Tuesday, May 8, 2012

'On Writing' with Bill Prady (and My Five Cents on Story Arcs)...

"Chuck [Lorre] is opposed to arcing seasons, and he makes this point: if you arc a season; if you say 'You know, in episode thirteen, this is going to happen; this is our episode thirteen,' as you're looking towards that, you have to do two things. You're going to have to discard stories that occur to you that don't follow that path, and you're going to be locked into some stories that are difficult to tell...because you need that story because it leads you to that episode," The Big Bang Theory executive producer Bill Prady explained the writing philosophy in the room of his CBS sitcom.

Though Prady admitted it was a "mindset that [took] a little getting used to," it is one that they take to heart now, nonetheless. 

"Chuck's opinion has always been that giving out those good episodes and being stuck with months of episodes that occur because you need it-- because you're getting to that tent-pole episode-- those two problems are much [better] than the comfort of knowing where you're going."

The Big Bang Theory is just one of Lorre's many shows that all fall under the sitcom genre. There is a reason for that. At it's core, and its terminology taken literally, sitcoms base their stories around a funny event or happening. Their characters are all always broad in order to not only reach the largest demographic but also not require too much growth, development, or other kind of change in its however-long run. Sitcoms can be smart, but they don't have to be, as the laugh track tells you what to be amused by. You don't even really have to pay attention if you don't want to. There's a reason this type of programming is so popular.

But after all of this time, aren't we past that kind of passive programming and narrow-minded mentality? Comedies don't have to be so low-brow. We learned that with Arrested Development, or more recently Parks and Recreation and Cougar Town and Community. Shows that still incorporate traditional sitcom elements, like Suburgatory-- or even ones that literally fit the traditional sitcom mold like the long-lost Friends-- still set aside time and effort to give their characters goals and purposes outside of punchlines and pratfalls. After all, it is the characters you embrace and want to come back to week after week, and audiences are savvy enough to notice when those characters are standing still for a reason or because their writers are at a loss with their direction.

But what is really disconcerting about Lorre's philosophy is the rigidity with which he assumes writers work. Perhaps Prady was misappropriating Lorre's words because it certainly seems like what he was pointing out was how scary working within an arc can be. And I'll give them that. It can certainly be scary to commit a character to something, and at a specific time, and then on the journey to getting the character there realize you had more story to tell-- or not enough. But that is not cause for throwing up one's hands and halfassing the story with an "Oh, well!" either. Adjustments can be made, even in the world of American television where it seems everyone and their mother has a chance to give notes on a script draft before pushing it to production.

Though he used the word "limiting," let's face it: one can be flexible about the means by which he or she gets a character from A to B emotionally-- or even physically-- in a longer story. It's one thing to want the freedom to do whatever the hell you want whenever the hell you want to do it, but is that kind of manic storytelling really something that enriches television? Why should an audience devote time and energy to getting invested in a character, or a show, that does promise to deliver consistently on the elements they enjoy week after week? Why should an audience devote time and energy to getting invested in a character, or a show, when the writers themselves couldn't get invested enough to create compelling stories past a weekly misunderstanding or mishap?

I don't believe arcs limit writers creatively, but I do think it has become abundantly apparent just how a writer's own limitations can be brought to light by complex arcs-- or simply the lack thereof.

1 comment:

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I think the issue is that when a show commits itself to an arc, it does limit the stories it can tell. On The Simpsons, which has literally no arcs and not much continuity, the writers can tell any story, take the characters anywhere, because they don't have to worry about how it affects the characters next week. Same with Seinfeld. At the opposite extreme, a show with too many arcs can fall into a rut where every episode is about the relationship or the Big Bad or whatever.

I recall reading that ABC forced Lorre to incorporate relationship arcs a la Friends on Dharma & Greg and that's when the show went downhill because it messed with the basic premise of the show. It is a tricky balancing act: on most shows that aren't cartoons, the audience wants some change, but they also want some variety and they don't want to lose the things that attracted them to the show in the first place, which is why it probably makes sense for a comedy to have loose arcs (which, in fact, all of Lorre's shows currently do) than big earth-shaking ones.