This past semester, I took my first class on writing for television (why yes, this is a teachable skill!). I chose to take the hour-long drama spec course, as opposed to the half-hour comedy spec course. This class is intended to teach students how to write spec scripts (“spec” meaning “on speculation”) for existing television shows. The expectation is that these scripts will never serve as actual episodes, but they will demonstrate the abilities of a writer to capture the tone, characters, theme, and stories of a particular show.
At the beginning of class, we selected four current shows on which we’d like to write: Justified, The Walking Dead, The Good Wife, and Mad Men. I chose to write my spec script for Mad Men, which was the titular REALLY STUPID DECISION.
Let’s bypass the following true, but somewhat tedious, remarks so that I can get to the REALLY STUPID DECISION: the course was challenging, I learned a great deal, and I did indeed come away with a solid understanding of writing for a television drama. I had a wonderful experience in the class and I know my writing improved over the course of the semester.
The REALLY STUPID DECISION was choosing to write for a show that is currently on the air. I love Mad Men and I was looking forward to writing snappy dialogue for its characters. That part was great. But watching each new episode devastate my spec script was a singularly unpleasant experience.
(Not-so) Little Sally Draper waking up at the new apartment in the first episode? Damn! How’d Matt Weiner get a copy of the first ten pages of my spec? A shot at luxury car company Jaguar a few episodes later? Well, shit! Sally walking in on Uncle Roger having a very French moment with Megan’s mother? Now I know this can’t end well…for my spec.
There are good things and bad things about writing a spec for a show that’s airing new episodes. But when you’re the writer, and you’re trying to write a feature script at the same time, it’s mostly all bad. I’d write plot points and emotional beats into my spec, and the following week, they’d appear on the show itself. This was good, in the sense that I knew the show well enough to anticipate where it was going, but bad–really, really bad–when I’d have to re-write pages 2-20 of a 25 page outline.
All this writing and re-writing gave me a good sense of what it’s like to work in television. I guess the crucial difference would be that those supposedly villainous network execs wouldn’t give me as good notes as my professor. But the process is clear, and I know how to work creatively within it.
In the end, I wrote a pretty good spec for Mad Men (entitled “Women in Furs”), even if some of the stories are a bit too similar to what’s been happening in season 5. I learned my lesson the hard way (i.e. the same way I learn most life lessons): don’t write a spec for a show that’s on the air. In fact, better to time-travel and write a Mad Men spec during the EIGHTEEN MONTHS when the show was on hiatus. Regrets, I’ve had a few. Stay tuned!