Why Television Isn’t a ‘Writers’ Medium’
If common wisdom is to be believed, movies are a directors’ medium, whereas television is a writers’ medium. And, on the face of it, that appears to be true: Movies, after all, can afford the time and money to set up visually spectacular shots that will stay with the viewer in a way that television rarely (if ever) can, leaving television relying on the stories they’re telling in order to win people over. But … a writers‘ medium? Really?
I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time recently listening to the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast, which describes itself as a podcast about “writing, television and the business of writing for television,” and one common thread from all of the many discussions I’ve heard, from writers on shows as varied as Parenthood, Parks and Recreation and Supernatural, is the value of television as a “writers’ medium,” an idea that I can somewhat understand, but can’t quite buy into totally.
I’m not arguing that television doesn’t have some amazing writing on a fairly regular basis; look at shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Justified, The Venture Bros and so on and so on for proof of the amazing work that we’re lucky enough to see on a regular basis. But at the same time, how many television writers can the average person name in the same way that movie directors’ names somehow become part of pop culture conversation currency remarkably easily? Television may our an emphasis on the value of story, but how much value it places on writers, I’m unconvinced by.
What television does, I suspect, is emphasize the entire package of the show – the director is rarely the star in the way that he or she would be in cinema, because stylistic tricks are generally frowned upon in favor of keeping a consistent look and feel to every episode, sure, but the same is really true of the writing; there’s a focus on quality of writing, but not necessarily the individual voice of writers as such. Whatever quirk and authorial voice that’s present isn’t necessarily coming from one particular writer as it is coming from that writer trying to fit into the voice of the show runner heading things up, which for me is an argument against the idea that television is a writers’ medium because each and every writer has to subsume their identity in order to be a “success.”
The real focus of serial television is continuity of experience at all costs, meaning that the true stars become the things that are there all the time, be it the actors or the story in and of itself. Which, don’t get me wrong, can definitely be something that’s attractive to writers, because it’s a focus on their work, but I bristle at the idea that it’s a promotion for the writers’ themselves. Unless you’re Aaron Sorkin, the audience doesn’t know who you are or, really, care – which isn’t their fault, not really, and it’s possibly even a sign that you’ve done your job well – so… a writers’ medium? No. A story medium, definitely, but I think we still have to look towards prose and poetry as the only true writers’ mediums out there, still.