Intro to Writing for Television: Creative Writing Lesson Plan, Tuesday July 16, 2013

91Dqu0CvhnL._SL1500_There is probably no single “absolute” anyone can use as a yardstick to describe the nature of the television writer, his background, his fortes, or the nature of his advent into the realm of television writing—save for the simple statement that there are no absolutes. – Rod Serling Foundation

The TV writer is never trained to be a TV writer. There are no courses, however specialized and applied, that will catapult him into the profession. And it was especially true back in the twilight days of radio that coincided with the primitive beginnings of television that the television playwrights evolved—and were never born. In my case the decision to become a television writer arose from no professional master plan. I was on the writing staff of a radio station in the Midwest. Staff writing is a particularly dreamless occupation characterized by assembly-line writing almost around the clock. It is a highly variable occupation—everything from commercials and fifteen-second public-service announcements to half-hour documentary dramas. In a writing sense, it serves its purpose. It teaches a writer discipline, a time sense for any kind of mass-media writing, and a technique. But it also dries up his creativity, frustrates him, and tires him out.Writing for television is very different than writing a feature-length screenplay. You need to create a concept that holds an audience’s attention for years, not just two hours.

Yesterday we watched a couple of episodes of Law & Order, an American police procedural and legal drama television series, created by Dick Wolf and part of the Law & Order franchise. It originally aired on NBC and, in syndication, on various cable networks. Law & Order premiered on September 13, 1990, and completed its 20th and final season on May 24, 2010. At the time of its cancellation, Law & Order was the longest-running crime drama on American primetime television. After The Simpsons, both Law & Order and Gunsmoke tied for the second longest-running scripted American primetime series with ongoing characters.

Set and filmed in New York City, the series follows a two-part approach: The first half hour is the investigation of a crime (usually murder) and apprehension of a suspect by New York City Police Department homicide detectives; the second half is the prosecution of the defendant by the New York County Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Plots are often based on real cases that recently made headlines, although the motivation for the crime and the perpetrator may be different.

The show has been noted for its revolving cast over the years. Season 1 starred George Dzundza as Sergeant Max Greevey, Chris Noth as Detective Mike Logan, Dann Florek as Captain Donald Cragen, Michael Moriarty as Executive Assistant District Attorney Ben Stone, Richard Brooks as Assistant District Attorney Paul Robinette and Steven Hill as District Attorney Adam Schiff. After numerous cast shuffles, its final season starred Jeremy Sisto as Detective Cyrus Lupo, Anthony Anderson as Detective Kevin Bernard, S. Epatha Merkerson as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, Linus Roache as Executive Assistant District Attorney Michael Cutter, Alana de la Garza as Assistant District Attorney Connie Rubirosa, and Sam Waterston as District Attorney Jack McCoy. Another one of the series’ most notable performers was Jerry Orbach as Detective Lennie Briscoe, who starred on the show for twelve years (seasons 3–14).

The success of the series has led to the creation of additional shows, making Law & Order a franchise, with also a television film, several video games, and international adaptations of the series. It has won and has been nominated for numerous awards over the years, including a number of Emmy Awards. On May 14, 2010, NBC announced that it had cancelled Law & Order and would air the final episode on May 24, 2010. Immediately following the show’s cancellation, Wolf stated that he was attempting to find a new home for the series and would also consider a “last resort” plan to conclude the show with a two-hour TV film to air on NBC.[5] In July 2010, however, he indicated that those attempts have failed and declared that the series had now “moved to the history books”.


The Law Portion: For most of Law & Order’s run, the cold open or lead-in of the show began with the discovery of a crime, usually a murder. The scene typically began with a slice of everyday life in New York, e.g locals jogging in Central Park or walking their pet dogs in the morning, going for refreshments like coffee in a New York coffee shop or buying lunch at a deli and tourists getting lost, etc. The characters would then discover the crime victim, or sometimes the crime would occur in a public place and they would be witnesses or one of them would be a victim. However, in the first two seasons the characters discovering the crime would generally be beat cops. In the middle of the 17th season, the lead-in was changed to a short scene of the murder victim in his or her last hours, similarly to Criminal Intent, followed by a cut to the police investigating the dead body.

The police are represented in the show by Manhattan’s fictional 27th Precinct and two homicide detectives, a senior partner and a junior partner, who report directly to their boss, a police captain or lieutenant. During the preliminary crime scene examination, the featured detectives are filled in on relevant information by first responding officers and/or Crime Scene Unit (C.S.U) personnel and make their first observations and will come up with theories followed by a witticism or two, before the title sequence begins.

The detectives often have few or no good clues—they might not even know the victim’s identity—and must usually chase several dead ends before finding a likely suspect. They investigate the crime by collecting evidence at the crime scene (with the help of the Crime Scene Unit), visit the Medical Examiner’s office (M.E) for clues to the victim’s cause and time of death (sometimes the victim’s identity from dental records or fingerprints). The police will also inform relatives of the victim’s death, interview witnesses (both on the streets of New York and in the interrogation room at the precinct), trace the victim’s last known movements (by talking to the victim’s family and friends as well as through tracing calls using LUDs) as well as visiting the crime laboratory for evidence (e.g. such as fingerprints, DNA, bloodstains and ballistics etc.), records and research for information on financial details and background information on both victim(s) and suspect(s). In some instances, psychologists and/or psychiatrists are called in for insight into the criminal’s behavior or modus operandi. All the while, the detectives report to their commanding officer, keeping them informed and being advised on how best to proceed next.

When the investigation leads to one or more suspects, the police will take the case to their boss, who decides if there is enough for a search and/or arrest warrants (though sometimes the commanding officer will consult with the D.A’s office to see if the case is strong enough) and whether or not any back-up (such as uniformed police or the New York City Police Department Emergency Service Unit (E.S.U)) is needed. The detectives will then arrest the suspects(s), with sometimes the police having to chase the accused through the streets of New York City. After all suspects are cuffed by the police and the miranda rights are read to the suspect(s), the scene then shifts to the interrogation room where the detectives interrogate the suspect(s), until they ask for a lawyer, their attorney shows up and asks the suspect not to talk anymore or the DA’s Office decides they have enough to press charges.

The Order Portion
Towards the middle of a show, the police will begin to work with the prosecutors to make the arrest, though sometimes the ADAs will on occasion appear early on to arrange a plea-for-information deal or to decide if the detectives have enough evidence for search warrant(s) and/or arrest warrant(s) before arresting the suspect or suspects. The matter then is taken over by a pair of prosecutors, a senior executive assistant district attorney (E.A.D.A) and junior assistant district attorney (A.D.A) from the office of the New York County Manhattan District Attorney (D.A). They discuss deals, prepare the witnesses and evidence, and conduct the people’s case in the trial.

The court proceedings are shown from the prosecution’s point of view, with the regular characters trying to prove the defendant’s guilt, not innocence. The second half usually opens with the arraignment of defendants and an indictment read before an Arraignment Judge who takes a plea from the defendants. The show then proceeds to trial preparation, including legal research and plea negotiations. Some episodes include legal proceedings beyond the testimony of witnesses, including indictments before grand juries; motion hearings, often concerning admissibility of evidence; jury selection; and allocutions, usually as a result of plea bargains. Many episodes employ motions to suppress evidence as a plot device, and most of these end with evidence or statements being suppressed, often on a technicality. This usually begins with the service of the motion to the ADAs, follows with argument and case citations of precedent before a judge in some setting, and concludes with visual reaction of the winning or losing attorney. Sometimes the case might go before an appellate court or even the New York Court of Appeals in Albany, New York.

The prosecutors work together and with the Medical Examiner’s office, the crime laboratory (including Fingerprint analysts, DNA profilers, Bloodstain pattern analysis and Ballistics analysts), and psychologists and/or psychiatrists (if the defendant uses an insanity plea) all of whom maybe be needed to testify in court for the prosecution. The police may also to testify in court or to arrest another suspect, but most investigation in the second segment is done by the ADAs, who always consult with the District Attorney for advice on the case. In real life the D.A investigation unit will do the necessary investigating while the prosecution team will be busy with paperwork and prepping witnesses. If the case is very weak then the police would re-investigate.

Unlike the CSI franchise where the science is treated as being exact, the science in Law & Order is presented as being equally reliable and unreliable e.g. a forensic technician will tell the court that a fingerprint was found at a crime scene and was a certain percent match to the defendant, to which the defense attorney will point out that it means the other percentage doesn’t match his client. The expert will then try and explain why its not a whole match to the defendant.

Many episodes use outlandish defense scenarios such as Diminished responsibility (e.g. “Genetics”/”Television”/”God”/”the devil made me do it” and intoxication defense) and Temporary insanity (Ie “Black Rage”/”White Rage”/”Sports Rage”). Also episodes revolve around moral and ethical debates including the right to die (euthanasia), the right to life (abortion) and the right to bear arms (gun control). The episode usually ends with the verdict being read by the jury foreperson and a shot of both the winning and losing parties. The scene then shifts to the D.A.’s office where the team is leaving the office to go home while contemplating either the true guilt of the accused, the defense scenarios they used or the moral or ethical debate of the episode.


OUR Assignment

We will watch another episode of Law and Order and write our own ending to it. We will begin with some shared writing on the topic.

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