It is a long held maxim at film and television programs that the only way to teach television is to teach screenwriting. This makes a good deal of sense, since the producers of a series are (for the most part) the writers of that series. So why not start with the basic skill required for success? This was the case at Northwestern University when I earned my MFA, and remains the thinking today, decades later, at almost every major university, including UCLA.
But this thinking is flawed. Or, at the very least, it is an incomplete answer for the demands of a medium that is growing in sophistication and volume with each passing week.
It is no great observation to point out that scripted television is the fastest growing segment of the media universe. Despite proclamations that we have reached ‘peak television,’ scripted shows continue to grow in number each year and ORIGINAL SERIES (i.e., series that remain exclusive) have become the lynchpins of every major streaming service. Just consider the outsized impact that a single ‘must see’ series like THE HANDMAID’S TALE has on subscriber sales. It’s huge. A single hit series like GAME OF THRONES can drive subscriptions for months around its newest season.
In short, the engines of growth have changed across the tv landscape. And they will continue to change, offering – by far – the best employment opportunities for graduates of our various programs. And yet, with these opportunities come fresh challenges for those of us who teach: to keep pace, to evolve our disciplines, to make sure we are current in our understanding of industry trends and requirements.
To my chagrin, I must report that a good many film and television programs are falling behind the curve. There are even departments – at reputable universities – who fail to offer classes in television! As if somehow we were still at the dawn of independent cinema, circa 1995, and all the talent was lined up in Park City for Sundance. Or perhaps they believe there is no important difference in storytelling that spans 90 minutes versus 90 hours? Friends, there is a world of difference between these two formats! And to fail to teach these differences is not only negligent, it is destructive.
The gift of these recent masterworks – series like THE CROWN or HANDMAID’S TALE, WESTWORLD and MADMEN (still unsurpassed in my book) is that they have raised the bar of dramatic storytelling so high as to totally eclipse contemporary cinema. The talent has moved. The center of gravitas has left the building. One of the advantages of working and teaching in Los Angeles is that these are not empty declarations. These are the known facts in our circle. Great storytelling no longer means cinema. And it hasn’t for a very long time.
And yet, with new opportunity comes new peril. And the accomplishments of these few great shows has raised the bar for everyone. We see what can be achieved, it’s just damn hard to do. And the challenges of sustained, compelling drama, unfolding in fresh new worlds with equally compelling characters – these are challenges that most screenwriting classes just are not set up to meet.
We teach how to write a great pilot, which when you think about it, is about as useful as teaching young novelists how to write a great opening chapter. Even if you do a great job; even if 15 out of 20 of your students write pilot scripts that are absolutely terrific (unlikely, but let’s imagine this). Now what? Where’s the rest of this masterpiece? Do these students have the foggiest idea how to continue? You can bet they do not.
And therein lies the problem with all but a handful of these nearly 500 new series on television. They aren’t well built! They are not built upon a sophisticated understanding of the demands of long form storytelling – the inherent themes and sustainable conflicts and character appetites likely to evolve for season after season. As instructors, we are not teaching this part of the job. We are stuck in the past, teaching how to write a good pilot. Instead of how to envision the types of series audiences have come to expect.
One of the big advantages of teaching at UCLA Extension is their preference for working professionals over tenured faculty. And their willingness to listen when their instructors might have a smart alternative, informed by industry practices. Television networks – for those who don’t know – almost never buy a pilot script. They hear pitches, they develop those pitches in concert with their creators, along with the entire series, so they know what they’re making! That’s the model. And so I count myself fortunate to have been given an opportunity last September, to design a class that mirrors this model. It’s the television class I wish has been available when I was a student. It’s the model I want to advocate from here onwards, perhaps in tandem with those single-script classes.
My ‘Television Series Development Workshop’ was not a course for screenwriters. It was a course open to all students, many of whom had never written a script of any kind. I will not lie. There were days I wished I had asked for a prerequisite – some basic floor of understanding of the principles of good drama. But this proved less important than I first imagined. The goal of our eleven weeks together was not a polished script. The goal was a complete vision for an original series. Or at least, a sophisticated understanding of what makes one.
For the most part, I believe we succeeded. Certainly, any student who applied themselves came away with a massive new understanding of the landscape before them. And how their series could emerge on the other side of it. In fact, I will go so far as to say that if any of these students had gone directly from my workshop into that ‘pilot writing’ class, they would have been ahead of their classmates by leaps and bounds.
How did we achieve this? That is a subject for the following blog post. It’s also the subject of a new textbook I’ve begun writing, based on the large number of articles I wrote to support the class. But I will end this post with two thoughts. One, that a fresh approach to teaching television is more than warranted (either as a supplement to traditional screenwriting classes, or as a more all-encompassing class in its own right). And secondly, I wish to say how grateful I am to UCLA, and especially my department head, Pascale Cohen-Olivar for supporting me in this endeavor. There is work ahead! But aah, so much promise.