Television Writers

While I’m on the subject of Rod Serling, I wanted to write a little about great television writers. I’m sure that Rod Serling would make anybody’s list, not just for The Twilight Zone and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery but, even more importantly, for his incredible work in the early television drama anthologies, e.g. Playhouse 90, Armstrong Circle Theater, Kraft Television Theater, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Seven Days in May, and so much else.

There are a number of other writers I think are first-rate writers of teleplays. These include Richard Matheson, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart (who wrote some of the most signal episodes of M*A*S*H e.g. The Interview), and Donald Bellisario, some of whose episodes of Quantum Leap are, I think, among television’s very finest work.

IMO television writing has fallen on hard times. So have acting and direction, but that’s another story. I hate to speak ill of the dead but I blame Aaron Spelling. It’s so much easier to put nubile young women on the screen and strip them down to their skivvies (or beyond) than it is to write solid television. And it probably reaches a larger audience.

Who are your nominees for the greatest TV writers of all time? Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish great writing from solid acting. I think that House, for example, is competently written (at best) but brilliantly acted. David Chase? I don’t like crime dramas so I’m a poor judge.

9 comments… add one
  • I don’t know if he’s best, though some of his writing on Cheers was topnotch – Ken Levine. (who now, BTW, blogs). I know he wrote for MASH too (along with David Isaacs), but I much prefer Cheers.
    I also would nominate anyone who wrote for Frazier.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I think there is also a problem distinguishing great writing from great directing. Harlan Ellison complaining to infinity about the changes to a perfectly fine Star Trek episode comes to mind first.

    How about . . . Joss Wheedon for Buffy. I know the Instapundit crowd prefers the libertarianism of Firefly, but Buffy had episodes that perfectly married imaginative fantasy with teenage drama. The two-level story.

  • I am chagrined at not mentioning Joss Whedon. 90% of the charm of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was writing.

  • THere’s some terrific TV writers, though I don’t know a lot of names. The writers of The Shield, House, Lost, The Simpsons, Battlestar Galactica, 30 Rock, Deadwood, Rome, as well as David Chase of Sopranos.

    TV writing is far better than the work generally being done for movies.

  • I completely agree about movie writing, Michael. But that, too, is fodder for another post. ‘Twas a time whem the best writing in English was Hollywood screenplays. Among the greats in that area I include a great unsung heroine: Leigh Brackett. She’s the one who wrote The Big Sleep when William Faulkner fell into a bottle. It’s really obvious from the dialogue.

    As I wrote above I love House but I think the writing is only so-so. Hugh Laurie’s acting elevates everything in the program.

    I disagree about Lost or, as we refer to it here, Lost Interest.

    I think Edward James Olmos is one of those guys who I’d listen to read the phone book (like Avery Brooks). BG has some solid acting. I’m not all that convinced about the writing.

    And what can one say about The Simpsons?

  • I may be too easy on some of these guys because I’m a series hack myself (albeit in books) so I have the deep sympathy one has for fellow sufferers.

    Keeping an ongoing series alive is one of the hardest jobs in writing. Essentially you’re writing a movie of undetermined length — might be 13 hours, might be 22 hours, might go on for ten years and run 220 hours. Each hour has to be subdivided into 11 minute segments with topspin at the end of each segment. The precision required is daunting.

    Complicating matters further is the fact tht you are given limited mobility. You can’t take a character very far afield at all. Frasier had to remain Frasier for a long, long time. You’re all-but denied character development and your plotlines are restricted by the form, by audience expectations, by budget, by censors and so on. Plus you have to satisfy the constituency of cast members, their agents, and the network suits.

    You could think of it as a construction project. You’re building a house that is either a cottage or a mansion — day by day you don’t know — that must look like every other house on the block only not, must be made of cheap materials that look great, and oh, by the way, every room, regardless of purpose must be exactly 20 by 20. And would you mind incorporating suggestions from each of the construction workers, their mothers, and their best friends.

  • Todd Pence Link

    1. Stirling Silliphant
    2. Rod Serling
    3. Howard Rodman
    4. Harlan Ellison
    5. Kenneth Johnson

  • How could I have omitted Harlan Ellison? Demon With a Glass Hand and The City on the Edge of Forever are masterpieces.

  • Elena Link

    Tom Whedon for The Golden Girls and The Electric Company.

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