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Tuesday, December 14, 2004


Ursula K. Le Guin doesn't much like the Earthsea miniseries. So I guess I can feel better that I can't see the damn thing on tv here in Montreal!

I suppose it shouldn't matter what she thinks, since I don't believe in "faithful" adaptations to most works. The first obligation of an adaptation is to deliver the essence of the book, and that may mean doing terrible things to the story of the book, since movies are short stories, not novels, in narrative scope. But I've always liked her soul. So I guess it matters more than when Anne Rice complained that Tom Cruise was wrong for Lestat -- and then decided he was right.

Something about miniseries these days. They get so ponderous. Or is it that only ponderous books (Children of Dune) get miniseries-ized? A miniseries has to be event television, and suitable for a DVD release.

On British TV you'll see very short runs of a series -- say 6, 8 episodes. But they're formatted as episodic series. Which means I suppose that the writers have to go to all the trouble of nailing the template without the reward of being able to bang out a few scripts on the run. That seems like a lot of trouble for not much. I do like Coupling but why only 6 at a time?


The UK's TV comedy tradition is rooted in the idea of a single writer (or sometimes duo) rather than the team model typical of US shows. Steven Moffat writes every episode of Coupling, for example. Regardless of how successful a series becomes and how dearly the broadcaster would like to sequence a longer run, the writer can expect to retain control. If Moffat doesn't want Coupling to be written by a team, it won't be.

Several more enduring sitcom writers (John Sullivan, Roy Clarke, Galton and Simpson) become so associated with their creations that they're almost as well-known as the actors.

Recently there's been more experimentation with the team writing system on a couple of mainstream sitcoms (such as My Family). They've been successful in winning viewers, but the single-vision franchises are better at winning hearts and minds.

With UK drama, there's more of a mix: some team writing on franchises and some single-writer material, with names like Jimmy McGovern, Paul Abbott and Russell Davies recognised as must-see writers.

By Blogger Richard, at 3:49 AM  

I was just about to say the same thing as Richard, but citing The Office as an example (written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant). I think it was Ricky Gervais who said he didn't know if there would be a third season because he didn't know if there were more stories to tell about these characters. Eventually they did a two-part Christmas special that is supposed to be the definitive end of the matter.

Absolutely unfathomable in the US to say after 12 episodes that they weren't sure there were more stories to tell...! I can hear rooms full of writers howling and getting into pitching mode.

By Blogger Electroglodyte, at 2:40 PM  

Yeah, they're another great example. The Christmas Specials are definitely the last episodes of The Office - the UK version, at least - but Gervais and Merchant are prepping a new series about acting extras.

My earlier comment only got halfway to addressing Alex's initial question - it was early in the morning in the UK...

So why only six episodes at a time? Where did the writer get that power from in the first place? Our first TV broadcaster was the BBC: publically-funded rather than commercial. And culturally, British TV fiction took its initial cues from theatre and playwrights rather than movies, so it was a given that the writer was central to the vision of the production.

Combine those two trends and you have a broadcaster free to encourage writers to craft their material - and take creative risks. And despite the wider choice of channels and more series adopting a team model to produce more episodes, viewers have proven themselves ready to invest in short-run series. Even at six episodes a year, Coupling is one of the highest-rating programmes for the channel on which it appears.

By Blogger Richard, at 5:52 PM  

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