subjective. I believe it is a huge accomplishment to create a show that can draw millions of viewers every week, because everyone has different tastes in humor and if one show can pull in people of varying senses of humor, well, that is just evidence of good writing.  

McGrath notes that Law and Order “responds to real-life events and incorporates them into the show’s plots” with great speed and that it can take as little as eight weeks to develop a script (245). Sitcoms reference popular culture too, and shows like the Daily Show and SNL (though admittedly it’s not always funny) have to come up with funny, current scripts way sooner than eight weeks…and that is an accomplishment. I will forgive McGrath a little, because this article was written in 1995 and sitcoms have become funnier over time (at least to me), but I definitely don’t think it’s fair for him to say television is the “prime-time novel” and almost completely dismiss comedic shows. A network drama can be good with just a skilled writer, but it takes not only a skilled writer, but a clever and witty person to create a successful comedy. 

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One Response to “Writing and “The Prime-Time Novel””

  1. Jan Feldman October 18, 2012 at 11:12 am #

    I definitely agree with you that comedies require some additional writing skills, which might not be as necessary with dramas. You mentioned the issue of timeliness, which McGrath cites in relation to dramas like Law & Order. If a drama tries to deal with very current, and often sensitive topics, and the show has good writers, I feel like people may be more willing to accept it as serious commentary on current events because the show itself is “serious.” I think comedies need to a bit more careful, so that people don’t criticize them for making jokes “too soon” after something has occurred.
    This reminded me of South Park, a comedy that is often written, animated, and aired within a week. (There’s a documentary on Netflix called “The Making of South Park: 6 Days to Air” that you guys might enjoy.) Unlike the Daily Show and SNL’s Weekend Update, which were designed to have such quick turnaround to deal with the news, South Park has only gained this ability in recent years because of better technology.
    I am specifically thinking about the episode “Best Friends Forever” (Season 9, episode 4). Kenny gets hit by a truck and goes into a persistent vegetative state, and a court case ensues about whether he should be left on life support. The episode was referencing the Terri Schiavo case that was going on at the time, and the episode actually aired just before Terri Schaivo died. This is timeliness to the extreme, and the writers of South Park risked potential backlash from viewers about the episode being insensitive or in bad taste. Although I’m sure some people were not pleased with the episode, it still won an Emmy, a tribute to the writers’ skill in dealing with the issue.

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