Proving that TV Series Bibles are Pointless

The NY Times reports that the producers of 24, LOST,  THE OC, and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES have no clue how their seasons will end.  As if you didn’t know. We know they don’t know. The presidents of the networks seem to know it, too (if you believe what they say in the article). The only people who don’t seem in-the-loop on this are development executives, who often want to know before the pilot is written every detail of the hero’s life…who all his relatives are and what they do… and who is best friend was in preschool. But the fact is…none of that matters. And even if the writers tell you, it’s bullshit. They’re gonna toss the bible as soon as they get the series order.

After the
network ordered the first full season of "24," the writers presented a
huge map of the entire first season. The blueprint, however, didn’t
endure. "We used to obsess over that in Year 1," Mr. Cochran said. "You
know, Oh, God, let’s story out as many episodes as we can. We always
got in a lot of trouble with that because if you try it, you end up
locking yourselves into things that don’t really work and it gets
really contrived."

After his four seasons of "24," Mr. Cochran endorses the same approach:
save big decisions till the end of the season. The writers and the
audience, he insists, will then enjoy the benefits of a looser process.
"At the beginning of the season, we certainly don’t know," he said.
"Halfway through, we certainly don’t know. As we’re writing episode 16
or 17, we start thinking in a very general sort of way, where we’d like
to end the season."

It’s the same on shows with a far-less restrictive franchise.

"Lost" and "The O.C.," along with "24" and "Desperate Housewives,"
are high-profile serials with substantial, devoted audiences, but no
one – not writers, not network executives and not viewers – knows
exactly how they will end their seasons. Their writers, like others in
Hollywood, are trying to devise the perfect season finale – with little
time to spare.  According to interviews with writers from all four shows, their finales are unshot, and mostly unwritten.

So forget about "bibles." They’re pointless. What counts is a strong pilot script and a showrunner with a vision.

13 thoughts on “Proving that TV Series Bibles are Pointless”

  1. But … but! Isn’t this why so many series, um, suck? Okay, maybe I’m naive, but I thought X-Files was fun until it became glaring clear that -nobody- had a friggin’ clue what was going on. My wife keeps renting Alias seasons on DVD, but I can’t stand that shit, especially after I couldn’t ignore that they have no idea where they’re going. Aren’t these cobbled-together endings almost always disappointing? And don’t they disrespect audiences? Writing this way is possible with novels, because you can go back and tighted and re-focus, but with TV all the previous episodes are sitting there, sloppy and irrational–that’s just sloppy storytelling.

  2. Most shows aren’t serialized with all that mythology stuff (like BUFFY or X-FILES) or ongoing, over-arching mysteries (like ALIAS, LOST, X-FILES)… so they don’t need detailed bibles charting the history of the characters and what’s going to happen to them in the future. Think about some of the best, and longest running, shows on TV… like GUNSMOKE, STAR TREK, HILL STREET BLUES, LAW AND ORDER, CSI, ALLY McBEAL, ER, COLUMBO, MONK, LOU GRANT, ROCKFORD FILES, HAWAII 5-O, BONANZA, I SPY, LA LAW, MAVERICK, MURDER SHE WROTE. hell..I could go on and on. The point is, I’ll bet that most of those shows didn’t have detailed bibles. The writers didn’t know where each season was going to end up. Were they crap because of it? Nope. They were classics. That’s not to say they didn’t have something on paper. Many shows have some sort of writers guidelines or bibles on the backstories of the characters as they’ve developed over time or technical aspects of their shows…but not ones that chart long-range story stuff. So, basically, no, I disagree with you. A bible isn’t necessary.

  3. And I must now disagree with you. It’s true that many non-serialized shows don’t need bibles, but the article in question is talking about not only heavily serialized shows, but heavily serialized shows that are entirely based on one overarching storyling or mystery. Lost, Desperate Housewives, and 24 are all shows that claim to be building to some huge revelation to which every episode provides some new, vital piece of information. If it turns out no one knows what that revelation is supposed to be, that’s going to be a problem for a lot of viewers.
    Of all the shows, I think it’s going to hurt Lost most. Desperate Housewives, despite its mystery hook, draws a lot of its appeal from the soap opera and comedy of manners elements. 24 — well, if it hasn’t bothered viewers in the last three years that they never know where the hell they’re going, it’s not going to start now.
    But Lost is a show based on a specific mystery — what the hell is happening on this island? — and we are asked to take an awful lot on faith that JJ and company actually do have an answer in mind. I was willing to go along with the show for a long time based on the trust Abrams had established with Alias — although if I had seen what he was going to do with this season, I’d probably have been a lot less trusting. No disrespect to the show’s new direction, but after waiting three years for some kind of resolution to the whole Rambaldi thing, I find it hard to believe that I care more about it than any of the characters do.
    But that trust is wearing thin, as episodes drag by and no new information actually comes out, just tease after tease. The show is still a monster, of course, but so was Twin Peaks for its first season. It wasn’t until it became absolutely clear that not only did no one on the show know who killed Laura Palmer, but that no one cared, either, that the show died. (And I mean died — I’ve never seen ratings fall apart so fast on any show.)
    Not that I’m saying this will necessarily happen to Lost. But there were so many promises at the start of the season that the creators knew exactly where they were going – and now they’re saying they don’t. I figure, you do a pilot as audacious as Lost, you should go into the series with a clear idea of where you want to take the first season, and generally where you want to end up. (Not scene for scene, of course – things will inevitably change over the year. But you need a goal.) And even if they do have a cool idea in mind, I haven’t seen any story progress towards anything in the last half-dozen episodes.
    By the way, I think Buffy really handled this better than almost anybody. It’s clear watching the show – and even more so listening to the commentaries on the DVDs – that Joss Whedon started every year by deciding where he wanted the show to go tonally, emotionally, and thematically, and then constructed the season’s arc from there. Of course, there were lots of non-arced episodes, and I know storylines got tossed out along the line (season two or three lost a major, planned sub-plot when Seth Green went off to become a movie star). But they knew where they wanted to get to before they started writing, and were able to produce coherent seasons because of that.
    Is the same true of Lost? Boy, I sure hope so, because I’ve got a lot of hours invested in this puppy. But with each passing episode – and now with the article – it sure is hard to keep that hope alive…

  4. Whether the show has a comprehensive bible or not, I think the bottom line is that the writing staff and producers have to know where the show is going. (I’m thinking of serialized shows here.)
    You don’t have to know every step along the way, but without a pretty good idea of where you’re heading with all of this, you risk running off the rails — which is what seems to happen to these shows more often or not.
    I note that two of the shows that seem to be suffering from this the most — Alias & Lost — are both the creations of the same writer: J.J. Abrams. I think he’s a great talent, but I also think he could use a little help with his endings.

  5. First, let me acknowledge the painful truth: someone whose post was as typo-riddled as mine has no place criticising -anyone-.
    That said, yeah: there’s a world of difference between serialized and non-serialized. More episodic shows are, well, more episodic. No reason for anyone to know where CSI is going: it’s not going anywhere. (Other than to the ‘Top Ten Headache-Producing Shows For Writers Who Try to Get Police Procedure Correct” Shelf.)
    Most stories start with some sort of story question, right? And end when that question is resolved, in any number of ways. If you have a new story question every episode, then you only need to write that one episode with a particular resolution in mind. But if your story question spans a season, or multiple seasons, you need to write that season or seasons with a resolution in mind … it seems to me.
    Just struck me, probably twenty years behind the curve, that the real story question in Moonlighting was ‘will they or won’t they?’ and -that’s- why you couldn’t sustain the show after they did. Not because you couldn’t write a satisfying show with a relationship, but because the question had been answered.

  6. I actually think JJ Abrams does pretty well with endings — especially cliff hangers. But the weakest season of Buffy came when Joss Whedon was EP-ing two other series, one of which, Firefly, was a startup, and therefore incredibly time-consuming. (Although Marti Noxon was officially Buffy’s showrunner the last two years, she and Whedon have both talked about how nothing could get done until the staff could get input from him.)
    Right now, Abrams has Lost, Alias, a bunch of pilots… and he’s writing and will be directing Mission Impossible Three. And I have to guess that if there’s a Lost story meeting in room A, and Alias meeting in room B, urgent pilot meetings in the next three rooms, and Tom Cruise calls, there are going to be a lot of people waiting for JJ to get off the phone before a lot of meetings can start. (I am guessing this is the case because it would be if I were in that position!)
    Steve Cannell was quite brilliant in the way he was able to move from showrunner to mogul. Dick Wolf has been, too. Aside from them, it’s hard to think of a lot of writer/producers who have been able to make that shift without their shows losing quality.

  7. As a fan of LOST, ALIAS, and 24, I must agree with much of what’s been said. You need to have some idea where you are going before you set out. I know in season 1 of 24, they mentioned they realized half way through that they couldn’t do the story the way they wanted. Fine. I realize stuff like that happens. Season 1 was decent. But to have no idea where the story is going?
    Lee, I must disagree with you big time. Look at that list of shows again? Which of them had an on-going storyline? None I can think of. Granted, I’m not familiar with all of them. But so many of those shows had a reset button. We start the episodes each week at the same place we started last week. You don’t need any idea where the season is going to end when it is going to end back where it started. That’s the difference between the shows you listed and the shows we’re discussing here.

  8. You’re right Bill…and Mark. I read “Anal Alan’s” post too quickly without having my first Diet Coke of the day. I stand corrected, humbled, and ashamed…but still strikingly handsome.

  9. I just read in the Hollywood Reporter today that HBO’s THE WIRE was renewed on the strength of a season four bible the producers submitted. The HBO exec quoted in the article gushed over how great the bible was, saying it was just too good to pass. Hope she didn’t get too attached to it…

  10. Given how tight the writing in The Wire is, I would suspect they’ll probably stick pretty close to it. That’s one serialized show that actually follows a structured story arc and comes to a meaningful conclusion.

  11. The bible is general reference material. Unless your writting the whole 24 eps yourself you have to detail some of the information in a reference. Even if you are doing the whole thing, reference notes help, which become the bible.
    What about jr writers, directors, they ned some contexxt to work from. Few shows have a one writer/director helming the whole show. It is physcially impossible in todays TV market.


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