TV Writing 101: The All Important Drive Up

We’d just delivered our script on a long-running cop show. The star called us into his trailer for his notes.

“I read your script,” he said. “There wasn’t a single drive up.”

“What’s a drive up?” I asked.

He stared at me. “How can you call yourself a professional writer and not know what a drive up is? It’s the scene where I drive up, get out of my car, and walk to the door of wherever I’m going.”

“Oh,” I replied, relieved. “We didn’t put any of those in on purpose. We like to start a scene in the middle, after you’ve arrived, after all the introductions. The viewers all know who you are and how you got there.”


“What do you mean?”

“How can they be certain how I got there?” he asked.

“I’m sure they’ll assume you drove,” I said.

“But which car did I drive? What color is it? Is it a cool car or a lame car?” he said. “The drive-ups are important. People love to see me drive up. It’s what’s made this show a hit.”

He then turned to the first scene of the show. “Great scene,” he said. “Powerful stuff.” He tore the page out of his script. “But I can do all of this with a look.”

He then went to the next scene and tore two pages from it. “I can do this with a look, too.”

It didn’t take us long to figure out why he really liked the drive-ups so much…and why the drama of most scenes was best conveyed with a look rather than a word. No dialogue to learn.

Getting Ahead

On the heels of saying most execs we deal with are bright, funny, and a pleasure to work with… that’s not always the case. Here’s one of those cases…

We were writing our first episode of a detective series. We turned the script in to the network executive for his notes. The first note was in scene one, act one.

“The hero doesn’t know what’s going on,” the executive said.

“That’s right,” I replied. “Because it’s a mystery.”

“You can’t do that,” the executive said. “The hero should be ahead of the story.”

“Ahead of the story?” I asked. “What does that mean?”

“The hero should know,” the executive said.

“Know what?” I replied.

“Everything,” The executive said.

“But he just arrived at the scene,” I said. “He’s taking his first look at the body… and you want him to already know everything?”

“Is he a hero or a complete moron?” The executive asked. “Nobody wants to watch a show about a guy who’s lost, confused, and stupid.”

“It’s a mystery and he’s a detective,” I said. “He’s going to show us how smart he is by solving the crime.”

“If he was smart,” the executive said, “he wouldn’t have to solve it. He’d already know.”

“So what’s the mystery?” I asked.

“There isn’t one,” the executive said.

“So what’s our show about if there’s no mystery to solve?”

“You tell me,” the executive said. “You’re the writer.”

Cowboys and Indians

We were writing an episode of a series for a Major Television Producer who had dozens of hit shows to his credit. This particular series, however, was not destined to be one of them.

For this episode, he wanted to do a “modern take” on a “cowboys and indians” story. He wanted to see “indians on the warpath” only with “a contemporary sensibility.”

“Call’em Native Americans instead of injuns,” the Major Television Producer instructed us, “that’ll make the story instantly relevant.”

He also wanted it hip, sexy, and edgy. And he wanted women, lots of beautiful women.

I joked that we could have seven super-models lost in the desert. His eyes lit up. “Yes,” he said. “That’s perfect. That would give the show… sophistication.”

Unfortunately, he wasn’t kidding around. We were stuck with seven super-models. I learned an important lesson. I never joke about the story in a meeting… or the joke could become the story.

We went off and worked on the outline for our script. We came up with a scene in which some bad guys destroy some sacred Navajo ruins, upsetting the Native Americans, causing them to go “on the warpath” and attack the bad guy’s camp. But when the Major Television Producer read our scene, he was outraged.

“You can’t have the bad guys destroy Navajo ruins,” he bellowed. “It’s unthinkable. Those ruins are priceless, historical artifacts. The American public will never stand for it. You’ll offend our entire audience!”

We apologized, explaining all we wanted to do in the scene was provoke the Native Americans into attacking the bad guys.

“Why not have the bad guys rape the seven supermodels,” the Major Television Producer said.

“Sure,” I replied. “That won’t offend anybody.”

“Exactly,” the Major Television Producer said. “Now you’re learning how to write television.”

TV Execs

Brian Castaneda writes to me:
“My current theory is that network executives are a bunch of cowed and gutless morons who don’t have an iota of courage or the wherewithal to support quality shows. But that can’t be it, right? Right?”
I don’t think so. I know all of us TV writers are supposed to sneer at the dumb network suits, but I’ve been lucky enough to work with more bright, intelligent execs than dumb, mean-spirited, or interfering ones. The truth is TV is big business and more intensely competitive than ever before. The network can’t afford to keep a unwatched show on the air. WONDERFALLS didn’t deliver for a lot of reasons…some the fault of the network, some not. But the bottom line was, it didn’t deliver. Yes, there’s art on TV…but TV isn’t an art gallery or a museum. It’s a busness, first and foremost. TV Shows exist to sell ad time, that time is sold based on eyeballs (and the age of those eyeballs, but that’s another rant). If a show isn’t delivering eyeballs, and the network can’t sell the adtime, they are supposed to keep it on the air anyway? Yeah, some shows take time to build… but most shows never will, no matter how long they are kept on the air. The audience drop off on WONDERFALLS from half-hour to half-hour tells the story. They couldn’t even keep the audience that was already watching. FOX probably made the right choice axing it.

Fiction is Reality on Television

When I was hired on Diagnosis Murder, I naturally figured my career was over. There I was, in my early 30s, stuck on a show that was considered by The Industry as programming for the elderly and the last professional stop for TV writers on their way to the Motion Picture Home themselves.
How could this have happened to me?
At the time, the series was mired in the bottom of the ratings. The exec producers were about to bring back Andy Griffith as attorney Ben Matlock for an episode as a ratings stunt. Matlock had only been off the air for a year or so, and people weren’t exactly marching in the streets, waving their dentures and colostomy bags in the air, clamoring for his return.
But I could understand the impulse. Bringing back beloved TV characters is a sure-fire way to get ratings… for good reason. We have strong emotional attachments to TV characters. We know all about them. We know their history. We know their dreams and aspirations. We know the most intimate details of their personal lives. They are so familiar to us that they are like members of our own family.
In a sense, they are. They are part of our shared, cultural family. And to us, they will always live on. So it’s only natural that we still think about them and that we wonder how their lives have changed since we last saw them.
But I was pretty certain nobody missed Matlock. At least not yet. But there was a character I missed. Joe Mannix. The epitome of the cool private eye in the 1970s. I wondered what happened to him and how he fit into the world today. I suggested we ought to bring Mannix back. My writing partner, William Rabkin, and I met with Mike Connors, who played Mannix, and convinced him to assume the iconic role one more time. We found a Mannix episode from 25 years earlier, brought back the entire guest cast in the same roles they played before, and used the old footage for flashbacks.
When I started writing the script, and typed the words “Joe Mannix” for the first time, I was thrilled. I remembered why I had become a TV writer in the first place. Because I love television and TV characters (I’ve kept every TV Guide that’s come into my hands since I was 10 years old. Scary, huh?)
We depicted Mannix as he always was, the tough, hard-charging PI, unwilling to face his own mortality, refusing to acknowledge a dire heart condition, and the fact he was growing too old for the job. Not only did Mannix figure out whodunit, and patch up his bad ticker, but he also saved my career.
The episode aired and was #14 in the ratings for the week. After that, Bill and I became the executive producers of Diagnosis Murder, and it remained in the top 25 programs under our aegis. Not surprisingly, we made a habit over the years of revisiting beloved TV characters on the show — or at least bringing back familiar actors in roles similar to the ones that made them famous.
I didn’t do it for the ratings spike as much as I did it for myself. I am, first and foremost, a TV geek and, deep down, I think we all are.
TV characters are real to us. Too real, in fact, to some people.
But it’s not just the characters who can become real to us. Sometimes, so can the world they live in, especially for network TV executives.
The TV series C.S.I is fictional. The way the characters behave, the scope of their investigatory responsibilities, their legal authority in a case, their relationship to the police detectives, and the lightning-fast scientific results they achieve have absolutely no basis in reality. As a veteran homicide detective I know likes to say, Star Trek is more realistic than C.S.I.
But success is its own reality to television network executives. So while you and I may know C.S.I. is fiction, it’s real to the people who develop TV shows. If you’re writing about crime on television, you’re required now to incorporate the world according to C.S.I into your fictional universe.
The best, and most obvious, example of the inescapable CSI-ification of cop shows is the venerable Law & Order. If you look at the early episodes of Law & Order, there isn’t a single C.S.I. tech in sight. At most, one of the detectives might refer to information that “just came in from the lab.” Now, in every episode, there’s a talkative C.S.I. tech at each crime scene and the detectives have to make at least one obligatory stop at C.S.I. HQ to get a multi-media briefing from some colorful tech in a lab coat. Because if the detectives didn’t acknowledge the story-telling liberties and dramatic devices of C.S.I., the crime story just wouldn’t be real or contemporary or “cutting edge”…well, not to network executives, anyway.
I recently wrote a pilot, a sample episode of a proposed murder mystery series, for one of the big three networks. The first note I got was to add a regular C.S.I. character to the show, even though the series concept had nothing to do with that aspect of homicide investigation. The network’s argument, of course, was that the show “didn’t seem real” without a visit to the crime lab, even though the proposed series isn’t about cops (If the pilot gets filmed, which I won’t know until after the new year, I’ll let you know if the CSI character remains… I suspect he will).
Did Columbo ever talk to the C.S.I. folks? How often did the cops of Homicide or NYPD Blue consult anyone at the crime lab?
There are, of course, hundreds of examples of successful cop shows and legendary detective heroes who solved crimes without a heavy reliance on technology, forensics, and the story-telling conventions of C.S.I. But that argument won’t work with network executives because those shows and characters, with the success of C.S.I., have instantly become “dated” and “old-fashioned” in their eyes (even a western, in order to be “contemporary,” had to include forensics… though that didn’t help Peacemakers stay on the air).
So it doesn’t matter if C.S.I. is totally fictional, it’s the new fictional reality by which all other fictional realities will be measured against by network executives for fictional authenticity… at least until another cop show becomes a break-out hit and redefines the way we tell crime stories on television.

So It Begins…

Television is my life. Well, at least it pays for my life… and consumes most of it. I’m either watching it, or thinking about it, or talking about it, or making it. Today, I spent most of my time making it, sitting in on meetings for the new season of “1-800-Missing.” We let our star, Gloria Reuben, go so now we’re reworking the show for the amazing Vivica Fox. But it means picking the clothes shes going to wear, the car she’s going to drive… basically creating an onscreen life for this character. It’s something the studio and the network get involved in, hence the day of meetings. I’m supposed to be writing a script for the show right now and writing a fourth Diagnosis Murder novel to meet a July 1 deadline… which is why, instead, I’m creating this blog. Never overestimate the power of procrastination.

My brother Tod Goldberg and my sister Linda Woods have been nagging me to start a blog for sometime. I enjoy reading blogs, particularly Roger Simon’s , but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Instead, I’ve been posting on newsgroups, email digests and message boards.
Did I get enough plugs in there? I promise my future blogging will have more substance, wit, and relevance. Well, mostly it will be rambling about what I’m writing, what I’m watching, what I’m reading, and what I’m thinking. It’s cheaper than a shrink I suppose.