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Writing the TV Drama Series 3rd edition - REVIEW

Writing the TV Drama Series 3rd edition - REVIEW

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Published by: Michael Wiese Productions on Feb 14, 2013
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Copyright 2012 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Complimentary copy--not for distribution

recommends ten other books on screenwriting that offer different perspectives. I think his choices (there is nothing by Aronson, Cowgill, or Seger listed) are very appropriate. I can think of no finer reason to praise Riding the Alligator than how Densham answers the question “How do I write a screenplay?”—with another question, “Why do you want to write a

screenplay in the first place?” This book blends theory with practice seamlessly and should be read by anyone interested in the craft. PHILIP J. TAYLOR Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, School of Theatre and Film, Arizona State University

Pamela Douglas. Studio City: Michael Wiese, 2011, 288 pp.
“Should I use a text in episodic writing class next semester?” I asked that question last year, and it sparked a book search on the Barnes & Noble Web site that yielded twenty-five-plus titles. Writing the TV Drama Series: How to Succeed as a Professional Writer in TV (3rd ed.), by Pamela Douglas, was one of them. Its title promised the usual target market of wannabe writers, but it was the only one that also sold itself to teachers. An author rarely reedits a book three times in less than ten years, but when I discovered the text was required reading in Pamela’s USC School of Cinematic Arts TV writing course, this made perfect sense. Another discovery: she based that course’s syllabus on the book. Eureka! “The definitive work on dramatic T V writing just got more definitive,” says Jack Epps Jr., in an example of the many glowing notices on the book’s inside cover, which validate its recognition as the “the premier book on the subject world-wide” (4). Perusal of the content yields updated references and interviews in the core material (included in all three editions), a more in-depth investigation of the future of T V drama and its potential delivery systems that will challenge the traditional production model, and a more global perspective of the series business than in previous editions. As expected, the author’s presentation is compelling and astute, but because of my bias toward the text’s adaptation to the classroom, this review focuses primarily on content malleable for teaching. “Spotlight on Dramedy” caught my eye because it deals with the current proliferation of single-camera series crossing boundaries between comedy and drama. In the author’s new interview with David Isaacs (producer of Mad Men), they discuss how “new writers have to understand what creates character and how it guides you to tell a story. Real drama and real comedy are about some condition that people are afflicted by, or an obstacle in their lives, and you eventually find some way for them to deal with that dilemma” (43). This demystification of dramedy offers teachers a provocative platform from which to workshop its parent genres and crossover properties. A subgenre that budding writers have traditionally been told to avoid is the procedural— their lack of legal, medical, or police knowledge makes it an improbable match. Flying in the face of that decree, Douglas includes a section titled “Spotlight on Writing Procedurals,” in which she gives evidence of the reemergence of character concerns equaling those of plot and the impact on traditionally plot-driven procedural storytelling. She contrasts the broadcast networks’ CSI: Miami (pure police/ detective procedural) and The Good Wife (legal


journal of film and video 65.1–2 / spring/summer 2013
©2013 by the board of trustees of the university of illinois

Copyright 2012 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Complimentary copy--not for distribution

procedural with an added mix of political satire and family drama) and AMC’s The Killing (an even stronger blend of the procedural and the personal). All fall under the procedural banner, but they deliver their “cases” differently. This brilliant demonstration can have a profound influence on how teachers guide procedural pilot development. A network-based two-year plan for series production is mapped out in “How Shows Get on TV and the T V Season”: developing the new show the first year and then running the first season while developing a new show during the second. Pamela Douglas knows that it has been drilled into nonprofessional writers that they cannot get a series on the air if they have never written on a series, so the whole creating/producing endeavor can become a hopeless proposition to them. With wise-teacher optimism, she gives examples of how to get around the studio system. The highlight is Josh Schwartz, creator of The OC, who became the youngest person in network history to produce his own one-hour series without ever having spent time on the staff of a show (Fox put him together with a writer and a producer to support him). He is definitely not the norm, but students need to possess long-shot optimism in order to succeed. That said, when a wannabe writer sells a show or gets on a staff, he or she better know how to collaborate. Douglas’s stories of life in “staff hell” and life with a staff who played well together could be the groundwork for a potential experiential module in which teachers put students in collaboration “hell” to learn how to survive. Douglas contends that students should separate their right-brain (creative) and left-brain (analytical) functions, and she does so herself by separating the pertinent content into two separate chapters—“Writing Your Own Episode” (creative) and “How a Classic Script Is Crafted” (analytical)—which initially seems intriguing. However, from a teaching perspective, this syllabus separation could breed redundancy. If she dovetailed the two chapters, instructors could more easily teach students how to move

directly from their analytical understanding of a particular element (i.e., a-b-c storylines, grid structure, outlining) to the left-brain creation of that element in their own script. Douglas plunders this same territory yet again when she talks about creating a spec in “How to Break In.” Many say reiteration improves student learning, but her book could do without it. A very small quibble: the NYPD Blue analysis excerpts are classics, but feel dated for a “revised” edition. In “Spotlight on Writing a Pilot Script,” Douglas places great value on the development of a new show’s “world” and people to interact with that world, to ensure the series premise has a motor to spawn future episodes. Georgia Jeffries, an award-winning writer who teaches USC’s pilot-writing course, supports this by spiking out a series of questions students can ask of their shows to build the anticipation necessary to keep the audience coming back each week. The practical nature of this inquiry process lends itself easily to a classroom “writing staff ” testing their series ideas for longevity. “Life after Film School—Cautionary Tales and Success Stories” is the chapter worth the price of the book. Douglas’s war stories are always informative and entertaining, but the stories powerfully told by seven students who graduated from her MFA pilot class back in 1997 and then regrouped in 2000, 2004, and 2011, to tell of the life lessons learned on their career paths, are relatable for students. Rather than stats on a graph, they form an extraordinarily longitudinal study, the likes of which I have never seen, wherein a somewhat painful yet realistic picture of life after graduation is painted—essential reading for wannabe writers to digest and for teachers who can turn those real experiences into teaching moments. Creative ways in which this book can help teachers reimagine their approaches to series writing are endless—I hope it sparks your imagination as it has mine. Pamela Douglas’s optimism laced with pragmatism and her text filled with bullet points ready-made for

journal of film and video 65.1–2 / spring/summer 2013
©2013 by the board of trustees of the university of illinois


Copyright 2012 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Complimentary copy--not for distribution

academic teaching gave rise to a professional level of work in my class I had not previously seen—very satisfying! Though teachers cannot guarantee their students career success, Writing the Drama Series: How to Succeed as a Professional Writer (3rd ed.) is the tool they

can always depend on to give their students an honest chance at achieving that dream. DIANE WALSH University of the Arts, Philadelphia

Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale. Detroit: Wayne Sate University Press, 2010. 363 pp.
Since Georges Melies’s rocket crashed onto a craterous lunar face in his fantasy film A Trip to the Moon (1903), a sense of the extraordinary has been synonymous with the movies. A tautological term for the fantastic has been designated to every genre of film: from a historical “feature” to a biblical “epic” or even a “spectacular” war film. Hall and Neale painstakingly explore the significance of these and other terms, why they were applied, and how they have evolved into the blockbuster concept of today. By examining the early history of cinema, the authors demonstrate the fluidity of early definitions such as “specials,” “superspecials,” and “features.” Size, scale, expense, length of program, star and studio involvement, and high production values became key ingredients for use of the terms “epic” and “spectacle.” D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and European imports such as Quo Vadis? (1913) are cited as early examples of lavish films primarily marketed as epic or spectacular in an attempt to bring prestige and profit to the producers, distributors, and exhibitors. It was not until 1952 that the term “blockbuster” entered the public vernacular. The authors cite Variety (139) with using the term in its review of the Hollywood remake of Quo Vadis (1952). Nuggets of information such as how “blockbuster,” initially used to describe a heavy bomb in World War II, became analogous to a weapon against the competition from television—and eventually became synonymous with the concept of the epic and spectacular film—make this book more than just a compendium of facts. This book extensively scrutinizes the distribution practices that dominated early cinema. At a time when films consisted of just a few reels, charging exhibitors according to the length of the film (e.g., fifteen cents a foot) was the norm. As films became longer and more expensive, this practice became obsolete, giving rise to other methods of distribution—such as the states rights system; open, selective, and program booking; and roadshowing—in attempts to ensure profitable box office returns, especially on prestigious productions that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. By the 1930s, price-fixing, block booking, and blind selling ensured that the major studios exerted a vice-like grip on distribution that persisted for almost twenty years. Only intervention from the Supreme Court in 1948 facilitated the separation of distribution from exhibition and so quashed the monopoly of the Big Five. With the decline of the studio system, a rise in conglomerate ownership, and the rise of a youth market in the malls, the use of product marketing to drive the concept and selling of pictures was established. Star Wars (1977) is cited not only for the second coming of sound—in Dolby Stereo—but also for merchandising and sales tie-ins, which continue to dominate the marketing and distribution of films today.


journal of film and video 65.1–2 / spring/summer 2013
©2013 by the board of trustees of the university of illinois

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