Photo: Mark Peterson/Sundance

A Writer Writes...And Talks, Too

Will listening to a bunch of writers talk about their craft make me want to walk into traffic? It won’t? What a surprise!

Normally, people don’t want to know how sausage is made. We who love sausage just want to eat our sausage, find it delicious, tell our friends about the deliciousness of the sausage, rank our favorite sausages, and never ever think about how they got from the pig to the plate.

The sausage-making rule applies to many non-edible things as well, like people’s favorite TV shows. I believe most people only care to hear the story behind the story of their favorite shows provided that inside peek is delivered by the faces we’re used to entertaining us: the actors and actresses we most associate with the shows we love. Yes, we want to hear Jerry Seinfeld talk about how Seinfeld came to be, but would even the hardiest fans of Two And A Half Men be interested in hearing Chuck Lorre speak at length? About any topic?

Well, that’s what the Sundance Channel’s new show The Writers’ Room does. It allows the writers and creators of some of TV’s best shows to tell their story. In the case of the first episode (streaming for free in its entirety on the network's site), it’s the entire writing staff of Breaking Bad plus star Bryan Cranston.

While this concept for a show sounds a bit like having someone explain a funny joke, instead of actually telling that joke, what’s surprising is how interesting the show turns out to be. A lot of the credit goes to host Jim Rash, probably known best to viewers as Community’s Dean Pelton. But Rash is no slouch as a writer either, winning the Oscar with his writing partner Nat Faxon for The Descendants. (The pair also wrote and directed The Way, Way Back, currently in theaters.) Rash’s experience as both a writer and an actor serves him well. Predictably, Rash is charming, smart, and funny, but the most pleasant revelation is how Rash seems totally uninterested in putting forth his own agenda. Maybe that’s only surprising because when I heard the concept -- a show about writing hosted by an actor -- it brought to mind images of the actor/host using the show as a bully pulpit to prove he is as worthy (or even more worthy) of the accolades bestowed upon his guests, putting forth more stories about himself than his guests. I don’t know why I would think an actor would be so self-serving, can’t think of one single thing that would lead me to believe that. I can think of hundreds of things, sure, but I couldn’t name only one.

But Rash got his start as an improviser with The Groundlings, which explains his comfort with sharing the spotlight and his patience and confidence in letting the conversation develop. He feels no need to rush to fill the silences, which is essential when your guests outnumber you 8-to-1. Under Rash’s guidance, the first episode of The Writers’ Room tells a compelling story about how the compelling story about Walter White came to be. He lets creator Vince Gilligan and star Cranston fill out the details. Additionally, Rash and the show’s editors do a great job of spreading the focus so that everyone adds meaningfully to the conversation. Not a small feat when you have a table set for nine.

But easily the best thing about the show is its brevity. At thirty minutes, it is the perfect length to talk about what it wants to talk about. Which seems like an obvious thing, right? Why would a show run longer than it needed to run? But we live in a world filled with two-hour Bachelorette "events," singing competition shows (every one of them) that span two and three nights, and a host of other bloated shows. In that landscape, a good interesting half-hour is exactly what the doctor ordered.

With the upcoming episodes offering Parks & Recreation (which is up next), Dexter, New Girl, Game of Thrones, and American Horror Story, there’s every reason to believe the conversations will continue to be interesting and lively.

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