We asked award-winning director, Nathan Marshall, to break down the new rules of television writing. Take it away, Nathan!
Television writing used to be a pretty straight-forward affair. By the mid-1990s, the sitcom had reach the height of its form with shows like Seinfeld and Friends, and the hour-long drama had found an acceptable balance between soap opera plotlines and edgy camerawork in episodics such as ER and NYPD Blue. There was a place for everything, and everything was in its place. Sitcoms used the decades-old double-line-space writing format, and dramas stuck to the tv/screenplay hybrid style that had been hammered out in the 1960s. It all made sense!
And then came HBO. Sure–we’d all wasted evenings watching the tired B-movie fare of the old Home Box Office. The movies you’d never rent at the video store were bound to show up on the afternoon schedule eventually, and there they’d play, over and over again, until bored viewers stood virtually no chance of avoiding Edward Furlong’s recent platitudes in Pet Sematary II. The channel had made some notable attempts at original programming with the series 1st & Ten in the mid-80s and Dream On a decade later,but it would be the adventures of a female columnist in Manhattan, and the dueling moralities of a mobster across the river in New Jersey that would finally transform the station—and in its wake, television as we knew it.
Sopranos and Sex and the City weren’t just well-written. They also looked different. Shows like Hillstreet Blues and LA Law had helped to give shape to an emerging one-camera television shooting style, but these new HBO programs were a new thing altogether. They looked like movies. They had subtlety. They were friggin’ great!
After that, chaos ensued. The Shield turned a shmucky hot-head into a hero, and Curb Your Enthusiasm threw out the script altogether. Pretty soon, white-collar moms were selling dope and serial killers were developing consciences. What was once so easy to predict became complex and interesting, and the writing formats that seemed sketched in stone began to mutate. As the dust settled, new genres emerged, along with new methods of classifying the old ones. We now talk about “three-camera” versus “one-camera” television, and some of these show-types are formatted in unexpected ways. Here’s my best shot at untangling them, along with a brief description of what makes each format unique:
THE 5 NEW TV FORMATS
- Sitcom. Okay, this format ain’t exactly new. The situational comedy was a carry over from radio plays in the 1920s. Sitcom writing format hasn’t changed much in the past thirty years, but the way we talk about sitcoms has. Nowadays, when you’re pitching a half-hour comedy to a network exec, you need to clarify whether your show is “one-camera” or “three-camera.” Sitcoms are three-camera. They are filmed on a stage in front of a studio audience, and are shot on three separate cameras simultaneously during production. Any shows with reoccurring three-walled sets, such as That 70s Show and King of Queens, are sitcoms.
- Hour-long drama. Okay, you got me—this format isn’t new either. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t seen changes! Hour-long drama scripts are still written in the standard TV drama format, but the look and feel of these shows have taken a distinct turn toward the cinematic. These days, all dramas are shot in the “one-camera” shooting style. Films are shot with one camera instead of two or more cameras so that each shot can be lit individually, and be made to look as good as it possibly can. While shows like Dexter and Six Feet Under have pushed the genre to its dramatic edge, even network shows like Chuck and Heroes have advanced the format, and look way more like movies than their 1990s counterparts.
- One-camera half-hour comedy. These days, the one-camera half-hour comedy has far outdistanced the sitcom for number of new and popular shows. The look and feel of programs like Sex and the City and Weeds has become the norm, and 2007 hits like Samantha Who? , Pushing Daisies, and Dirty, Sexy Money all fall squarely within this new genre. Although reliant upon the two-act writing structure of sitcoms, one-camera half-hour comedies not only look more like films, they are also written more like them. Shows in this genre are almost always written like TV dramas, with single-spaced dialogue and lower-case action blocks.
- Half-hour mockumentary. Filmmakers like Woody Allen and Christopher Guest were spoofing the documentary format years ago, but it was Larry David that turned the mockumentary into a legitimate TV genre. I first time I saw Curb Your Enthusiasm, I didn’t know what it was—documentary, reality, or scripted farce. Whatever it was, it was darn funny, and since the late 1990s, Rickey Grundey and others have taken the style even further. While Curb and shows like Fat Actress went script-less and worked entirely from an outline, The Office and other documentary-ish hybrids are written down, then improved upon, or “improv-ed” upon, on set. And how are they written? You guessed it: In the one-hour drama style.
- Half-hour drama. Say, what? Half-hour drama? For decades, this format has been the third-rail of primetime television, and several courageous TV makers have been seriously burnt by forays into this medium. The problem seems to be that dramas are ‘serialized,’ meaning each show serves as one ‘chapter’ in a larger story. Nobody wants to wait a week to see the next development in his favorite episodic whiz by in 22 minutes. Recently, however, more and more people have been talking about a re-emergence of this format, and HBO’s In Treatment seems to be setting the pace. Needless to say, half-hour dramas are scripted in the one-hour drama format. But should you write one? It could be quicksand, but you might also be the person who solves this riddle, and helps to make the half-hour drama a viable format!
Nathan Marshall received an MFA from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television in 2005. In 2007, he won the Best Director Award at the Los Angeles Independent Television Festival, and he currently has super kick-ass pilots in development at Productions Partners, Inc., and Hazy Mills Productions in Los Angeles. Nathan is an Associate Professor of Film Studies at American InterContinental University, and is honored to be a two-time cameo contributor to Script Frenzy!