The New Pilots

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Photo by Kat Oshman.

Scene A

FADE IN

INT. HOUSTON COURTROOM – DAY

Three months before the world reeled from the events of 9/11, another tragedy was on the mind of almost every mother in America. On June 20th, 2001, Andrea Yates, a 37-year-old woman with a history of mental illness, drowned her five children in a bathtub at her home in Houston, Texas.

When Yates’s murder trial began on February 18, 2002, Suzanne O’Malley, a former writer for Law and Order, sat in the courtroom and watched the proceedings. O’Malley was first covering the story for O Magazine. But when State District Judge Belinda Hill barred independent journalists from receiving media credentials in April 2002, O’Malley waited in line every morning to receive one of 50 passes that let members of the general public into the courtroom.

On March 7, 2002, forensic psychologist Park Dietz took the stand. Like O’Malley, he had ties to Law and Order — he was a consultant for the series. Dietz testified under oath that Yates, whose favorite television program was Law and Order, conceived of the idea for her crime from a recent episode of the show. The prosecution used his statement as evidence that the killings were premeditated, and on March 12, Yates was found guilty and convicted to life in prison.

There was just one problem. O’Malley didn’t remember an episode with similar themes ever being aired — or even discussed in the writer’s room. She was right. There was no such episode.

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FADE IN

INT. COLLEGE CLASSROOM – DAY

“No one who hadn’t written for Law and Order and/or watched all 300 episodes would’ve caught the error,” says O’Malley. In the three days that led up to the jury’s verdict, she made her findings known to the media and Yates’s lawyers. It was a groundbreaking discovery — but one that came too late to overturn the initial prison sentence. The false testimony, however, was not forgotten. It was raised four years later when Yates was retried in a Texas courtroom.

For O’Malley, the Andrea Yates trial is an example of television’s impact on real-world events and is one of many reasons that television writing should be included in college curriculums. She strives to show that the craft should be taken seriously as a form of writing that both mirrors and affects everyday life. “If we send students out into the world without some experience using a liberal arts education to get quality writing in a form that is so, so powerful, I feel irresponsible,” she says.

CUT TO

CLOSE-UP: YALE

Two years after Yates’s first trial, O’Malley made her way to New Haven for a Calhoun Master’s Tea. In the spring of 2007, Calhoun Master Jonathan Holloway and former Dean Stephen Lassonde invited O’Malley to teach the college seminar “Writing Hour-Long Television Drama.” She had previously taught the course at Rice University, just a short distance away from the courthouse where the Yates trial took place.

Today, O’Malley offers two courses as part of the Yale Summer Film Institute, “Television Crime” and “Television Situation Comedy.” She is one of a growing number of professors who consider television to be a means of story-telling that is just as worthy of attention as other writing forms. “With notable exceptions, I think the current generation of writers is undereducated in the principles of story, at a time when telling a story is the dominant cultural force in the world,” O’Malley says.

O’Malley isn’t the only one teaching television writing and analysis at Yale. This semester, Saybrook is sponsoring the college seminar “Writing Half-Hour Television Comedy” taught by Bob Stevens, a former writer for Malcolm in the Middle and The Wonder Years. English Professor Amy Bloom regularly taught “Writing for Television” during the academic year before her appointment as Wesleyan University’s Writer-In-Residence in the spring of 2010. This school year, no classes on television writing have been taught in the English department, which has directed its focus toward nonfiction, fiction, poetry, playwriting, and writing for film. “That’s not because it [television writing] is a ‘lesser’ genre, but rather because within the limited resources we have for hiring eminent writers, we’ve focused on these longer-established genres,” explains the English Department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies, Amy Hungerford.

While the number of television writing classes still lags behind the number of screenwriting classes — Yale’s Film Studies department offers screenwriting courses every semester — the craft has made great strides at educational institutions. While she was an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, O’Malley became interested in writing for television, but no such classes were offered. “It was a much more mysterious field,” she says. “It was still growing creatively. The format we think of automatically today didn’t exist then.”

PULL BACK

James Macak GRD ’87, an Assistant Professor in the Visual and Media Arts department at Emerson College, encountered the same problem as O’Malley while he was a graduate student at the Yale School of Drama. He received an MFA in Playwriting but recalls that no television writing courses were taught during his time at Yale. After he graduated in 1987, Macak was contacted by David Milch, a former Yale graduate student and teacher who wrote for Hill Street Blues and co-created NYPD Blue. After reading one of Macak’s plays, Milch hired him as an intern and thrust him into a television writing crash course. “I essentially learned the craft of TV writing by having David rewrite my scripts — sometimes every word — and trying to figure out why he made the choices he did,” explains Macak.

Like O’Malley, Macak has also brought his knowledge of television writing into the classroom. He teaches four seminars at Emerson: “Writing for Television,” “Writing the Prime-Time Drama,” “Writing the Television Pilot,” and “Writing the Web Series.”

David Tolchinsky ’85, the director of the School of Communications Creative Writing for the Media program at Northwestern, has placed a particular emphasis on the craft within the department. Students enrolled in the program must take at least one course in television writing, as do graduates in the Writing for Screen and Stage program. Courses that are offered include “Writing the TV Pilot,” “Writing TV,” “Writing the One-Hour Drama,” and “Writing the Sitcom.”

One goal of the courses is to teach the structural elements of the script. A typical half-hour TV show consists of two or three acts, whereas hour-long dramas feature four to six acts, depending on the number of commercial breaks. Compared to other kinds of writing, the format for television is stricter. “You absolutely have to fit yourself into the ‘box’ of the show — the character bible, the length of the scenes, the structural breaks, etc,” explains Tolchinsky. “Structure is there in screenwriting, but it’s more unforgiving in TV writing. We know what’s expected. But we also have to be new.”

Despite structural inflexibility within episodes due to timing and commercial breaks, television writing allows for greater freedoms in the long run. While most feature films feel pressure to present spectacle, television places an emphasis on character growth. “It’s still a medium where great stories can be told over an extended period of time, allowing for characters to evolve with a depth and complexity that you might only find in great novels,” Macak explains.

Both television writers and screenwriters emphasize that the process of writing for movies is different than that of writing for television. “It used to be believed that a television writer could never be good enough to write a screenplay,” says O’Malley. “TV was seen as a downgrade.” Aaron Sorkin, who successfully transitioned from the feature film A Few Good Men to The West Wing, is one writer who has combated this assumption.

Macak also points to the positive impact that three recent “golden ages” of television drama have had on the public perception of the craft’s legitimacy. One began in the late 1980s on nbc and abc with shows like St. Elsewhere and Moonlighting, followed by more recent pay-cable series including The Sopranos and The Wire, and current basic cable programs like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Such shows, particularly The Wire, are valued as sociological studies and have also found their way into classrooms.

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CLOSE-UP: THE WIRE

In the summer of 2008, Richard Price, a writer for the The Wire, visited O’Malley’s “Television and Crime” class. The Baltimore-based series ran on hbo from June 2002 to March 2008; each season explored a different aspect of the inner-city drug scene. For Price, the show’s writing both reflects and influences reality. He spoke about actual Baltimore police who ran wiretaps and heard drug dealers talking about episodes of The Wire in those wiretaps.

Anne-Maria Makhulu, an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology and African and African American Studies at Duke, was on research leave in New York City when her colleagues encouraged her to watch The Wire. She rationed out the show, ordering one DVD at a time from Netflix. At the time, she was writing a book on South African shantytowns, places of poverty that she began to realize were comparable to the depictions of Baltimore in the show. “The Wire is a jumping off for me for things that I would probably teach anyways, with the backdrop of a serial which brings everything together,” she says. “The power of The Wire as a TV format is that it is a serial and it’s the kind of serial where you can withstand to watch all sixty episodes. It builds momentum — there’s tremendous identification with some of the characters.” Duke now offers a second course on the show, a first-year writing seminar that combines academic writing with television analysis.

Harvard, Middlebury, and The University of California, Berkeley also offer courses on The Wire. William Julius Wilson, a professor of Sociology and Social Policy at Harvard, taught “Urban Inequality and The Wire.” After the shopping period, 140 students tried to earn admission to the 30-person class. “Although the series is fictional, not a documentary, The Wire offers a sophisticated depiction of systemic urban inequality that constrains the lives of the urban poor,” explains Wilson of the show’s appeal. “Basically, The Wire reflects fundamental sociological principles that have long been the concern of social scientists and policymakers focusing on social inequality.”

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CLOSE UP: THE WRITER’S ROOM

Television writing not only benefits educators and sociologists, but also those who seek to make a living as professional writers. At Northwestern, professors use the framework of the writer’s room — in which a small group of students sits around a table in the classroom setting — to emphasize the importance of learning the business side of television writing. They seek to replicate the process of pitching ideas and instruct students on how to take meetings, understand contracts, and buy and sell scripts. This is essential given that most television writers are young, the majority being in their late twenties, thirties, and early forties. “If you’re going to teach writing, shouldn’t you necessarily teach the form that most people want to work in, the form which is central to our culture?” Tolchinsky asks.

The field presents an extremely viable market for aspiring writers. According to Macak, television offers more entry-level positions than screenwriting or playwriting. O’Malley has seen her students go on to do medical consulting for episodes, work in screenwriting at the William Morris agency, and consult for pilot shows.

Inside Yale’s Saybrook Lyceum room, fifteen students sit around a table, their laptops open as they read over an outline for an original pilot episode. It’s the class’s second stage following the pitch. Ideas are lobbed back and forth. Is this character actually likeable? No wait — is she too likeable? The one with all the piercings and tattoos, she’s too similar to the guy. Maybe she could be really straight-laced — opposites attract, right? This conflict needs to be elevated. Take more of a risk, up the ante!

Scene C

FADE IN

When O’Malley was leaving the courtroom in 2002, Yates’s lawyer told her that she saved his client’s life. Judge Hill might have refused to communicate with the press, but O’Malley’s voice was still heard. Her discovery had an even greater impact on Yates’s fate and the court system as a whole on June 22, 2006, when the retrial commenced. A little over a month later, Yates’s sentence was overturned and she was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Today, she resides at a Texas state mental health facility.

O’Malley’s use of television not only changed the verdict, but also set the stage for what is becoming an increasingly relevant and predominant form of writing. One thousand seven hundred miles away from the site of the trial, she brings her knowledge of television and its application to everyday life into the classroom. The challenge that remains: to enter into a new golden age of television writing that will close the gap between the fictional world of the screen and reality. As in any good television episode, it’s time to raise the stakes.

END OF ACT I

Correction: April 16, 2011

An earlier version of this article misstated David Tolchinsky’s graduation year.

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