writing and producing in prime time

Thursday, February 19, 2004
5-7 p.m.
Bartos Theater


A writer-producer of prime time series since the 1980s, John Romano returns to the Forum to offer his personal report card on the state of prime time. Has the writer lost power in the dubious plenitude of the age of cable? What is the significance of the recent dominance of reality programming for the future of tv series and movies? A former English professor at Columbia University and the author of a scholarly book on Charles Dickens, Romano is currently working on the screenplay for Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, and is a consulting producer and sometime writer for the current prime time show, American Dreams. Among his other television credits: Hill Street Blues, Sweet Justice, Third Watch, Monk, Party of Five, and Providence.

Summary

JOHN ROMANO began by addressing some of the issues he faced in his transition from teaching literature at Columbia University to writing television drama in Hollywood.

Although Romano came from a literary background, he soon felt at home in the TV writers' room. He believed that the cultural role of older narrative forums such as the Victorian novel could be filled today by television.

Romano began his career as a writer for Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981-87), where all the writers were deeply literary and most had Ivy League educations. For example, David Milch, who later created NYPD Blue (ABC, 1993-present), once wanted to write an episode of Hill Street based on Stephen Crane's "The Blue Hotel." Not only were the other writers familiar with this once famous American short story, they also knew exactly how to adapt the show's characters to the essence of Crane's story.

Romano showed the opening scenes from an episode of Hill Street Blues. The clip begins with the daily roll call lead by Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (played by Michael Conrad). The officers receive the day's assignments, including the rather mundane task of looking for a purse-snatching orangutan. After Esterhaus closes with his trademark line "Let's be careful out there," the camera follows various characters around the busy station, touching briefly on multiple storylines. Meanwhile, an argument between a screaming woman and a male suspect reaches a climax when the man grabs a gun and shoots. He is stopped and shot dead by an officer. The chaotic scene leads up to the opening credits.

The clip illustrates some ways in which the series changed the genre of police shows, and television drama in general. Before Hill Street Blues, the focus of detective programs was on "catching the bad guys." Hill Street was innovative for its complex look at both the sweat-and-blood realities of being a police officer, and the more trivial problems they dealt with.

Creator Steven Bochco believed it was more interesting to see cops as human beings; to examine their place in society, which was somewhere between the violent and respectable, the criminal and legitimate. Such themes had been explored by Dickens and Dostoevsky and many other writers. There is a sense that Hill Street Blues was continuing a literary tradition in a different medium.

The clip also illustrates the texture of the show, and how it balanced multiple characters and interwoven storylines. The purpose was to mimic the messiness of life. Real situations do not take place on quiet cleaned-up canvases, but happen among other events that are noisy, messy and unpredictable. Hill Street Blues invented the density of storylines which is now standard practice on shows like ER (NBC, 1994-present).

Hill Street was created in an era when the writer's role in television was primary, according to Romano. Things have changed since then. Writers now fight for a sustained development of characters, against a trend towards using quicker pacing and frequent cutting to music. Action scenes are more powerful and cinematic today, but psychologically complex or even believable characters are rare in prime time drama. Romano believes the audience must care about the characters even in action-adventure programs, or the full the full force of even their most visually exciting sequences will be lost.

When networks do produce series with well-conceived characters, Romano acknowledged, audiences do not always tune in. Despite its critical success, Hill Street Blues never had huge ratings. Another example is I'll Fly Away (NBC, 1991-93) starring Sam Waterston as a southern civil rights lawyer, which Romano identified as a thoughtful, artistically superior program. The network did all it could to get people to watch, but viewers turned away. However, Romano also made the point that networks could afford to keep some quality programs as long as they had bigger hits like The A-Team (NBC, 1983-87), which allowed the network to remain righteous supporters of Hill Street Blues.

Discussion

DAVID THORBURN, director, MIT Communications Forum: What are your thoughts on reality programs? They claim to be better than fiction because they show real people in moral dilemmas.

ROMANO: It only seems like reality because the people are not professional actors. There is a difference between character and personality. On most reality shows, there are no characters, only personalities. These people simply represent personality traits, and are not portrayed with any depth or complexity.

Reality programs resemble a show I worked on, Knots Landing (CBS, 1979-1993), which had stories that were furthest from reality. The goal in each episode was to blow the audience away with the most sensational story you could imagine. Contrast this with a show like Monk (USA, 2002-present). Although Monk has equally silly moments, there is a great deal of humanity in Tony Shalhoub's performance. That is what reality TV lacks.

THORBURN: What are the differences between being a "show runner" or producer on a show, and being the creator?

ROMANO: I think the differences may not be decisive. I really enjoy working on shows I didn't create. On a well-run writing team, everyone develops story lines and aspects of characters that the original creators may never have thought about. On a good show, there are always new things to learn about characters, because real people change and are complicated. There ought to be the sense that writers can continue to create a show in its third or fourth season. However, the one experience in television that is purely auteuristic is the first episode. The pilot sets the direction and tone of a series, and is the first step in the journey towards discovering the characters.

THORBURN: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the rise of cable and satellite systems began to threaten and undermine the three major networks. One consequence was that networks became willing to experiment and try bold variations on old forumulas. Most of these innovative series were short-lived because they violated expected conventions in ways the audience seemed unwilling to adapt to. John Romano was a part of what may be the most dramatic and interesting experiment of this sort: the series Cop Rock (ABC, 1990).

A clip from Cop Rock is shown, in which a duty officer performs a musical version of the daily roll call. His operatic song -- written by Randy Newman -- ends with the same warning that concludes the roll call prologue scene from Hill Street Blues: "Let's be careful out there."

ROMANO: One of the universal rules of television is you never show a cop singing. Cop Rock was extremely bold. The creator Steven Bochco still feels that it was one of the greatest things he did.

I wanted to be a part of Cop Rock because it was my opportunity to see what Bochco was like in the early stages of a show, and how he laid out the future of a character. For example, one of the stars played a young, gawky cop who did not quite fit into any of the plots. Before writing a storyline for him, Bochco watched how the actor was coming across on screen, and then wrote to his performance. We finally wrote a scene in which the young cop can't remember where he parked his car. It was perfect for the actor. If it wasn't for the song about finding his car, it would have been brilliant. The show did have some good moments; it was a noble experiment.

THORBURN: The first time we see Cop Rock, it strikes us as immensely comic because it violates such expectations. But Bochco understood that all primetime drama is a form of opera, that television melodrama moves aspires to an operatic intensity in which characters perform soliloquies. Conceptually, the show does not seem to be a failure at all. However, the problem wasn't only with the audience being uninterested; there were several practical and technical limitations.

ROMANO: It is crucial to design a project that can actually be sustained. On Cop Rock, the goal was to have four or five good songs for every episode, which is very demanding, even when you have artists like Randy Newman writing some of the songs.

JOELLEN EASTON, CMS graduate student: What happens to writers, producers, and actors after a flop? What can they do next?

ROMANO: Cop Rock was a relatively high-level production, and we were all able to move on. Even actors can come out of terrible shows and go on to win Oscars. For example, Tom Hanks started his career in some failed sitcoms.

THORBURN: When Steven Bochco first pitched the idea of Cop Rock, he certainly faced some resistance. But he was such a powerful figure, and had so much clout that he was able to produce the show anyway.

MICKEY DUPREE, MIT: Cop Rock also introduced other groundbreaking content. It had moments of extreme violence, such as one scene in which a cop shoots a prisoner in handcuffs. This degree of violence by the police would not be seen again until much later, on shows like The Shield (FX, 2002-present).

ROMANO: Yes, throughout the series, there were moments of pure cop drama that were more extreme than anything on Hill Street. Material that Bochco would later do on NYPD Blue was thought through on Cop Rock. There were times people begged Bochco to drop the music, because the show would have been fine without it.

TINA KLEIN, MIT Literature: I don't think of Cop Rock as such a bad idea, but maybe as a rough idea. It reminds me of Miami Vice (NBC, 1984-89), which was a cop show with music videos. The cops weren't singing, but it had musical numbers, and was handled differently. What were the differences between the two shows?

ROMANO: Miami Vice had a very slick feel, with characters reminiscent of Starsky and Hutch (ABC, 1975-79). It was all about their image and style. It also coincided with the beginnings of MTV, so there was an emphasis on music. While we always accepted and tried to take account of the lower visual quality of television as compared with movies, the creators of Miami Vice decided to shoot it like a feature film. Suddenly, more programs started to care about music and a sleek, flashy look. I think it was the beginning of the end of an interest in character and serious drama.

CHANDLER ROSENBERGER: In Cop Rock it was jarring to see cops in a realistic setting break into song. The musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB and UPN, 1997-2003) worked because the show was set in a fantasy world to begin with. Do you think achieving emotional realism depends on social realism, or can shows have emotional realism in a fantasy setting?

ROMANO: I care more about social realism. It is not the only way to do good television, but it grips me more. American Dreams (NBC, 2002-present) has a strong fantasy element, especially in the way it features American Bandstand. However, its focus is on a real working-class family struggling through the 1960s, a decade that is not perfectly recalled. I feel our effort as writers to imagine and represent what this blue-collar family would have experienced in that era is a serious social project. Another example is Dawson's Creek (WB, 1998-2003). The show had an obvious element of unreality, but the characters were very well conceived.

LIZ TIGELAAR, writer, American Dreams and Dawson's Creek: In regards to Dawson's Creek, a huge criticism of the show was that the characters did not speak like real teenagers. At the same time, I don't think people watched the show to see real teenagers, but to feel real emotions. The show made older viewers feel and remember all the firsts that they experienced, while younger viewers related to what they were currently experiencing. That is what made the show universal.

CURTISS PRIEST, CMS visiting scholar: What makes certain professions, such as doctors, lawyers, cops, and now forensics specialists TV-worthy? Why haven't we seen any shows about writers, for example? The Dick van Dyke Show (CBS, 1961-66) is the only one I recall that showed the writers' room

ROMANO: I think there is a very good documentary to be done about the writers' room. However, there isn't a lot of performance involved. There are interesting moments when writers share personal anecdotes, and are tempted to work them into shows. Although there is a collaborative aspect in the way writers get together to outline a story, there comes the time when one writer has to be isolated for many weeks to create the actual script.

As for other professions, I would like to see more diversity. I created a series Class of '96 (FOX, 1993) that looked at the world of the university. However, most of the time, audiences like to feel that there is a case to solve. I think a breakthrough show focusing on other professions has yet to be produced, and I would like to see it.

THORBURN: What are the differences between writing for movies and television?

ROMANO: In movies, the director is auteur, and his vision is what you ultimately see on screen. In television, writers have more power, and they want directors who will stick to the script. TV writers actually prefer fledgling or mediocre directors who are more likely to follow the writer's vision.

To conclude, Romano showed a clip from American Dreams in which a mother and devout Catholic (played by Gail O'Grady) responds to a college student who has just had an abortion, and needs someone to talk to. The character struggles with a moral dilemma; although she is profoundly sympathetic to the young woman, she is also a believing Catholic. Unable to comfort the girl, she leaves the room abruptly, but as she does, she checks the young woman's forehead and tells her, gently, to take care of herself.

HENRY JENKINS, director, Comparative Media Studies: Is religion the last thing television has a problem dealing with? There are so few who represent fundamentalist perspectives on primetime television, compared to the representation in the public at large, that I would welcome such characters.

ROMANO: I think it depends on whom the networks want to pander to. The network was terrified that this character would take a stand that goes against the pro-choice attitudes of most urban markets. Although all the writers on American Dreams would consider themselves to be feminists and pro-choice, we wanted to be true to the attitudes of the period, and to Helen's character, a Catholic woman in 1963 who is faced with a moral dilemma.

THORBURN: Another important point about this scene is that some viewers would see Helen's behavior as a form of cruelty, which is something you would not expect from her, which makes for a morally ambiguous experience for the audience.

CLARA FERNANDEZ-VARA, CMS graduate student: The scene in which Helen finds the discussion so unbearable that she has to leave opens up the discussion for the audience, leaves the question unanswered. How often can you write scenes that are so open-ended?

ROMANO: You can't use that device too much, because it is so extreme. The ability to write both sides of an argument is important. In this case, we were dramatizing the fact that Helen has no real answer and thus cannot have the conversation. What we were leading up to in the episode was how her daughter Meg later insists on talking about it.

QUESTION: People use history to deal with different social and political issues. With American Dreams being set in the 1960s, how does that shape what issues you address, or how you approach them?

ROMANO: There are moments when it is impossible not to have the present political issues in mind. Right now we are doing a story about a soldier in Vietnam, which parallels the many American families who currently have sons or daughters in Middle East. We like to think it works for us, that we are writing something relevant to those families. However, our principle is to write the specifics of the time period, and let the audience draw the analogies. Still, we are conscious of many parallels.

--by Lilly Kam

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