In "The Writers' Room," a highly pleasurable series that begins Monday on Sundance, Jim Rash gathers groups of television writers — they usually travel in packs — to discuss how they make their shows.
Time was that the ordinary citizen had little interest in whatever business of show did not involve glamorous stars or name-above-the-title directors or, sometimes, super-powerful producers. We live now in an age of commentary tracks and Comic-Con panels and close-read criticism, and the nuts and bolts have acquired their own appeal.
And so, if not everyone yet knows what a show runner is, most everyone who cares about television understands that, James L. Brooks and James Burrows notwithstanding, it is a writer's medium. (Indeed, a television series might be defined as a conversation between writers and actors.)
My first excited thought on learning of this series is that it would be a documentary trip into the writers' natural habitat, there to discreetly capture the species at play and work, giving birth to new ideas and raising them into fully mature episodes of television. Possibly we would see the eating of takeout Chinese or day-old pizza.
As produced it is more like a trip to the zoo, with the scribes imported into a set that suggests a writers' room (white board, bulletin board, index cards, big table, coffee) as a lion cage might simulate the veld. Even so, it feels like a glimpse of the real thing.
Rash (the dean on "Community," but also co-director and -writer of "The Way, Way Back" and sharer in an adapted screenplay Oscar for Alexander Payne's "The Descendants") makes an excellent host-moderator. His questions are productive; with a few improv-game-type suggestions, he has the "New Girl" writers (and costar Jake Johnson) well on the way to a new episode, involving a superhero cape, a mustache, a cold apartment and the phrase "mouth party." It is something to see, and it is clear that, just as cheetahs run fast and monkeys skip along treetops, not everyone can do it.
Monday's premiere features a passel of "Breaking Bad" writers, including creator Vince Gilligan ("I can't believe the show even made it on the air, it has all the elements of failure"), with star Bryan Cranston thrown in for good measure. In next week's edition, "Parks and Recreation" scribes discuss the incorporation of Nick Offerman into Ron Swanson, Jerry jokes, the evolution of Tom Haverford, the episode they could never "break" and the creative benefits of writers' retreats — "and if people want to experiment socially," says Amy Poehler, "it's up to them."
The series' six episodes also include sessions with writers from "Dexter," "Game of Thrones" and "American Horror Story," and if the "Breaking Bad" session is any indication, there should be laughter in all of them — as well as a reminder that none of this happens entirely by accident and even shows you might not particularly like still may deserve your respect.
'The Writers' Room'
When: 10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun