The big TV article of the day is “Why Britain Can’t Do The Wire,” by Peter Jukes, about the cautious, executive-driven culture of the present-day BBC and how it has caused the UK to fall behind the US when it comes to making interesting TV. (In the recent Monty Python documentary, the members mention that the show could only have been approved in the good old days when there weren’t so many executives at the BBC, all putting in their oar.) Just as interesting, and shorter, is this accompanying interview with David Simon, where he talks about the differences between US and British television: in the U.S., “the writer is god” (on good shows, anyway) and the head writer supervises a staff of writers, instead of doing every script himself as on most British shows.
It sounds a little paradoxical that having one or two writers write everything could produce a less writer-driven culture than the U.S., where only freaks like David E. Kelly write every script themselves. But it’s true. The reason, I think, is that TV is to some extent an executive-driven medium no matter what country you’re in. And in the U.S., writers are literally elevated to executive positions (it’s right there in the title, “executive producer”). There are many British shows where the head writer/creator has time to write every episode, in part, because someone else holds the power over the other aspects of the show. (This also happens sometimes in the States. Susan Harris wrote every episode of Soap, but left the producing duties to her partners, Paul Witt and Tony Thomas.) A David Simon or Milch can’t possibly write every episode, but everything is subject to his approval. And that can result in a show that more clearly expresses the vision of one person. If they wrote all the scripts, but ceded control in other areas, it would inevitably be different, because the other stuff — costumes, shooting, editing, locations — is hugely important. If one person has the final OK on everything, then it’s more likely that everything will work toward the same goal.
Canada is infamous for having a TV drama culture that (not always, of course, but often enough for it to be a pattern) combines the weaknesses of both systems: a domination by non-writing producers, with the head writer supervising a writing staff but not a whole lot else.
But the U.S. system, making a writer into an executive, is kind of a strange one, and one that goes against normal instincts. The writer’s temperament is not necessarily that of an executive. On the great DVD features for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, creator Alan Zweibel talks about how difficult it was to adjust from thinking like a writer — protecting his material and his scripts — to being responsible for all aspects of the production, and caring as much about episodes written by other people. The U.S. system essentially asks people like Larry David to do management jobs when they’re totally unsuited to being managers in any traditional sense. And yet it works, because somebody has to be in charge of any production. And while the director is the one most likely to be in charge of a movie, a writer is the only person who can come close to handling all aspects of a 13 or 22-episode TV season.