TV’s All-Time Greatest Writers


If you shut off Girls this past Sunday with a sigh of relief, you’re not alone. Between May and June we’ve all endured an emotionally exhausting line-up of season finales (not to mention penultimate and triumvirate finales), and frankly this week was a nice, quiet reprieve. Sort of. Knowing what’s ahead, it’s been impossible to get too comfortable. New seasons of Breaking Bad and Louie are slowly approaching, we can’t not watch Weeds‘ last season, there’s catching up to do on Bunheads, and of course this Sunday, Sorkin is back. So, in an exercise to get the juices flowing, we’ve decided to round up the writers we believe to be most responsible for putting us in this stressful state of TV addiction, starting with the king of TV confabulation himself.

Aaron Sorkin

“It’s not intelligence. It’s my phonetic ability to imitate the sound of intelligence.” — Sorkin on writing smart people)

Highlights: Sports Night (1998-00), The West Wing (1999-03), Studio 60 (2006-07), and HBO’s forthcoming The Newsroom. (You also may have heard of his films A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and Moneyball.)

Influence: He’s widely lauded for breaking long-form conversation on TV (see the “walk and talk”) and “Sorkinism” — a dramatized version of American politics and media that usually yields some greater truth. Any entertaining repartee characterized by the above is often referred to as “Sorkinesque.”

Supplemental reading: See @sorkinese, “A daily elocution safari with the wit & wisdom of Aaron Sorkin characters.”

Amy Sherman-Palladino

“Our poor Steadicam guy goes home dead every night. He goes through four or five shirts a day. But to me, it’s the way this show works, and I don’t think it would work another way.” — Sherman-Palladino on shooting Gilmore Girls

Highlights: Staff writer at Roseanne (1990) and Veronica’s Closet (1998-99), creator of Gilmore Girls (2000-2007), and now Bunheads.

Influence: She ushered in a new era of smart “family programming” by way of the Gilmore ladies — female characters who had interests outside of men and could talk wicked fast to boot. Palladino’s scripts were famously saturated with film, TV, and music references, some of which execs deemed “too obscure” (Palladino said she once fought to keep “Oscar Levant” in a script).

Supplemental reading: — a catalog of every cultural reference on the show.

Joss Whedon

“A lot of my stuff that, particularly in Firefly, but even in Buffy, is twisted Elizabethan. A lot of it is stuff taken from Westerns or movies from the 1940s, or things that have gone so far out of style that you can create your own version. I just love language.” — Whedon on how to write for teenagers

Highlights: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), Angel (1999–2004), Firefly (2002), and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008). You may also have seen his films The Avengers or The Cabin in the Woods this summer.

Influence: Whedon experimented with genre long before other showrunners, creating silent and musical episodes of Buffy, and instead of imitating teenagers in his dialogue, he created a new sort of slang which has since been appropriated by fans (it’s also worth mentioning that he influenced the discourse around the show directly with the coinage of “BYO subtext“). And while Dr. Horrible wasn’t exactly TV, critics called the web series a watershed practically the instant it was released and shut down the Internet; its DVD commentary (entitled Commentary! The Musical) didn’t exactly start musical-commentary trends everywhere, but it’s certainly a rare gem worth revisiting (see Whedon’s Heart, Broken).

Supplemental Reading: Check out Slayer Slang , an entire book dedicated to the Buffyverse lexicon.

Dan Harmon

“People wanted to sit down and have those conversations about how many ‘weird’ episodes vs. how many ‘normal’ episodes we’d have to do, and I didn’t want to have that conversation, because can you imagine working on a show where some of the time you’re thinking it’s a ‘normal episode’?” — Dan Harmon on formula

Highlights: Co-created the infamous pilot Heat Vision and Jack, The Sarah Silverman Program, and Channel 101, and of course Community.

Influence: Whedon started it, and then Harmon took genre-bending to a whole new level (claymation for the sheer want of it, making a zombie plotline work, and finally, a video game episode!). Now that we’ve reached the end of the first three seasons (and perhaps the end of Community as we know it), it’s fair to say the show has outdone all meta live-action storytelling before it, from the small-scale concepts (bottle episodes like “Cooperative Calligraphy”) to full-blown action movie homages (“Modern Warfare”). The show is framed by TV and film clichés, which as Harmon has suggested, makes it all the closer to reality because isn’t that how we TV and film junkies see the world?

Supplemental reading: Dan Harmon’s walk-through of Season 2 over at A.V. Club — awesome and thorough, although a little bittersweet to read now.

Larry David

“You can’t be that honest and function in society. These confrontations frighten me so I avoid them and save it up for the show. It’s a little bit of a fantasy.” — Larry David on the real Larry David

Highlights: Creator of Seinfeld (1989-96) and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Influence: For better or for worse, David created a world where where it’s OK to say exactly what we think and not learn anything, ever. Whereas sitcoms before it plodded along to some moral ending that was essentially meaningless, Seinfeld embraced absurdity, and at 30 scenes a show, set a new benchmark in sitcom writing. After Seinfeld, David re-worked the sitcom again with Curb, which was so different it initially confused people: Is it a documentary? Why is the guy who did Seinfeld on camera? And what is that music? (It’s Luciano Michelini’s “Frolic,” which David originally heard on a bank commercial years before, in case you’re wondering. Needless to say, people figured it out, and thus David ensured more ostensibly weird, improv-based shows were on their way (yay!).

Supplemental reading: David’s short essay Fore! in The New Yorker on how to accept being bad at golf (short read and perfect for all you summer golfers).

Louis C.K.

“To me, the default is to do it all — write, shoot, and then cut it together. If you were writing a book and somebody said, ‘How come you also wrote the last eight chapters?’ you’d say, ‘Because I was writing it.’ That’s the way I look at it.” — Louis C.K. on creating Louie

Highlights: Writer at David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, The Dana Carvey Show, and The Chris Rock Show, and creator of Lucky Louie (2006) and Louie.

Influence: Louie might be compared to Seinfeld and Curb for its stand-up segments and verité style, but then it diverges into something so entirely different, that the premise is difficult to describe. It descends to the darkest depths of absurdity (the futility of love, decapitation, and was that dentist’s penis just in Louie’s mouth?), tackles social issues (including a logical argument for the legalization of child molestation), and then there are the musical numbers, including a homeless man’s impromptu shower in the depths of the NYC subway system, scored by a nearby musician’s violin. All of this comes together with no regard for standard TV logic — plotlines have little bearing on one other and continuity is sparse — and if it pisses you off, well, C.K. just might have something to say about it in the comments section at A.V. Club.

Supplemental Reading: See @louisck, where C.K. engages with fans and some jerks.

Tina Fey

“Somewhere around the fifth or seventh grade I figured out that I could ingratiate myself to people by making them laugh. Essentially, I was just trying to make them like me.” — Tina Fey on realizing she should do comedy

Highlights: The first woman to be a head writer at SNL (a period also referred to as the “the Tina Fey regime”) and then of course the creator (and star) of 30 Rock.

Influence: With great talent comes great responsibility, and Tina Fey has always handled hers with class. A beacon of female empowerment, she is notorious for encouraging women to use their brains (as opposed to their bods), and while she certainly hasn’t shied away from calling out sexism, Fey is equally unabashed in making fun of women (including herself). There have been points where 30 Rock fans have become exhausted by the trials and tribulations of Liz Lemon (why can’t she be happy?), but this is where Fey’s humor derives from: at the end of the day, we’re all just fools, and isn’t that funny?

Supplemental reading: Her 2011 memoir Bossypants is always worth revisiting, and if you haven’t read, it’s perfect for summer.

Vince Gilligan

“I’ve never killed anybody, but I’d have to think that it would stay with you, unless you were an ice-cold sociopath. I’d have to think that pulling the trigger and killing someone would haunt you for the rest of your days. That’s not what’s portrayed on TV normally.” — Vince Gilligan on making characters more realistic

Highlights: Writing on The X-Files for 7 years (his first story was about a physicist’s shadow that turns into a black hole and kills people) and then Breaking Bad.

Influence: We have never seen TV study a character as intensely as it has Walter White. His slow progression from good to straight-up bad has taken four seasons so far and, in turn, forced us to stop and meditate on what it is that determines “good” and “evil” — values TV has haphazardly assumed since time immemorial.

Supplemental reading: Gilligan’s Season 4 walk-through — excellent prep for 5.

David Chase

“I don’t like to tell people — none of us on the show do — we don’t like to tell people how to feel.” — David Chase on writing The Sopranos

Highlights: Writing credits include The Rockford Files, I’ll Fly Away, and Northern Exposure, and he created Almost Grown (1988-89) and The Sopranos (1999-2007).

Influence: The Sopranos ushered in a new era of TV dramas that gave us a reason to get up each morning and check the internet. With no score or manipulative camera moves (the show’s one rule production-wise was no close-ups or leading shots in the therapy office), the writing spoke for itself (by way of an exceptional cast of actors of course) and proved that a bunch of aging mobsters, trudging closer towards death, were as good of a place as any to explore the vicissitudes humanity.

Supplemental reading: See Vanity Fair‘s “The Family Hour: An Oral History of The Sopranos” (April 2012 issue).

David Simon

“The modern world is becoming increasingly indifferent to individual catharsis and individual dignity, and human beings are worth less. Every day, human beings are worth less. That’s the triumph of capitalism.” — David Simon on the main argument of The Wire

Highlights: Creator of The Wire (2002-08), the miniseries Generation Kill (2008), and co-creator of Treme (2010-11).

Influence: A product of years worth of on-the-ground reporting and research, The Wire is the closest we’ve come to journalism in the form of TV drama — and given its reach (which is still growing), the show inspires the hope that television can effect actual social change (which, according to Simon, does not include bracketological inquiry).

Supplemental reading: Check out Simon’s books The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (co-written with Ed Burns) and Homicide: A Year Killing on the Streets .