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 Roths
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What are the differences between being a "show runner"
or producer on a show, and being the creator?
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
EASTON, CMS graduate student: What happens to writers, producers,
and actors after a flop? What can they do next?
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.
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
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).
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.
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?
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
What are the differences between writing for movies and television?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
recording of Writing
and Producing in Prime Time is now available.
to listen to the archived audiocast, you can install RealOne
Player. A free download is available at http://www.real.com/realone/index.html.