Sundance Channel's The Writers' Room, which premieres tonight, offers viewers a tantalizing proposition: A glimpse behind the scenes of your favorite TV shows to learn exactly how elite teams of writers put an episode, season, or series together. In the two episodes screened for critics, the show features candid conversations with the writers behind AMC's Breaking Bad and NBC's Parks & Recreation; in future episodes, the show will tackle Showtime's Dexter, Fox's New Girl, FX's American Horror Story, and HBO's Game of Thrones.
The Writers' Room makes you appreciate how much work goes into each series (the Parks & Recreation team describes their Sisiphyean effort to crack a story about Leslie and Ann teaching a conflict resolution class together — an effort that has remained unsuccessful to date). It makes you realize just how easily a show could have gone off the rails. (When Breaking Bad's writers originally wrote a cliffhanger in which Walt and Jesse were trapped in an RV with Hank outside, they had no idea how they'd solve it in the next episode.) And sometimes, it just offers interesting pieces of trivia. (Jesse Pinkman's original name on Breaking Bad? Marion Dupree.)
But while The Writers' Room may be focused on other TV shows, it also needed its own identity. Fortunately, producers found the ideal host: Jim Rash, an instantly recognizable face from the four years he's spent playing Dean Pelton on NBC's Community. Rash is also an enormously accomplished screenwriter; in addition to "Basic Human Anatomy," a well-received episode of Community that he wrote last year, Rash earned an Oscar for co-writing The Descendants in 2011, and scored again this summer with the indie dramedy The Way, Way Back, which opened in wide release on Friday after a successful limited run.
What's it like to go inside the writers' rooms of some of the most successful shows on television? I spoke with Rash about the modern TV landscape, the other shows he'd like The Writers' Room to tackle in the future, and the one piece of advice he has for any struggling screenwriter. Here's a (slightly edited) transcript:
There's never been a reality series that's attempted to document the ins and outs of a TV writers' room. Why now?
There's such a thirst for knowledge from fans of these shows. Now that there's a way for everyone to connect, I think there's an opportunity to learn about those shows from a whole different perspective — which really is the group of people in the writers' room, where it all begins. We always hear from actors, and directors, and creators — but this is about the process. It's very unique, and hopefully enlightening, to gives fans the full view of a show they love.
Now that we're in the so-called "golden era" of television, how do you think being a TV fan has changed?
I think fans have an outlet. Through social media, you can hear them. I think about being in college, watching all my favorite shows, but you certainly didn't have any exposure to the internet or anything. I just feel like we hear them. People are vocal, so you hear the pros and cons of your shows. Certainly, having been on Community the last four years, I know full well how everyone feels about it from episode-to-episode. You can't not hear it.
What do you think it would have been like if TV viewers had access to something like The Writers' Room in the 1960s or 1970s? Would people have been as engaged with Dick Van Dyke, or All in the Family?
[laughs] Possibly! Why not? For us to be able to communicate with people around the world who are watching the same shows… Can you imagine watching All in the Family and having an outlet like Twitter? Where you could discuss it while it's happening? I think that would be a really interesting thing.
For the first season of The Writers' Room, you tackled several of the biggest and most acclaimed shows on the air. Which shows didn't you get to cover?
I'd love to sit down with shows I've watched from the beginning, like Mad Men, or stuff that's not on anymore, like Lost… The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or the Cheers peeps… Those are the first ones coming to my mind, but I know there are more. I found that with each show [on The Writers' Room], there was such a tonal difference to speaking with each of them. One, because the shows were so different; and two, because the dynamics are so different. There's never going to be a lack of knowledge, no matter how many shows we do.
Watching the differences in tone and tempo between the Breaking Bad and Parks & Recreation rooms was fascinating.
Oh, yeah. And Game of Thrones, you'll see, is just me and the two creators who adapted it, Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff]. That was a whole different dynamic, and very interesting as well, to see how their minds wrapped around the books. New Girl, as well. They're all interesting in that way.
Which show would you most want to write for?
It's hard, because there are so many interesting places to go. I would say… I would have to go with… ugh, that's tough… I love Breaking Bad, so it would be hard for me to pass up the opportunity, if they said, "You know, we're going to do another season." Because I find it so complex and interesting and f---ed up in wonderful ways, and I love the path they took with Walt. But just for the pure love of Amy Poehler, I would want to have an experience with her [on Parks & Recreation]. I legitimately enjoyed chatting with them so much, because it was so entertaining and so quick. It's hard, but I'll go with those two.
Why didn't you go into the Community writers' room?
I hope to at some point! This was just the first six episodes, and they sort of picked a range of shows, but ultimately, I'd love to sit down with Dan [Harmon] and the writers — and even though I might know the answers to a lot of stuff, I'd certainly love to talk about their process. I had a little experience in the room last season, for like two weeks, but at that point it'd be sort of fun to sit down and chat. I'm into that.
You've had some recent success writing for film this summer with The Way, Way Back. What are the major differences between writing for film and writing for television?
The nice thing about TV writing is that you get a faster answer. For a pilot, you write an episode, it gets made, and then it's, "Oh, no, moving on." And the challenge of writing for film — with The Way, Way Back, it took eight years to even get to a place where we were shooting it. It had this up and down road. There is something nice about the shock of writing television. That it can be so abrupt. "Nope, you're done." But one is not easier than the other. With writing, I love doing it, but there's that love-hate relationship: You're not having a good run, you've hit a wall, it's frustrating. I think what writing on a staff, or writing with a partner, is always a benefit, because there's one other brain that will hopefully have the answer. Or someone you can just sort of commiserate with and try to work your problem out.
Having spent so much time with some of the most successful writers in television, what will you take away for your own writing career going forward?
I learned something going into the show, and it's so fresh in my head. I learned it from another writer. I had shared this whole thing about writer's block, and dealing with it, and this writer, Megan Ganz — who's actually on Community — said that she runs errands when she gets writer's block. She just picks the simplest thing: Dry-cleaning, or something that she can go do a task that will relax her brain and allow it to accomplish something, and more often than not, the solution comes when she stops thinking about it. And it works. I've done it every single time since.
The Writers' Room premieres on Sundance Channel on Monday, July 29 at 10 p.m. EST.