Bill Lawrence on the art (and commerce) of modern TV storytelling

Back in November, in the wake of “Homeland”’s incredible episode “New Car Smell”, I interviewed several showrunners on the current climate of supersmart TV fans and how they were influencing modern TV storytelling. You can read that piece over at The Daily Beast, where Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”, “Terriers”, “Last Resort”), Steven DeKnight (“Spartacus”), and Bill Lawrence (“Spin City”, “Scrubs”, “Cougar Town”) all offered up provocative thoughts about how writers combat audiences’ deep understanding of how TV currently works and the desire to constantly surprise said audience.

But while many quotes from those interviews made the Daily Beast piece, there were many more than ended up on the cutting room floor. In anticipation of the return of “Cougar Town” this Tuesday, I thought I’d publish more of my interview with Bill Lawrence. (As I did last year, I’ll be covering the show on a weekly basis over at The A.V. Club.) Those looking for spoilers/teasers about this upcoming fourth season will find little below to slake that particular thirst. But those looking for deep insight into both the current state of TV as well as its potential future will find a lot to chew on below. As both a fan of television and someone interesting in where it’s going, Lawrence has the perspective of a hardcore fan as well as deep experience inside the medium. We talk at length about the process that goes into constructing an episode of his shows, how that approach has changed over the years, how technology may or may not have changed fandom itself, what shows need to do to stay alive in this saturated market, and what the future may hold for television as a whole.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

How do you balance producing an entertaining episode while also balancing a season/series-long path for your show?

bill_lawrence_a_p.jpgThe most successful television comedy is episodic. You know, “The Big Bang Theory”, and “Two And A Half Men”. And in our comedy, one of the things we like doing, and it’s a little bit more of a battle, is rewarding people that are continually watching by continuing stories that carry through while also being enjoyable for those just tuning in and don’t know anything. That’s one of the rules we have, and it’s really hard with comedy. There’s something there we want to track for habitual viewers, but we don’t want to be exclusive to those that just tune into an episode here or there because of how fragmented TV watchers are.

But the way we put together stories for the year: We try to figure out what’s going to be the major thing…what’s going to be interesting arc for each character in the show. And then, beyond that, we talk about where the year begins and ends so we usually know where we’re starting and what we’re working towards. And from there, if it’s a 15-episode season, if it’s a 22-episode season, we know where we’re going to try and locate each major overriding plot point or arc, and where it’s going to be. That being said…I’ve run a bunch of TV shows now, and we’ve never stuck to one of those, verbatim. Because things don’t work, we rewrite stories, burn through stories, and you find yourself in the position of something that wasn’t planned for is working really well and lean into it. Often, in my shows, you find yourself in the weird position of taking a show in a completely different direction. When we were mapping out the first year, we certainly didn’t plan, ‘Hey, let’s make Courteney [Cox] and her neighbor end up in a long-term, serious relationship that’s never going to fall apart.” But what we did was say, “Hey, we’re not writing a show based on a woman that chases younger guys anymore. What’s the best way through that?” And in what’s now a very claustrophobic, friendship comedy, the best way through that is to lock those two down as a permanent couple.

So what you do is draw a roadmap, but one thing that I’ll say is pretty darn common in all shows is the need to know where you’re going to end up. Right now, both TV writers and TV viewers are so savvy that if you have a half-assed end to the year, you pay the price. And if you have an end to the year that’s satisfying, either by wrapping up some things that have been going on or being titillating about what’s coming next, you get rewarded for it–more so than in years past, when people weren’t so on top of what every episode means, dissecting what’s coming, what’s going to happen next.

How much savvier are audiences now versus when you ran “Spin City” or “Scrubs”?

I think the one thing that hasn’t changed, and I could be an idiot, but I think the audiences have not changed that much. For any successful TV show, you can divide your viewers into two camps. Well, three camps. There’s the people that don’t watch your show. The second camp is the people that watch your show sporadically and enjoy it when it’s on, but it is not a huge obsession or a part of their lives. I have lots of shows that I watch like that. And then there’s the third camp, if you’re lucky, because it can keep your show alive, are the people that watch your show and are so locked onto it that they go to viewing parties, want to talk about it, obsess about arcs, are bumped by continuity mistakes, and talk about characters’ backstories, et cetera.

I’m a huge TV nerd. I think these three camps always existed. But back in the day when I started, there was no outlet for the obsessive TV fan…other than going to school and finding his fellow obsessive TV fan buddies and talking about it.

So it’s a technology thing?

Yeah. It’s social media, and places like where you work, and the Internet….that’s become the water cooler for those people.

Were the viewing parties for “Cougar Town” in early 2012 a way to tap into that new water cooler?

cts4.jpgSure. And if you asked me what the other thing that changed was, and it’s something you can’t fight…there are so many television options. And I’m talking about scripted TV, on so many different channels.  I do nothing but watch TV. I love it so much. I stay up until 2 am after my kids go to sleep watching shows. And even I can’t keep up on all the shows that I want to see. And so, because of that marketplace, you’re in constant competition, not just from three networks but 110 channels. One of the only ways to survive if you’re not a big hit is to keep your fanbase with you from time slot to time slot, year to year, and even in our case, network to network.

You must give them extra content and reward them for their loyalty. Otherwise, much like me, they are going to go, ‘Hey, I’ve watched ‘Dexter’ for five years and I love it. I didn’t like this one season, and now it’s been replaced by five other shows that I’m hooked into that are new.’ And “Dexter” is making a noble effort this year to get those people back. They’ve got me back because I’ve read that they’ve gotten it back, creatively, and are kind of having a bit of a late-run renaissance. But that’s the new battle: If you’re not a big, breakout hit like “Modern Family”, you’ve got to reward that loyal fanbase with extra content. Access, which is a huge thing, whether it be to writers, actors, or storylines. Little rewards that they get for watching the show where others might just occasionally watch the show. When you reward their loyalty, they reward you back more often than not, usually by spreading word about the show.

How do you balance that reward system for people who watch the show weekly, and those that think, “Eh, I’ll watch it when it comes out on DVD or Netflix?” Is the rewards system a way to get people watching as close to the original air date as possible?

The one disconnect I ever find with a fanbase, and it’s a disconnect that I would love it to stay the way it is, is that the real, loyal fans of shows see it almost completely as a creative endeavor. They perceive it as art, which is fantastic. That means they are really into it. They don’t want story or character compromised. The problem is, almost more than any medium (especially something like independent film), television is a business first. So, in answering your question, I would say everything is geared towards keeping your show alive. And that means a series of sacrifices and compromises you have to make. In network TV specifically, having a show that everyone wants to get the DVDs of later is bupkis.

Is there a disconnect between the way long-time viewers of “Scrubs” reacted to that final season versus those that maybe caught up later, and watched in bulk over a much shorter period of time?

Yeah. I think that one of the coolest things that happens is when you get obsessive fans who go back to it and consume it all at once, and they notice different things. But also, I think when you view a TV show all at once, it’s very satisfying to see all the nuances you pick up. You get in tune with the tone. You see the running jokes.
You become someone the show is written for, versus somebody who’s missing a couple of weeks and watching other shows. It’s a lot easier.

I mean, you and I are about the same age…if “M*A*S*H” was on Mondays, and “Magnum P.I.” was on Thursdays, I had my eight shows, and I knew them religiously. And if I wanted to go outside of that, for entertainment, I went to the movies. And now, I find myself halfway through the television season, and going, “Even thought I like these shows, I can’t keep up with all the shows I’m watching. I have to pick one or two, and wait until the summer and catch up on a plane.

I talked with another showrunner, Shawn Ryan, and he quoted a stat that even religious viewers only watch one out of every three episodes.

I find that stat to be absolute bullshit. But you know me. I find the Nielsens to be bullshit too. They tell you that the biggest fan out of every show only watches one out of every three episodes. That’s not true. Because now we live in the age of psychotic uber-fans. You can’t tell me the people that watch “Community” only watch one out of every three episodes. Who is their poll sample?

We always talk about this, but if someone from a Nielsen company came to me and said, “We’ll give you twenty bucks to put this pain-in-the-ass box in your house…” I mean, I might do it, because I love TV. But most people don’t. We’ve joked about this before: When I was doing the viewing parties in twelve to fifteen different cities in America, anywhere from 200 to 1,000 people there, just for the experiment of it, we always asked if anyone was a Nielsen family. Never met anyone from a Nielsen family. So, I took plenty of statistics classes in college, and I know the argument that this stuff makes sense, that it works. But in the modern era of TV, with the way that people view it, it does not.

How do you think about each episode in terms of the overall year? Does each installment feed into the other, or are they just weekly batches of content that ultimate add up to what networks deem “a season”?

We think about good episodes. Really good episodes and making a good TV show is first and foremost. And the second thing we think about: What are the extras that will keep people dialoguing about the show and thus attached? And that can range from small jokes, that if you didn’t watch the first three episodes you’d never get, all the way up to viewing parties and webisodes and extra content and people tweeting as a character (@TheLarmy) and phone numbers that you call and people actually talk to you. But we still view an episode as an episode. It’s just that, to me the days of, “Our TV show just got picked up. We’re gonna do a good TV show and let the chips fall where they may”…that’s the realm only of giant hits. And if you’re not a giant hit, and you do that, you will disappear.

There’s a lot of TV shows on the air right now that I really like that are really on the cusp of surviving or disappearing into the night. And as long as they maintain the quality level, the difference won’t be the show itself. The difference will be how much the people running the program market their own show, give extra content to people, and engage their fanbase so the normal erosion of viewers doesn’t happen.

So the survival of a show is based less on people finding a show on their own, but rather the shows finding them? Is that what you’re saying?

I am saying that. The one caveat I’d put in there is that there’s a difference between a cable model and a network model. Because on some level, cable can survive just on prestige and reviews and perception of how good the show is, regardless of habits. And shows on networks will survive based on how many people in the demo watch them.

So what marks “Cougar Town” as successful now that it’s moved from ABC to TBS?

cougar_town_promo.jpgSee, here’s the one thing that I preach: I am not a ratings watcher anymore on this show. I am only a ratings watcher in the sense that we keep this show alive. Any show will have value if it makes it five years or to 100 episodes. It will have worth to everyone involved. So, that to me is a goal. I’ve already chalked up “Cougar Town” as a success because TBS is gonna air these two years, and it’ll be five years, and it will be in syndication in some form or another.

You have a better sense of the show’s future now. But have you ever written in stories in past seasons because you worried you might not have time down the line to get to them then?

Not on this one. On “Scrubs”? We always thought we were going to be cancelled, especially when it got to year four or five. So we always had the ending, and we had it cued up, which became kind of fun in its own way. Now, on “Cougar Town”, we’re so in the mix that we’ve never concerned how it would end. We were so focused on keeping it going that we never thought about anything else.

So you wrote the third season finale as a season finale, not a series finale.

No. We were actually annoyed after it aired, because people were saying, “Oh, that would have been a great series finale if it doesn’t continue!” And I thought that was bummer, because [continuing it] was exactly what we were trying to do.

Is the burden less on comedy than drama in terms of actually wrapping things up?

Oh yeah. Without a doubt. Look: the most successful comedies on TV–“Modern Family”, “The Big Bang Theory”, “Two And A Half Men”–you’re turning in to see a really well-executed half-hour that makes you laugh. You’re not tuning in to see what happened last week and how far it progresses this week. It’s “Everybody Loves Raymond”. It’s “Cheers”. It’s stuff that I loved. You’ll occasionally have little tidbits of continuity, whether it be Sam and Diane dating or the daughter on “modern Family” going off to college. But ultimately, it’s a half-hour of pure, escapist fare. And I suppose you could say hour-long procedurals are like that, too. But the second you get into the “Lost”s and the “Fringe”s and the “Revolution” now…with those shows, you’ve got big stakes. Because people are tuning into the story and the continuity and wanting to guess at what it is without it being predictable. And I don’t know how those guys do that stuff.

Is the half-hour more difficult or more freeing in that respect, because of the emphasis on crafting a solid single installment that stands alone?

No, I think they are all hard. To me, it’s not comedy or drama. If you ask writers what’s really the hardest thing about network shows, comedy or drama, it’s the volume of episode that you have to do. I would love to see some of my favorite network television writers get to do a 6-episode season of a show.

What’s the percentage of episodes that break down to “stories I have to tell” versus “installments I have to produce”?

The thing that’s been a shock to me? On TBS, we’re doing 15 episodes. Still a lot of TV, but I’ve done so many 22, 24, and 25 episode seasons of TV, and it’s like having a term paper due every Sunday night for 25 straight weeks. If you view it that way, even with shows that you love, you always have an episode or two or three that you’re like, “Eh.” On the other hand, my favorite shows on cable, where they are showing me at most 12 episodes, sometimes 6, sometimes 9, where they have had massive preproduction time and sometimes scripts almost finished or actually finished before the season even start…I’m rarely let down by those. I see those written almost as a movie.

In network TV, what you have to embrace is that, “Every week is a different show.” If you had a great show, you can’t celebrate it because you have to start a new one the next morning. And if you had a crappy show, you can’t get stuck wallowing in the mire because you get to reinvent yourself next week. And it really is that snowball rolling down a hill. If you have a crappy episode, and you say, “Let’s dig in and really try to make this better, even make it great, so we have to move it into next week,” what happens is a ripple effect where you don’t have as much time on the next one, or the next one after that, and you finally yourself limping towards a horrible finish. So you have to really be able to see each episode as its own little thing.

In your dream independent model for television, are you hoping to decouple stories from episode mandates, thus producing only the number of episodes needed to tell that particular tale?

I’d love to do a cable show and a six-episode series of something that I’m really striving not so much to reach a general and massive audience, but it’s just a story that I want to tell and execute really well. I think that model exists in cable, and ultimately will on the internet as well.

It makes you sound like a whore, but the truth is right now I work in network television. I work for Warner Brothers and I have a job. And my job is to make 22-episode seasons of shows that hopefully have enough mass appeal in the fragmented world of television that sell lots of ad dollars and appeal to people from different walks of life. It’s a different beast. If you find a way to do that, and still feel like you have some creativity integrity, then you’re one of the winners. And, I would argue that any show, regardless of what critics think about it, that is making money for its network and its studio is a giant success.

Because getting any large audience in this fragmented age is itself a victory?

Yeah. Look: one of the things we love to do this Internet-based snarky culture is say, “I can’t believe this show is a hit, because it sucks and everyone I know hates it!” And I’d say to them, “Look, as a business model, you have to stop at the word ‘hit’. And because this show is a hit, they’re doing something right.”

What’s the temptation to look at a show that maybe doesn’t adhere to your own sensibilities, but is a hit, and simply try and copy that model?

The one thing that’s been so true in television in my career is that trying to capitalize on what you think will sell never works. It’s very rare that someone goes, “Wow, something is working, I’m going to do something just like this and it’s going to be a monster hit that makes money”…that sort of thing never happens. To me, if there were a rhyme or reason to it, you would never have a year that there’s only one or even zero giant comedy hits. Because people would know how to do them. Unfortunately, a lot of producers and writes make that mistake. They go, “Oh, there’s a formula that’s making a lot of money. I’ll do that.” And they do it, and it doesn’t work. That’s why, after Lost, you saw tons of storytelling and shows like that. It’s why you see trends every year. Those are rarely the success stories in television. If someone had a blueprint to great big piles of dough, I would do it. But no one knows, and that’s why the business is so weird.

“Cougar Town” returns Tuesday, January 8th, at 10 pm, on TBS.