One of Australia’s biggest television shows has left viewers stunned. John Purcell examines the decisions TV writers wrangle with at every turn.
Last night social media went nuts over the decision by the writers of Channel Ten’s drama Offspring to kill off one of the lead characters. The heated emotions displayed by the audience in their reactions were only made possible by effective writing. Bad writing does not generate such a response.
Writing for a TV drama must be one of the most difficult, thankless and unnerving writing jobs going. Writers are generally solitary beings and writing for TV is a group sport. As the vast majority of dramas offered up to the public are rejected within weeks of their premiere there can be no job security for anyone involved. Once the axe falls, the writers’ characters continue to live, love and die on their pages alone.
But if the TV drama is successful the writers face new challenges. A story which may have been written for 6 to 12 episodes tops may run to 30+ episodes. The unknown actors playing the leads may become Australian superstars and, filled to the brim with the belief that they and not the writing have been the cause of the show’s success, may leave mid-season to pursue fame and glory in Hollywood. We all know it happens, it happened in the case of Offspring last night. The writers must learn to adapt, to accept compromises, to write on taking in the changing landscape as they go. What a difficult place to write. And they must bear the burden of failing TV ratings alone. When a show succeeds it is the actors, when it fails it is the writing.
Imagine having a bigwig sit on the edge of your desk to suggest you kill off a character that ‘audience testing’ has told them is unpopular. Or suggesting people are bored of the setting and could you perhaps move the characters to the bush, the coast, Italy. Or they may just suggest that you’ve become too expensive and replace you all with writers desperate to break into TV and willing to work for peanuts.
Putting all that aside. What of the writers’ intent? What was it they set out to achieve in the first place? Did they want to take TV drama somewhere new? Did they want to excite new emotions or ideas in their audience? Most writers have some agenda. They believe in things. Their initial motivations develop, mature, deepen and intensify. They look for clever ways to infiltrate the minds of the public. The more, the better. How does a writer reach millions of people? TV is one way.
The reaction of the public to last night’s episode of Offspring serves the needs of the writer in two ways. The first is utilitarian; it raises their profile, improving their chances for further work. The second is that it answers the purpose of the work, to entertain and to awaken. But though the majority of the viewers would not dispute that they were entertained, most would dispute they were awakened. Yet so many of the comments on social media suggested the opposite was true. The detractors only prove that it did reach them. I bet they hugged their partners more tightly and they thought about death in a way which unnerved them.
But you may ask, but why write all this about a silly TV show? Because the writing was good.
The death of the much loved character was written in a completely unexceptional way. It presented a death that carried no meaning. It was ordinary. It was quiet. And was all the more shocking because it rolled on regardless of our wishes. As is the way with death.
And this serves a purpose. We should think about such things. We should examine them. We might alter our behaviour, even if only slightly. We may lose our fears and act more freely. Our lives are made brighter having done so. Anxiety is often caused by unknowns. Writers have been leading us into these dark places for years, illuminating them with their words, knowing that it is necessary for us to explore them. As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living.
John Purcell is Booktopia’s Head of Marketing, and earlier this year came out as the author of the bestselling erotic series The Secret Lives of Emma. He has been involved in the book industry for nearly half his life.
You can follow John on twitter at @Bookeboy