One of the more unusual things about the Breaking Bad writers’ room is just how happy it is, as opposed to the writers’ rooms on shows like Mad Men, The Newsroom, and Girls, which have an incredible amount of turnover often attributed to the egos of the showrunners who want to maintain control (and all the credit). As such, there’s been virtually no turnover in the Breaking Bad writers’ room over six years, so now that the show has come to an end, you can expect that many of those writers — Peter Gould, George Mastras, Sam Catlin, Thomas Schnauz, Moira Walley-Beckett, Gennifer Hutchison, and John Shiban — will likely end up running their own shows soon. It’s going to be a sad day when Breaking Bad ends, but we can take solace in the fact that it will shed several free agents ready to start their own new series (including, perhaps, Peter Gould’s Saul Goodman spin-off).
One of the most fascinating aspects of Brett Martin’s book about the creative revolution in the television industry, Difficult Men (which we discussed heavily in this post) is its examination of the writers’ rooms not only of the most important shows on contemporary television, but the writers’ rooms where many of those writers were plucked. Vince Gilligan, after all, came from The X-Files writers’ room and learned there much of what he has applied to Breaking Bad. The majority of the most important writers in television today began somewhere else.
Below, we’re going to go through the ten most influential writers’ rooms on the modern television landscape, specifically what Brett Martin refers to the Third Golden Age of Television. In researching this, it was surprising to me just how many showrunners on today’s great shows started out in the writers’ rooms on the great shows of five, ten, or 15 years ago, and it’s amazing to consider how the branches from one show can splinter off into so many others.
The O.C. (Showrunner: Josh Schwartz). Writers’ Room (and the shows those writers now work on in a significant capacity): J. J. Philbin (Heroes, New Girl), John Stephens (Gossip Girl), Stephanie Savage (Gossip Girl, Hart of Dixie, and Cult), Mike Kelley (Revenge), Mark Fish (Scandal), Melissa Rosenberg (Dexter)
Ran by Josh Schwarz, who at 26 was one of the youngest showrunners in television history, it’s hard to discount the contributions that the O.C. writers’ rooms have made to television, even if they’re not exactly groundbreaking dramas. Revenge’s Mike Kelley is considered one of the most powerful showrunners on television right now, and Melissa Rosenberg — who ran Dexter for several years — is, alas, the screenwriter behind several of the Twilight movies. Influential, definitely. In the right way? Not necessarily, although perhaps Marissa’s death in The O.C. influenced Rosenberg’s decision to take out a major character at the end of season four on Dexter.
Roswell: Writers’ Room (and the shows those writers now work on in a significant capacity): Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood), Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Caprica).
There were only two impactful writers to come out of the Roswell writing room, but they are two of the most important showrunners on television today, having created the best drama in recent years not to include a anti-hero in Friday Night Lights, and in Ron Moore, a writer that put the SyFy network and science fiction series back on the map. For better or worse, Roswell was also the show that launched Katherine Heigl’s career.
Alias (Showrunner JJ Abrams): Writers’ Room (and the shows those writers now work on in a significant capacity): Jeff Pinkner (Fringe), Jesse Alexander (Heroes, Hannibal), Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci (Fringe, Hawaii Five-0), Breen Frazier (Criminal Minds), Drew Goddard (Lost).
You could actually go as far back as Felicity to find the first writers to hitch their wagon to the J.J. Abrams’s train (including Adam Horowitz, the creator of Once Upon a Time), but the Abrams writers’ room really began to matter with Alias, as those guys went on to run Fringe and Lost, the latter of which is the most influential network show of the last 15 years. Many of the writers on Alias (and later, Lost) would also go on into feature films, of course: Kurtzman and Orci, as well as Goddard are behind many of the sci-fi tinged blockbusters we see these days. Some good, some not so good.
Homicide: Life on the Street: Writers’ Room (and the shows those writers now work on in a significant capacity): Paul Attanasio (House M.D., Gideon’s Crossing), David Simon (The Wire, Treme, Generation Kill), Tom Fontana (Oz, Copper), Anya Epstein (In Treatment, Tell Me You Love Me), Eric Overmyer (Law & Order, Treme, New Amsterdam).
There’s actually some crossover between this show and NYPD below, but they’re both huge influences on The Wire and on Oz, the latter of which helped pave the way for The Sopranos, which is reason enough alone to be on this list. The lessons learned from Homicide — weaving multiple intricate story-lines into single episodes — clearly had a huge influence on the writers’ future series, as well.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Showrunner Joss Whedon): Writers’ Room (and the shows those writers now work on in a significant capacity): Jane Espenson (Battlestar Galactica, Once Upon a Time, Warehouse 13), David Fury (Lost, 24), David Greenwalt (Grimm), Marti Noxon (Brothers and Sisters, Private Practice and Prison Break), Steven S. DeKnight (Spartacus), Drew Goddard (Alias, Lost), Douglas Petrie (American Horror Story), Rebecca Sinclair (90210).
Whedon, of course, was the huge talent to come out of the series, as he’s basically the king of Hollywood now, but the people that started out in that writers’ room now have quite a few network hits (and even more misses) under their belt, and you can certainly sense the Buffy influence in a show like Grimm, and in those writers’ lack of hesitance when it comes to killing off major characters, practically a Whedon trademark.
The X-Files (Showrunner Chris Carter): Writers’ Room (and the shows those writers now work on in a significant capacity): Frank Spotnitz (Hunted, Strike Back), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), John Shiban (Hell on Wheels), Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa (Homeland, 24), Steven Maeda (Helix), Darin Morgan (Fringe), David Amann (Castle), Greg Walker (Vegas), Jeff Bell (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).
Even if The X-Files had given us no one else but Vince Gilligan, for that reason alone it belongs in the top half of the list, but it also was an incubator for the guys behind Homeland and 24, the latter of which had quite the writers’ room itself. What did the writers learn from The X-Files? How to weave long-running arcs through a series.
The Shield (Showrunner Shawn Ryan): Writers’ Room (and the shows those writers now work on in a significant capacity): Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy), Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead), Scott Rosenbaum (Chuck, V), James Manos, Jr. (Dexter), Elizabeth Craft (The Vampire Diaries).
Shawn Ryan’s Shield was hugely important not for just putting FX on the map, but for paving the way for dark basic cable dramas, very much like the ones currently run by former writers from The Shield: The Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy. The importance of The Shield to the modern cable landscape cannot be overstated, not just for the show itself, but in the shows for which it paved the way.
Nash Bridges (Showrunner Carlton Cuse): Writers’ Room (and the shows those writers now work on in a significant capacity): Reed Steiner (The Shield, NCIS), John Wirth (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), Shawn Ryan (The Shield, The Unit, Terriers), Glen Mazzara (Hawthorne, The Walking Dead), Damon Lindelof (Lost).
And before The Shield, there was the writers’ room where Shawn Ryan cut his teeth under Carlton Cuse, who would go with another Nash Bridges writer, Damon Lindelof, to run Lost. Mazzara was also here before he landed on The Shield, while John Wirth created in The Sarah Connor Chronicles a show that was maybe a couple of years ahead of its time for the networks. It’s insane, really, how many great writers can be traced back to a show with Don Johnson and Cheech Marin.
NYPD Blue (Showrunner David Bocho): Writers’ Room (and the shows those writers now work on in a significant capacity): David Milch (Deadwood), Meredith Stiehm (Cold Case,The Bridge), Matt Olmstead (Prison Break, Chicago Fire), David Mills (The Wire), Greg Plagement (Person of Interest), Ann Biderman (Southland).
This is the show that had some crossover with Homicide: Life on the Streets, but gets the edge for not only having an important voice behind The Wire, but the creator of Deadwood — itself a hugely influential show — and Southland, a show that will hopefully become more influential in the years to come.
The Sopranos (Showrunner David Chase): Writers’ Room (and the shows those writers now work on in a significant capacity): Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), Mitchell Burgess and Robin Green (Blue Bloods), Terrence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Todd Kessler (Damages).
Not only did the writers of The Sopranos spawn two of the most important television series today in Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, but the show itself — and the writers — basically revolutionized television. Given the shows that The Sopranos writers on to create, you can see how that writers’ room was as contentious as rumored. After all, Kessler modeled the sadistic lead in Damages after The Sopranos’ showrunner David Chase. Burgess and Green, actually, went on to create Blue Bloods because they were actively seeking something less challenging and dense after The Sopranos.