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Prime-Time Authorship book

by R Heil last modified Feb 23, 2017 09:09 AM

Prime-Time Authorship book cover


This book argues that episodic television can accommodate a writer’s distinctive style and voice — even if s/he is only a staff writer (instead of the showrunner).  In support of this view, it offers three noteworthy television drama scripts, three interviews with the writers who wrote them, and three essays exploring thematic concerns and personal style.


The first script is the Maverick episode “The Rivals,” written by Marion Hargrove.  It is a free adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Restoration play The Rivals, and for my money, it tops the original.  Hargrove had first made a major pop culture splash with his monster-selling World War II book See Here, Private HargroveMaverick creator Roy Huggins recruited him for his staff of writers, and years later, remarked to TV historian Ed Robertson that he encouraged his writers to “live dangerously” while writing for Maverick, and that Hargrove was his “most dangerous” writer.  His action descriptions were so lively, they have been credited with inspiring James Garner.  In the essay on Hargrove’s work, his descriptions are studied to better understand their impact.  Click this link for the page 26 through 31 excerpt.


The second script included in its entirety is Joseph Dougherty’s 1991 script for the thirtysomething episode “A Stop at Willoughby.”  The episode’s catalyst takes place when a client spots his spokesperson participating in an anti-war demonstration and insists he be fired.  The episode plays out against the backdrop of the Gulf War — a brief conflict that enjoyed widespread public support in America.  It was unfashionable and considered even “unpatriotic” to be opposed to American involvement.  Dougherty’s script proved to be astoundingly prescient when 12 years later, the Iraq War generated an even fiercer backlash against those who opposed it.  Initially the Iraq War enjoyed near-total support from both the media and the general public.  The errant perception was that Saddam Hussein was an ally of Osama Bin Laden and Al Queda, and that his government had to be toppled before he could equip terrorists with nuclear warheads.  Any celebrity opposing the war — much like the spokesperson in “A Stop at Willoughby” — paid a steep price.  An April 14, 2003 Time Magazine article titled “The Perils of Protest” details industry retaliation against anti-war entertainers.  The United Way canceled Susan Sarandon’s speech for them, saying it would be “divisive.”  Sean Penn claimed he was fired from a movie because of his antiwar stance and trip to Iraq.  Martin Sheen claimed his Visa ad campaign was terminated due to his activism.  Yet the biggest backlash was reserved for the country music group Dixie Chicks.  Their albums were boycotted, country music stations stopped playing their songs, and they received death threats.  In Colorado Springs, two disc jockeys (Dave Moore and Jeff Singer) were suspended by country music station KKCS for violating the station ban and playing the Dixie Chicks on air.  According to KKCS station manager Jerry Grant, “I gave [Moore and Singer] an alternative:  stop it now and they’ll [just] be on suspension, or they can continue playing them and when they come out of the studio they won’t have a job.”

Dougherty has enjoyed a long, productive career and has also written 34 scripts for Pretty Little Liars and seven scripts for Judging Amy . . . among many others.  The Prime-Time Authorship essay on Dougherty examines the ways in which Dougherty’s vision complements and diverges from the voices of thirtysomething series creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick.  One divergence centers on their contrasting attitudes toward the competitive urge ingrained in American culture:  Herskovitz and Zwick embrace it; Dougherty is appalled by it.  Another divergence pivots on the relationship between workplace stress and home.  For Herskovitz and Zwick, friends and family heal the wounds caused at work; for Dougherty, career wounds rip open new wounds on the home front.  For interesting examples of this darker view (from pages 185–86 of Prime-Time Authorship), click here.


Michael Kozoll and Steven Bochco’s early Hill Street Blues script “Dressed to Kill” (since retitled “Double Jeopardy”) is the book’s third script.  It won the 1981 Humanitas Prize,  which rewards writers who 1) affirm the dignity of the human person, 2) probe the meaning of human life, 3) enlighten the use of human freedom, and 4) reveal to each person the common humanity of every other person, so that love may come to permeate the human family and help liberate, enrich and unify human society.  Hill Street Blues proved to be one of the most innovative and influential series in television history.  It merged the larger casts and longer story arcs of soap opera narratives with the police procedural, and then filmed the new hybrid with a gritty handheld photography borrowed from cinéma vérité documentaries.  For the first time, a continuing character could suddenly be killed mid-season.  Without Hill Street, there would never have been The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones.

Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll got to know each other while working on the 1976–77 cop series Delvecchio.  They weren’t collaborating yet, so juxtaposing their scripts allows one to better grasp the values each one brought to the Hill Street Blues table.  Studying those scripts even allows one to ascertain which writer wrote which act within each of their Hill Street collaborations.

The following excerpt from pages 320–24 highlights one of their central differences:  whereas Bochco divvied up his characters into straightforward good guys and bad guys, Kozoll found shades of gray in all his characters and consistently exhibited great compassion for the minor ones.


To purchase a copy of Prime-Time Authorship, click on this Syracuse University Press link.


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by R Heil last modified Feb 23, 2017 09:09 AM