So what can I say about the news that Frank Darabont fired the entire writing staff of The Walking Dead (except himself and the creator of the comic) and may go into the 13-episode season without a regular staff?
First, of course a show can do without a large writing staff, or even a regular staff of any kind. Many shows, well into the ’80s, would assign most of the scripts to freelance writers, with one person — the story editor, back when that term meant something — on staff to assign scripts, supervise rewrites, and do a lot of the rewriting himself. It’s more problematic with serialized shows, where a freelancer has to stick around for more than one week or he or she might have no idea how the script fits into the season-long arc. But if Darabont were to plot out the season based on the comics, assign individual scripts to outside writers, and then rewrite them himself… well, sure, that could work; it’s worked before. And the lack of staff writer salaries would probably save money on a show where the network undoubtedly would like to see some cost savings.
Besides which, the current Hollywood system makes it very difficult for freelance writers to break in: big network shows respond to large episode orders by hiring more staff writers (or, in the case of a show like Glee, having three guys do everything themselves) and cable is not quite as closed off to freelancers but is still pretty staff-dependent. I would love to see a major network show expand from 22 episodes to a number that can actually fill the season, like 26 or 30, and make up the difference by hiring more freelancers and encouraging them to bring their own style and personality to the show. However, this doesn’t apply to a show like Walking Dead, so Darabont’s decision may be based more on the idea that since he’s going to rewrite all the scripts anyway (since all the scripts have to sound like they have the same “voice”) it doesn’t matter whether they’re assigned to high-paid staffers or low-paid freelancers. That may not be entirely wrong.
Just because something can work doesn’t mean it will, and what’s going on with The Walking Dead will depend on something we can’t know — what goes on inside Frank Darabont’s head. If he thinks the show’s writing needs a lot of improvement despite the high ratings, then good for him; he’s right, and a house-cleaning might be just the thing it needs. If he thinks the show is perfect as it is and the staff writers were just holding him back, then that’s another story.
It’s hard not to get the impression that he feels liberated by success (the veteran writer, Chick Eglee, was probably suggested to him by the network; once the show was a hit, Darabont may have felt free to control the show more fully), and if that’s the case, then the 13-episode second season might just be more of the same: frustrating stories and characters, great ratings. But that could happen no matter who writes the show or how it’s written.