The End of TV Writer Cults

Here’s something I’ve noticed about discussions of TV shows online: you don’t hear nearly as much about individual episode writers as you normally used to. The Christmas episode of Community was the first episode Dan Harmon has taken a writing credit on since the first two episodes of the series (he co-write it with legendary comedy veteran Dino Stamatopoulos), but — at least on the blogs and other discussions I read — the other episodes are usually held up as examples of his work, too. I rarely hear people singling out individual credited writers. Same with most other comedies and dramas on the air: the episodes of Boardwalk Empire are mostly discussed in terms of Terence Winter; How I Met Your Mother is considered primarily a Bays-Thomas joint; and so on. There’s a bit more of an individual-writer focus with science fiction shows, which have always had writer cults (and anti-cults, in the case of the Star Treks and Battlestar Galactica), but the showrunner usually plays a central role in online discussion of each episode.

The individual writing credits are a big deal in discussion of Glee, namely when it comes to Todd VanDerWerff’s “Three Glees” theory — but that’s mostly because the show has no writing staff. With each of the three creator-showrunners writing a third of the scripts, there’s actually a reason to think the script credits matter, but also, when we talk about the scriptwriter we’re also talking about a showrunner. There’s no separation between the two jobs. When there is a separation, fans these days usually talk about the showrunner first and foremost.

I should add that this is a pretty accurate and fair way of talking about television shows, especially U.S. television shows. Writing credits don’t tell the whole story or even part of the story, and some shows assign writing credits almost arbitrarily. Comedies tend to rewrite scripts line by line, and even drama scripts are pretty heavily shaped at every stage by the showrunner. So whether the showrunner wrote the first draft or not, it makes more sense to talk about the episode as if it’s his; we don’t know who contributed which lines, but we know who’s in charge.

So this isn’t a bad trend, but it’s just a bit of a change from the way TV discussion used to be. When I started to talk about TV on the internet in the ’90s, mostly on usenet, indvidual episode discussion focused much more on scriptwriters, and not just for science-fiction shows. Even though The Simpsons had a distinctive pair of showrunners at the time — Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, whose approach to the show was a bit of a break with the previous few seasons — alt.tv.simpsons threads frequently wouldn’t mention Oakley and Weinstein and what they might be trying to do with the show. Instead it was all about writers: Jon Vitti had an online cult based on his track record with Simpsons scripts, John Swartzwelder was already legendary, and people wondered why George Meyer was no longer writing scripts. They later discovered that it was because he was heavily involved in the rewriting of almost every episode, leaving him no time for the comparatively unimportant job of writing first drafts. But we didn’t know that at the time. Jennifer Crittenden, the show’s first full-time woman writer, got a fan hate cult for reasons I was never fully been able to figure out, except that fans blamed her for the rampant continuity errors in the first episode she wrote.

The most famous TV writer cult of the ’90s was for Darin Morgan, the X-Files writer who was only there for a couple of years, never rose beyond the rank of story editor, and didn’t have much say over the shape of the show as a whole; he was a cult figure because of the unique and crazy scripts he wrote. In that case, people on the show agreed, and told the world, that he was an original and that his scripts had a style all their own. But more common was the writer cult that developed around Buffy writer Drew Goddard during the show’s final season (in 2002-3), based largely on one good episode plus one other episode where a lot of fans mistakenly thought he’d written the best scenes (they were actually written by Joss Whedon, who didn’t take a credit). Many of the other writer cults were — not necessarily wrong, just based on incomplete information. Vitti’s a great writer, but he would be the first to admit that some of his best Simpsons episodes were from outlines that other people had already written and were then assigned to him. They didn’t take story credits, so the fan impression of “Lisa’s Substitute” was that one man, Jon Vitti, had created this great episode, when the accurate credit would have been “First draft by Jon Vitti, from a detailed outline by James L. Brooks; rewritten by Vitti, Brooks, Sam Simon and the rest of the staff.” Even a guy like John Swartzwelder, who was eventually paid to do nothing except write scripts and whose scripts were famous for needing relatively little rewriting, frequently worked from stories pitched out by other writers and assigned to him.

Today, fans are more aware of this kind of thing, more aware that the writing credit is incomplete information, and in particular, aware that the showrunner is often in control of everything no matter what the credit says. Fans of Deadwood knew that David Milch was the man behind everything, even though he didn’t usually take script credits. And now that showrunners are on Twitter, creating their own fan followings, fans are even more aware of who is in control of the show. There are other writers from Community and Bones and Modern Family and Big Bang Theory on Twitter, but they naturally defer to the showrunner (just as they do on the show) and the showrunner is the one who gets most of the fan praise or blame, whoever gets the “written by” credit. It’s arguably a sign of increased fan sophistication or at least increased fan knowledge — giving all the credit to the showrunner may not be completely accurate either, but it’s certainly more accurate than discussing each episode as if the writing credit explains everything, which is how things were done in the ’90s.

(I should add that although writing credits don’t tell you who did what, you can learn some things from the credits just the same. For example, the fact that Chuck Lorre refuses to let people write first drafts — instead room-writing the episodes and crediting six writers on every episode, with himself usually as one of the six — helps explain why individual episodes of Big Bang Theory have this unfortunate feeling of sameness about them. Though even there, we have to be careful; there are some shows that fell into a similar system without codifying it in the credits. Also, there are some shows that do have more individual contribution from the credited writers. On Seinfeld the writers usually got to create scripts based on their own personal experiences, and therefore had more responsibility for the shape of the episode; Seinfeld and Larry David would control the process and do the final rewrite, but there is at least some trace of the writer’s personality in there if you’re looking closely.)