The creative process behind US TV dramas

It has become a truism to note that American television drama is enjoying a golden age. Series such as The Sopranos and The Wire have collected unprecedented plaudits and taken TV writing to a new level, with HBO leading the way in the format. Yet little is known of those who create such shows, and the processes they use.

“It’s all-consuming,” says Joy Lusco Kecken, a staff writer and script editor on The Wire, speaking of the two to three months before a show goes into production. This is when the hierarchy of writers – from the “show runner”, the various editors and producers, down to the assistants – assembles and the drama of creating drama takes place.

“The overarching vision is that of the show runner, who explains the signposts for the season,” Lusco Kecken explains. “A staff writer is part of the dialogue that shapes the colour, characters and story­lines of a season or episode.”

Proving yourself worthy of a place at the writers’ table is done by writing “specs” – the rewriting of current shows to showcase a writer’s ability to observe the conventions of the genre and excel within them – “like writing the fourth act of a play”, says Glen Mazzara, a veteran of six seasons writing the gritty crime drama The Shield. Specs show that a writer can write seamlessly to someone else’s vision and to the voice of the show. “Good shows to ‘spec’ at the moment would be True Blood or Breaking Bad,” he says.

Under the supervision of the show runner, episodes are sliced up for individual writers to develop. The most common format is that 70 per cent of an episode will be the self-contained weekly plot, the other 30 per cent will be the overarching narrative that spans the entire season. Each episode runs to a “beat sheet”, each beat representing an emotional arc or plot development point (even a physical change of scene or a movement within a scene). A beat equates to about a minute of show time and there is roughly one page of script per beat.

“Each episode takes about a fortnight,” says Lusco Kecken. “Once you’ve done that, you then chat to the show runner about it. The second draft takes perhaps 10 days, then they – in this case David Simon – take it off for a polishing.”

During the collaborative stages, “a writer would normally try to take at least three ideas to the table each morning. Maybe, an idea from an interview you’ve done with a cop the night before, a bit of poetry that might give a scene a certain feel, or a funny line,” Lusco Kecken continues. “Then, while paying close attention to the hierarchy of the table, you’ll spend the whole day waiting for the perfect moment to pitch – if one of your ideas gets used it’s been a good day.”

Mazzara describes the process of working on The Shield as rather more aggressive. “You come into the room with the attitude that the sole purpose of the other writers is to screw you up. Each idea is thrown to the writers like a piece of raw meat, to be ripped apart by a pack of very hungry dogs.”

Sitting in the same room with the same six or seven people, as writers trawl each other’s creativity, emotions and personal histories for the best storylines, creates a “Vegas-like environment”, says George Mastras, executive story editor on Breaking Bad. “What gets said in the writers’ room stays in the writers’ room.”

Breaking Bad portrays a crystal-meth-dealing chemistry teacher battling lung cancer. Season Three has just aired in the US and Season Four has just been commissioned. It is a current favourite of the critics, nominated in seven categories at this year’s Emmy awards, to be announced on Sunday.

It is not surprising that this no-holds-barred approach to creativity has put scripted US drama into a state of accelerated evolution.

The ideas come from anywhere and everywhere. Rashad Raisani, the 29-year-old screen writer who is executive story editor on the fourth season of Burn Notice, explains how the following riddle haunted him for years: ‘You have died and are in limbo. There are two doors. One door leads to heaven, and the other leads to hell. There are two guardians, one by each door. One guardian always tells the truth, the other always lies. What one question can you ask to find out which is the door that leads to heaven?’

This became incorporated into the plot of a key episode where the show’s ever­smiling protagonist, a former government spy, tries to figure out how to escape imprisonment by two terrorists.

“One day, sitting around the writers’ table, Ed Burns [co-creator of The Wire] was telling us about a book he was reading on Vietnam,” Lusco Kecken recalls. “Eventually the complexities and contradictions of the bureaucracy we were discussing there filtered down and became a defining characteristic of The Wire.”

In The Wire, many of the characters were based on real people. One of the most popular, Omar, the Robin Hoodesque gang leader, was based on a composite of criminals Ed Burns had come across during his days in the Baltimore police force. Others, such as union leader Frank Sobotka, and Ziggy, memorable for his fondness for exposing his sizeable appendage in public, were the result of “old-fashioned newspaper style interviews and months of research,” says Rafael Alvarez, author of The Wire: Truth Be Told and a fiction writer whose roughly crafted literary style helped to colour the world of the Baltimore docks in Season Two.

Defining the essential quality that will make viewers curl up with a DVD box set as they would a novel – perhaps for 10 to 20 episodes of a show that may run for up to seven seasons – is naturally a preoccupation of writers. Raisani believes that good drama must ask a compelling question of the viewer: “What would you do in that situation?”

The same sentiment is echoed in a famous memo said to have been sent by the Pulitzer-winning playwright David Mamet to his team of writers on the CBS drama The Unit: “Who wants what? What happens if they don’t get it? Why now?”

“On Nash Bridges,” says Mazzara of the light-hearted 1990s cop show starring Don Johnson, which gave him his first break, “the cop is always driving a big yellow cop car and always finds a parking space right outside of the place he wants to go. That doesn’t feel real. Whereas on a show like M*A*S*H the characters always had to duck down before they entered a tent. That feels real.”

“In the best drama the physicality of the world pushes up against them.” adds Mazzara, who pulled together writers from The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield and Deadwood to create the TV series remake of the Oscar-winning film Crash and is currently show runner for the hospital drama Hawthorne, starring Jada Pinkett Smith. He is putting his theory to good use, using his pre-screenwriting days as a hospital administrator to inform his vision.

“Ultimately,” he concludes, “good TV drama comes from the same place as good novels and plays, a place of internal strife.” And certainly, the paths leading to the writers’ table often seem to have been burdened with the archetypal struggles of the artist.

Rafael Alvarez gave up a 23-year career in journalism to sail into the distance as an ordinary seaman: “The pay was low, but I had great health coverage, and time to write,” he says in an article for a Baltimore magazine. During the 13 years that Mazzara worked in New York as a hospital administrator, he would work on screenplays after hours.

George Mastras gave up a 10-year career as a lawyer to trek the Himalayas for a couple of years. “Stripping myself down to the bare essentials, just a backpack, made me think more clearly about what I wanted from life,” which formed the basis of his recent novel Fidali’s Way. An extract of what was to become Fidali’s Way, as well as good “specs”, led to his position today on Breaking Bad.

Many shows have biographies as precarious as the lives of their writers. Carnivale, about a travelling circus and freak show set in dust-bowl Depression-era US is considered one of the many jewels in HBO’s crown, yet was cut prematurely due to dwindling audience figures and escalating costs. The same is true of Deadwood, set in America’s hard-drinking, whoring pioneering past. Its creator, David Milch, was also responsible for NYPD Blue and for one of this year’s most eagerly anticipated shows, Luck, the pilot of which is directed by Michael Mann and stars Dustin Hoffman.

“The success of the show you are on is collateral in the industry,” says Raisani. “Every time a season is renewed, its writers rise up the food chain and the more in demand you will be to work on other shows, or more leverage you will have to become a producer, executive producer or show runner.”

A recent graduate of this process is long-time Shield writer Kurt Stutter, now show runner on Sons of Anarchy, a hit for FX about a gang of Hell’s Angels who are torn apart by Shakespearian conflicts and the pressures of modern day life.

However, there is no guarantee that this will happen. “Nine out of 10 shows are bad,” says Raisani. “Many new shows simply don’t work and fail for reasons beyond the control of the writers: the main actor chosen for the part is wrong or what a show is trying to do may be too ambitious for its budget – what was intended to look spectacular will simply look ridiculous.”

With only one or two standout shows coming out each year, getting a gig on one of them is highly coveted and, once a show has finished, a writer may find himself disregarded. “Then it’s back to traipsing around LA with your scripts for pilots,” says Lusco Kecken. “One guy had scripts that went up to his waist; mine only went up to my ankles.”

The Primetime Emmy Awards take place on Sunday, August 29

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.