Breaking Good: A Journey Into the Making and Reimagining of Television
March 19, 2019
Writers RoomPop Culture for Social Change
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The first time I personally made the case for why philanthropy should not only pay attention to television writers rooms but find strategic ways to invest in them was in the Spring of 2015. Standing before the board of the Nathan Cummings Foundation as a finalist for their fellowship program, I proposed Culture Changes Us, a field-building initiative designed to dramatically accelerate the social justice sector’s understanding and use of culture change strategy.
In addition to piloting a culture change learning retreat series for movement leaders and developing a conversation series exploring culture change methodology (which later became the Pop Culture Collaborative’s WONDERLAND podcast, co-created with our Strategy Director Tracy Van Slyke), Culture Changes Us included first-of-its-kind research aimed at demystifying the inner workings of the television writers room, in order to identify ways for social justice activists and funders to contribute to the making of television.
My fascination with writers rooms as sites for culture change experiments was piqued in 2013 by a succession of articles proclaiming the end of what many TV critics (mostly white men) like HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall had called “the new golden age of television.” According to Sepinwall, beginning with The Sopranos, The Wire, and LOST, and continuing with Breaking Bad and Mad Men, television experienced a decade-long storytelling renaissance characterized by complex, serialized, multi-season sagas, often driven by white male anti-heroes on paths to self-destruction or redemption.
Coincidentally (or not), the end of this era intersected with the rise of bingeable online content anchored by characters of color. Netflix entered the ring with Orange Is the New Black, just as Issa Rae’s Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl completed its second season on YouTube. Shortly thereafter, East Los High debuted, soon becoming the most watched original series on Hulu. By the time The New Yorker published “Why Web TV Series Are Worth Watching” in the Fall of 2013, the ground was already rumbling under the feet of television’s old guard.
For me, as an artist and culture change strategist, this sea change signaled the need to more deeply investigate how these shifts could create an opening for television writers, social justice movements, and philanthropy to more intentionally and strategically join forces.
At a 2016 national social justice conference, I outlined five factors that created this opening. First, as television writer J. Holtham points out in American Theatre magazine, the past five years had seen a rapid increase in the number of playwrights who have migrated from the theater to television writers rooms, bringing with them complex characterizations and intricate story arcs better able to hold the social issues, systemic injustices, and complicated human drivers of harmful behavior that activists yearn to see in popular culture.
Second, thanks to increased mainstream media coverage and growing public visibility of social justice movement leaders, television showrunners and writers could identify and connect with expert advisors from any sector, including social justice, to help them explore the cultural and political implications of their stories.
Third, a growing number of racial justice organizations—including Color of Change, Define American, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance—were stepping into the fray, increasing their in-house skill, expertise, and capacity to support television writers, create content, and execute campaigns that leverage popular shows to drive emotional and behavioral shifts. This work followed on the heels of the efforts of organizations like GLAAD (driven by the vision of Rashad Robinson, now President of Color of Change), which were regularly consulting with showrunners to encourage more authentic representations of same-sex relationships and families.
Fourth, as Van Slyke and (now) Pop Culture Collaborative Senior Fellow on Fandom Power Shawn Taylor note in Episode 108 of WONDERLAND, robust digital infrastructure and platforms like Twitter, Reddit, and Tumblr were uniting millions of fans, opening up spaces for personal expression, collective action, and culture change experimentation.
The fifth and most important factor cementing television’s promise as an arena for bold, large-scale culture change experimentation is the medium’s most defining feature: television stories are long (and now, bingeable) stories, often unfolding over 13 to 26 episodes per season. Successful shows—like The Walking Dead, currently in its ninth season—have evolved into richly layered storyworlds that produce profound bonds between characters and audience, and a willingness to engage with different ideas, cultures, and ways of being.
Collectively, these factors represented an opportunity for a depth and scale of narrative transformation never before possible in social justice movements. But even with this extraordinary potential, the question of how to stimulate more organic, authentic collaborations between television writers and social justice movements lingered in my mind. And so, with support from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, I set out to turn my curiosity into concrete evidence that artists and activists can work together, in a reimagined writers room process, to create riveting, market-ready television shows.
* * *
Very few people have ever been invited into the writers room, and no one except writing teams, development executives, and film and television students really know what happens in them. The work environment is insular, with teams of writers typically working together around a conference table for 8 hours a day, five days a week, for months. Writers pitch ideas, and those that stick are developed and integrated into a script outline. Experts are sporadically invited in to help writers flesh out ideas, but usually for brief encounters, and often only after the series concept is firmly in place. Yet these spaces, and the talented storytellers in them, routinely shape how hundreds of millions of Americans interpret the world around them.
How then could the television story development process be reconceived to allow for social issues and culture change strategies to more organically and creatively break into writers rooms? How should collaborations between social justice strategists and television writers be structured when the goal is strategic alignment and collaboration? And how might social justice funders strategically invest in these collaborations, given their relatively modest assets compared to those of major networks and studios?
My curiosity was fueled by visits with a range of production companies and writers rooms, documenting the existing story development process and learning from innovative experiments already underway. While on the set of East Los High, I learned from showrunner Katie Elmore-Mota and researcher Kathy LeBackes about their unique process of integrating East LA community members into their writers room. The Insecure writers room gave me a crash course in how to break (or plot out) an episode. The show’s creator, Issa Rae, and her showrunner Prentice Penny modeled how producers can establish inclusive, just, and nonhierarchical work environments for writers. I also studied the writers room staffing process for Amazon’s Transparent, in which showrunner Jill Soloway—responding to the dearth of transgender writers in television—recruited, trained, and mentored trans artists from other fields to write for the small screen.
I then began the work of assembling an experimental writers room of my own, conceived as a laboratory to test a new model. Our writers room, led by Mona Mansour, an award-winning Lebanese-American playwright and television writer, included a group of Off-Broadway playwrights carefully chosen for their track record of boundary-pushing work: Nancy Vitale, Pia Wilson, Rehana Mirza, Phillip Howze, and Amy Ashton. The new model would place these writers—who were people of color, women, immigrants, Muslim, and/or queer—in constant collaboration with thought leaders and practitioners in the social justice sector.
Second, I designed a “genius bank” of activists, lived-experience experts, narrative strategists, trend analysts, and behavioral scientists who joined the TV writers in the work of discovering and developing the series concept and character universe for a new television series.
This was a departure from the industry’s traditional series creation process, in which a writer or writing duo will create a series concept, build out the story and character universe, and pitch their idea to production companies and studios. If the idea does get a series order, the creator and/or showrunner will then staff a writers room to plot the full season.
Instead, we began the writers room process with a story design session, in which we tested “Scenes from an American Life,” a proprietary storymaking process I developed to help the writers and genius bank collaboratively unearth the characters, dramatic conflicts, storyworlds, and social issues that matter most to them. By integrating the genius bank into the storymaking process from the beginning, we enabled the perspectives and expertise of movements to live in the essential DNA of the story.
Through carefully crafted questions and prompts, I led the group into the emotional and political terrain of three broad issue areas—Law and Order, Home and Family, and Global Relations—encouraging them to lean into the moments when big ideas met intimate memories and personal experiences. Over time, and through a robust process of discussion and brainstorming with the genius bank, each group landed on specific narrative fields that felt creatively rich and personally resonant.
The Global Relations team became fascinated with the tug of war between humanity and efficiency in the quagmire of American foreign policy. The Law and Order team zeroed in on stories that reflect the cascading effect of bad decisions—of judges, prosecutors, teachers, parents, and other grownups—on youth of color. The Home and Family team dug into the family dynamics present when an undocumented caregiver begins work with a family grappling with divorce.
By the end of the session, the writing team identified the complex realities of forced migration as the narrative field that resonated with them, in no small part because they all have migration stories in their family history. After several writers rooms sessions and two more genius banks, the writers room had a series concept, character universe, and a wall full of action-packed storylines and plot points.
Taking their cue from a range of popular drama series, the writers initially assumed their story should follow the journey of a solo protagonist. “At those first meetings,” says writer Rehana Mirza, “we were focused on telling a very traditional TV story.”
Pia added: “We were still holding on to older ideas of what television should be like. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Okay, this is what is expected in TV, so we better do it this way.’”
But because these were artists accustomed to upending the rules of their craft, the conventional story structure and stock characters in their early drafts didn’t ring true.
And then we went to the border.
Five days after the 2017 presidential inauguration, the writers traveled to Mexico and Arizona, where they expanded their genius bank to include asylum seekers, border-town residents, aid workers, and others in the complex, trans-national immigration ecosystem.
“There was something very deep and sad about looking into that night air and the expansiveness of the terrain,” Mona recalls.“The fact that we were all there together—that experience did something to our connection as a group, and to our writing.”
“On the day we were due to fly back, we had a writers room session in Tucson, and there was so much emotion in the room,” adds Rehana. “And then, on the plane home, I heard about the Muslim ban and the airport protests. It felt like it was all colliding: a collision of writers, thought processes, different styles, personal and shared experiences. So when we began writing the pilot back in New York, the script started to embody this collision of story ideas and characters. It became about many characters and storylines, and colliding conflicts.”
Building on their experience, the team—now called the MOVE Writers Room, reflecting their focus on the drivers of global migration—evolved the initial concept into a more authentic non-linear , genre-bending story that they are now preparing for the 2019 pilot season.
When asked what aspects of the process felt most organic and exciting, the writers point to the story design process that allowed them to find genuine emotional connections between the issues and their personal imaginations, the ample time and space they had for deep learning and research with movement and subject matter experts, their time in the writers room together, and their life-changing experience at the border.
* * *
Recently, I asked Lawrence Carter-Long, an artist and disability-in-pop-culture expert, what lies beyond access and inclusion. “If access is being able to physically get into a party,” he said, “and inclusion is being invited to the party, then what lies beyond is innovation. You are the one throwing the party—and maybe even reinventing how a party is thrown.”
The MOVE Writers Room, and the rooms led by Pop Culture Collaborative grantees Sameer Gardezi (East of La Brea), Ian Skorodin (Native Writers Room), Emil Pinnock and Chiké Okonkwo (Up North), and Julio Salgado and Jesus Iñiguez (UndocuWriters Project) are part of a growing community of content creators who are pushing beyond inclusion to drive innovation in television storytelling. These artists are prepared and driven to create television stories—in collaboration with social justice movements—powerful enough to change culture.
This advance towards innovation is not limited to writers and activists. The field of philanthropy is also coming to understand that grantmaking in television can and should go beyond traditional diversity and inclusion strategies in order to expand opportunity for long-term culture change impact. New grantmaking opportunities are emerging, including: investing in core support for movement organizations and production companies to increase staff capacity to collaborate in writers rooms; funding independent writers rooms to enable writers and movement leaders to co-develop new content; providing seed grants for experimental pipeline solutions and talent incubators that center the agency of creators from historically excluded communities; supporting social justice organizations to design and execute responsive campaigns and long-term strategies that leverage television content to achieve specific culture change goals; and organizing and convening new cohorts and networks—television storytellers, marketers, publicists, studio/network executives, talent agents—who want to work with social justice leaders to articulate culture change goals and integrate them into the life cycle of a television show.
Formal experimentation with these and other grantmaking strategies is underway at the Pop Culture Collaborative and other foundations, and philanthropic leaders are actively organizing to expand the resources available to those advancing innovation in the television story development process.
During that Nathan Cummings Foundation presentation four years ago, a board member asked me if my hope was that my writers room experiment would yield a YouTube series that could reach thousands of viewers. “No,” I recall saying, “I believe this process could result in a series for mass distribution, like HBO’s The Wire. We need to become more audacious in our goals.”
Four years later, due to the hard, pathbreaking work of so many in our field, we have—and our story is just getting good.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans is the Executive Director of the Pop Culture Collaborative. This article is excerpted from a longer essay that will be published later this year.