How TV Writing’s Evolving

(This article originaly published by The Odyssey on September 12, 2016).

Wow. Didn’t see that coming.

I fast-forwarded through the credits and then shut down my computer. I had finally finished watching season one and two of “Daredevil” (no more shame on me). The story and acting and everything else were great, but there was something else that really surprised me. The show’s writers had done something I hadn’t seen on any other TV show. As I discovered later, “Daredevil”wasn’t the only the TV show trying this new approach.

Basically, TV shows are currently giving up the storytelling model they’ve used for so long. Traditionally, TV and movies have focused on telling two different kinds of stories. That dynamic is changing, and in its wake, everything we know about what makes TV different from film could be changing too.

Movies have usually focused on longer stories where characters have a struggle and go on a physical/symbolic journey to face that struggle. For example, “Good Will Hunting” features Will, a mathematical genius who wants to stay a blue-collar worker, and his sessions with a therapist force him to think about what he really wants in life. Will rarely leaves Boston in the movie, but he goes on a psychological journey with different interactions and stages of growth that finally lead to a conclusion.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell called this process “The Hero’s Journey,” and story consultant Christopher Vogler noted in his book “The Writer’s Journey” that it’s present in most films — everything from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

TV shows, on the other hand, have focused on short stories where characters barely change but have entertaining adventures. The characters may evolve a little, but they rarely face their struggles and grow as people. “Monk,” for example, features the detective Adrian Monk who, like Will Hunting, is brilliant but no one really understands him. Both characters also meet with therapists to overcome their issues. Adrian knows what causes his problems — he was traumatized by his wife’s murder — and tries to overcome them by finding the murderer, but most of the TV show didn’t actually focus on this. The show’s main focus is how Adrian’s phobias and neurotic quirks (always washing his hands, always straightening things) make life interesting for him and his friends on the San Francisco police force. So every two seasons has one episode where Adrian gains another clue about the murderer (but never enough to catch him) and the rest of the show is Adrian trying to solve crimes while also creating awkward, funny situations his friends have to deal with.

This storytelling model avoids sending heroes on a journey until it’s absolutely necessary, and except for mini-series most TV shows — from “The Andy Griffith Show” to “Numb3rs” — have followed it faithfully. Even the quirky British sensation “Doctor Who,” which periodically recasts the main character and reinvents his backstory, never really has the hero grow; he may defeat his arch-enemies for an episode or two, but they always return.

As I said, this dynamic has changed recently. Superhero shows like “Daredevil” and “Agents of Shield” now feature characters who grow and evolve from one season to another, a very different direction than Adam West’s “Batman.” “Sherlock,” based on short stories which have been the basis for many traditional TV shows, has a mini-series tone, where every season is a journey the characters must follow to the end — with no assurance things will ever be the same.

There are probably several reasons for this change. One is that many movie screenwriters are now moving to TV – David S. Goyer (co-writer of the Dark Knight trilogy and creator of “DaVinci’s Demons”) discussed this in his 2014 speech at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. He explained this is partly because TV shows can tell more complex stories over six or 13 episodes than a two-hour film, and also because writers have more creative control in TV production. “Film,” Goyer explained, “is a director’s medium, [whereas] in television — at least in America — the writer is king.”

Goyer also predicted that while a certain number of great films will continued to be made each year, TV is now where most of the work and opportunities are for screenwriters.

Another possible reason is the fact Internet streaming has given TV networks the funds and demand to create more shows than ever before. In 2017, American TV networks will produce 500 original scripted shows, more than they’ve ever produced in a single year. This growth gives screenwriters plenty of room to experiment and try new storytelling techniques.

The hard question is whether this new dynamic will work long-term. Part of the appeal of traditional TV shows is that viewers know more or less what to expect each episode. Barney Fife is largely the same character throughout “The Andy Griffith Show,” never becoming a more rounded person, and audiences loved him for that. There are TV executives, such as John Landgraf of Fox,who worry that with so many TV shows being produced, the TV industry will make more shows than viewers can possibly watch. It’s possible this is a period where many innovative TV shows will get made, and then the bubble will burst.

It’s going to be fun watching TV for the next few years. Whether this new dynamic changes everything or only lasts a few seasons, it will definitely leave an innovative mark on TV storytelling and be remembered as a groundbreaking period.

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